Michelle started her blog in 2011 when she moved to Denver, Colorado. She is a self-professed stress baker and believes in using simple ingredients to create beautiful, delicious food that is unfussy. Michelle strives to create recipes on her blog that are as accessible as possible while occasionally indulging in more challenging experiments. Hummingbird High was a finalist in the 2013 and 2015 Saveur Blog Awards for Best Baking and Desserts Blog.
I’m so psyched to have Michelle Lopez of Hummingbird High on the show today.
(*All images below are Michelle’s.)
On Her Blog:
I started my blog a few years ago, back in 2011. I just moved to Denver where I didn’t really know anybody. And I’d spent most of my life basically living an hour away from the ocean at most. So I was like, “Okay, this is a new city. I don’t really know anybody. My job is kind of stressful. So I’m just going to spend the weekend baking.”
I pulled out one of my favorite cookbooks and just followed the recipe to a T and then everything terrible happened. It was a recipe for cupcakes actually. Vanilla cupcakes. And I made this recipe probably 20 times. It was the sort of thing that’s like my default recipe. I could probably make it in my sleep without the instructions. And I just followed it to a T in Denver and literally nothing worked. I pulled them out of the oven and they looked like puddles of goop. It was insane. So I did some research on this because I was like, “What is going on?” And it turns out that because Denver is high up and that affects the way you cook things, water actually boils at a lower temperature because you’re higher up in altitude and because there’s less air pressure there you don’t need as many leaveners, you don’t need as much baking powder or baking soda or something.
So, you actually have to do all these alterations before you start making any recipe because most recipes are for sea level. And I had no idea, so I was like, “This is kind of interesting. I’m going to start baking more and trying this out for myself and experimenting and seeing what my standard recipes look like but in high altitude and then kind of adapting them for that.”
On Baking at High Altitude:
So baking bread was something that I never mastered because I was only in Denver six months but yeast is like an entirely different beast. And I think you have to have. So how yeast works is basically you activate it with warm water and it comes alive and then that chemical reaction is what causes the bread to rise. And usually that takes a couple of hours, but in high altitude you basically just have that time because the air just doesn’t have any of the same resistance down at sea level. It’s crazy. So I’d say that’s the big one that’s insane.
Definitely temperature because you are at high altitude the air is thinner so things tend to dry out faster and tend to cook quicker. So always shorten your cooking time I’d say is the primary step. And then probably lessen your leaveners. Those are the two big secrets to high altitude baking.
I do think everything is really adaptable. That’s why people live in the mountains. It’s pretty and it shouldn’t be an inconvenience. So I was pretty lucky in that, it took a couple of tries for some recipes, and like I said, bread was kind of my big nemesis. I still never really nailed that one down. I do really believe that you can adapt anything to high altitude.
Cookies tend to work better. I have no idea why, probably because they don’t have that much leavener to begin with and because the sugar cooks quicker, they end up chewier. It’s really good. I have no idea why, but that’s probably the main thing that I’m like, “Okay, all of my cookies here seem good.” I don’t know if that’s in my head or what.
On Learning How to Bake:
I was baking before this but I definitely credit my baking through the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook as what really taught me how baking works. Before that, I was just looking up random recipes online or I was using some box cake mixes which now that I think about that I shudder. But yeah, the cool thing about cooking through a cookbook, especially one like the Hummingbird Bakery, which I highly recommend is they basically have a couple of master cupcakes recipes and then add flavorings and everything at different stages so you start to understand why things are done in the order that they are when you’re following a recipe and how ingredients really interact with each other, depending on what quantities they added and why they would take some away if they add something in them. So stuff like that. It was really helpful.
The Hummingbird Bakery, some background, is actually a pretty popular bakery in London and it’s funny because their whole thing is American baked goods so it’s like this weird middle British take on American goods. And one of my best friends, he and I met when I was in college, he was an exchange student from England and he sent me their cookbook and he was like, “My gosh, I saw this cookbook and I just thought of you.” Because I used to make a lot of cupcakes in college and I was like, “That’s sweet of him.” And then a few months later, I went to visit him and that was his first priority to take me to that bakery. And I was like, “Okay, this is really great.” We don’t get to see each other that often because he lives out in London so it was a nice way to just keep that connection alive.
Once I finished (baking through the cookbook) I was like, “Okay, well, I baked a ton of cupcakes, but I really wish there had been other things too like cheesecake is kind of a different beast too.” So yeah, there was a little bit of disappointment there. That’s when I really started branching out and using the Internet to find bloggers and other cooking sources that I thought would help out.
On Where She Turns for Inspiration:
I have so many go-to sources it’s actually a little bit intense. I love Food52 for basic solid recipes that I know that will work because I’m pretty sure they test almost everything that’s on their site. I love anything that Food 52 features. And I have a handful of go-to bloggers that I really like. Molly Yeh for cakes. She is incredible. I am a big fan of hers. And right now I’m really into Fix Feast Flair. She just won Saveur’s Best New Voice this year. And anything that comes out of her, that she publishes on her blog I’m like, “Why isn’t this in front of me, I want to eat this right now.” Those are probably my big two.
On Which Cookbook She Would Cook through Today:
That’s a tough one because again, my cookbook collection is a little out-of-control, but the one that I’ve always kind of flipped through whenever I need inspiration is probably the Mast Brothers Chocolate Cookbook. So what it is it’s just like a series of recipes, they even have savory ones. But all just features chocolate and I’m such a big fan of chocolate and it would be interesting to approach learning how to cook something just through one ingredient. So I think that would be really cool.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I don’t watch a lot of TV but I do watch one cooking show, it’s called The Great British Bake Off. It just recently started airing on PBS in the U.S. But I’ve been streaming past seasons that were only available in England and it’s so good and it teaches you so much about baking. It’s just like this reality TV show where they take bakers from all around the U.K. and get them to bake traditional British desserts. And there’s the judges and everything. It’s great. It’s so good.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
This is like choosing between my children or somebody because I read a ton of food blogs. But right now I’m really into some of the smaller blogs that haven’t gotten as much attention yet. So I’d say I really love Renee Kemps for her photography. She’s just the nicest person in real life. She’s so sweet. And so I’m probably pronouncing this wrong but Le Jus D’orange. It means orange juice in French. It’s this girl Betty in Boston, she’s Chinese, she makes a lot of dishes that her mom used to make and a lot of fusion dishes, too. She’s awesome, too.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
Okay. That’s another tough one because I follow so many people. And fun fact actually, I’m being an old person my Snapchat doesn’t work on my phone so I don’t actually have Snapchat so we can eliminate that.
Pinterest, I follow so many people, but there’s this 17-year-old girl who I think lives in Southern California. Her name is… My gosh, what is her name? But she has a blog, too, It’s called Lace and Lilacs and she’s going to go study photography in Paris and for a 17-year-old she has such a good eye. She’s always pining such beautiful photos, not even just food but of flowers, people so she’s a big inspiration. And on Instagram I really like Coco Cake Land who posts these really cute Instagrams of cakes frosted-like animals that are so cute. She does a lot of tiger cakes and really cute, highly recommend following. And Linda Lomelino is the other one on Instagram who is amazing. She does cakes as well but hers is kind of the opposite direction from Cocoa Cake Land’s. Hers are just really pretty, classic cakes that are adorned with natural flowers.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
Most unusual I’d say is, I have an office label maker in my kitchen, I’m kind of a neat freak when it comes to the kitchen and I have all my ingredients in glass jars that are easily accessible. And my handwriting sucks so I was like, “You know what? I’m just going to get an official label maker so I can label these,” and it looks great. So that’s probably the weirdest item that’s in my kitchen. And I use it a surprising amount but that might just be me being insane, so there’s that. And I’d say the most treasured item is probably my KitchenAid mixer.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Another really good one cause I used to be actually a picky eater. So, cinnamon. Actually that’s kind of weird and boring I know. And it’s a weird controversial thing to say cinnamon because it’s in everything but I used to really hate that fake cinnamon taste from Red Hots and cinnamon Altoids. And for a while I was using really cheap cinnamon that was five years old. But then my friend got me some designer cinnamon. I don’t even know where it was from, from some fancy shop in New York and she’s like, “Okay, you’re so weird, here try this.” And it’s actually pretty good.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I would say the one that just really improved my baking skills most recently was The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Cookbook. I’ve always had a really hard time making pie. I don’t know why, that’s my big Achilles heel when it comes to baking. My pie crusts were always soggy and ugly. But I got their book because I went to their bakery in New York. This is how I get my books, I go to their bakery and get sucked in. And they had such beautiful photos of the pie making process, what it looks like after you rub the butter in, so that one was super helpful in helping me learn how to make pies. The other one that I really like and this one’s relatively new is Food 52’s Genius Recipes. One of their editors went out and found recipes that produce really amazing results for a pretty simple process and I’ve made a couple of things from there and it’s so good.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I like listening to Taylor Swift’s latest album when I cook. And yeah, if there was a movie… It’s crazy, this is going to sound really weird but I like having action movies as a background because they are easy to follow along to when you’re baking and you can step out and not pay attention but then come back and be like, “Okay, I get it, something exploded.” There’s not really any twists or anything in most action movies so they are always fun to bake to.
I listen to a lot of Top 40 radio while I bake, which is really weird because in college I didn’t listen to any of the Top 40 at all and I used to listen to the most pretentious music. I still like lots of small indie bands and everything but just not while I bake because it’s just not as fun.