Baking at a Mile High

Baker, Blogger, Photographer Builds Her Passion For Creating Masterpieces From Scratch

Looking for a new fan-girl crush? Check out Heather Smoke's Curly Girl Kitchen. From her eye-catching photographs to her heart-warming recipes, Heather makes creating high-altitude, from-scratch, original recipes look easy. All that hard work does make the recipes easy for her followers, over 80,000 at last count.

Here, we talk to the food blogger to dish about how she got her start.

What brought you to Colorado? 

I was born in South Carolina and lived there until I was 12, when my parents moved us to Colorado. I’ve lived here off and on since then, although I went to college out of state and moved to a few other places before eventually settling back in Colorado.

You have a background teaching English as a Second Language in China. What was that experience like? 

Living in China for three years was an amazing experience. I traveled all over China, Hong Kong, even Tibet, and built amazing friendships with the other teachers and students. It was right after graduation from a strict private college, and living overseas was the first real taste of independence I’d ever had. It truly shaped me into the person I am now.

How did you become Curly Girl? When did you realize this could be your "job"? 

I have always loved baking more than cooking. Growing up, both my parents worked, so I made dinners of canned beef stew with rice, muffin mixes and occasionally boxed cake mix or brownies. But I knew nothing about baking from scratch. When my husband and I met, one of our favorite date nights was to cook a fancy dinner. He would make the most delicious steak with roasted vegetables or homemade sushi, while I’d make a dessert to go with it. I'd then take a few casual photos and share them on Facebook with my friends and family for fun. 

As my love of baking and photography grew, I started a blog in 2011. This was “diary blogging" - stories about life, with a few awful photos and a recipe added at the end. I couldn’t think of a name for my blog, so I named it after my naturally curly hair.

For years, my blog was just a hobby. While working a full-time office job, I’d make maybe one to two recipes a week for my blog and dabbled in a few other things, like selling custom cakes for local friends. When our children were born in 2016 and 2018, I decided to be a stay-at-home mom. During those first few years of motherhood, my boys demanded most of my time, but as they grew older, I was able to start turning my attention back to my blog. I wanted to contribute financially without returning to work in an office, and was determined to turn my passion into a real job. I took a food photography course and practiced photographing my baked goods almost every day. I decided to rewrite and rephotograph nearly every recipe on my site, working late into the night for over a year to update all my posts. As I improved my content, my page views started to climb until 2021, when I signed with a premium ad agency. In three years, my Instagram account has grown from around 5,000 followers to almost 83,000 followers. My website’s monthly page views increased from around 10,000 to over 200,000.

You produce beautiful baking, styling and photos. Rare to see all done so well by one blogger. How have perfected what you do?

I create an average of five new recipes a week, so I practice daily. The more I bake, the more I learn what works and what doesn’t, and my goal is to create the most delicious and reliable recipes that other high-altitude bakers can replicate in their kitchens. I want people to be successful when making my recipes and to tell others about my site, so I test them repeatedly to get consistent results.

My visual style has dramatically changed since that photography course three years ago. The key is never to stop learning from others, to study photography that inspires you, read tutorials and consistent practice.

What's for dinner at your house?

I cook dinner most nights, although my husband does his share, too. We actually eat pretty healthfully most of the time, and I try hard not to let my boys have too many sweets, which is a challenge with all the baking I do. Weeknights are simple dinners of chicken and asparagus, pot roast and rice, spaghetti, or salad and baked salmon. On the weekends, we’ll make homemade pizza, tacos, or grilled chicken wings.

It is difficult to get anything done with little children at home, much less run a home-centered business. How do you do it?

It’s been very challenging, but it helps now that my oldest is in full-time kindergarten, although my youngest only goes to preschool for a few hours each day. I create a content calendar for myself every few months and stick to it as much as possible. Routine is important, so I know what I need to do every day before they’re home from school and the house becomes chaotic. When you’re self-employed, it takes a lot of discipline to get up and start working every day, but hard work is the way to reach my goals.

I also owe a huge thanks to my husband for his constant support of everything I do. When we were dating, he bought me a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer for our first Christmas. And when he saw how much I loved photography, he bought me my first DSLR camera for my birthday. Without his encouragement and support, I don’t think I’d have turned a creative passion into my career.

8. What’s next for Curly Girl Kitchen?

I always have a list of recipes I want to add to my site, so for the next year, I’ll keep creating recipes that I think people are looking for. Long term, I’d love to publish a baking book or two.

Baking at High Altitude

The higher the elevation, the lower the air pressure, so someone baking at 10,000 feet will face even more challenges than someone at 5,000 feet. This lower air pressure at high altitudes affects baked goods by causing them to rise more quickly and lose moisture faster. 

Cookies, cakes, muffins, breads, and even candy making and canning can all be affected by altitude. This can result in flat cookies, sunken cakes, muffins or cupcakes that spill out onto the pan instead of rising with a nice domed top. 

Generally speaking, when baking at high altitudes, you must increase the flour and liquid, and reduce the sugar and leavening (baking soda and baking powder). Additional flour helps stabilize the structure of the dough or batter. Extra liquid, in the form of milk, oil or egg, compensates for what is lost through quicker evaporation. Less sugar improves the texture so that your baked goods aren’t gummy or overly caramelized, since sugar becomes more concentrated at high altitudes. And by reducing the leavening you’ll better control the rise of your baked goods, so that they rise steadily and evenly, rather than rising quickly and collapsing.

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