It all started out innocently enough. It was a grey and rainy day in the depths of winter break — that point where you’re not quite wishing to go back to school, but a break from your parents wouldn’t kill you. With nothing else to do and having fully recovered from my holiday baking hangover, I decided to see what my folder of bookmarked recipes had to offer.
Bon Appetit’s recipe for Momofuku Milk Bar’s famous birthday layer cake was one that I optimistically saved, hoping that one day the spirits would move me to take on such an endeavor. Until this day, it had sat in the folder unopened, frequently skipped over in favor of no-bake bars and easy cookies. But today is the day, I decided. The day I tackle a behemoth of a baking challenge.
The logical place to start was with the ingredients. All are pretty standard with one exception: clear imitation vanilla extract. Mastermind of the recipe Christina Tosi claims that this no longer widely-used vanilla substitute “elevates the flavor” and better emulates the taste of a boxed funfetti cake.
But, ya girl is not much of a planner, and thus I did not have the time to order the extract online. I had no luck at my local Safeway, and had to make do with the brown vanilla extract in my pantry (spoiler alert: I don’t think this drastically altered my results).
Alright. Planning aside, I was ready to dive in and get bakin’. The batter was standard enough and before long I had it in the oven on a 13×9 rimmed baking sheet (this is essential for proper assembly).
Then I started in on that famous, addictive crumb that sits between the layers and on top of Milk Bar’s cakes. It was similar to assembling a streusel topping for muffins, but then you just bake it on a cookie sheet. You guys, this stuff is fantastic. I think I had about half as much as I should have for the cake because I shoveled so much into my mouth.
I kept cruising along, finishing the frosting while my cake cooled. And now we reach the part of my adventure where all of my fun and success comes to a grinding halt: the assembly.
Milk Bar’s cakes may look oh-so casual, channeling an “I woke up like this” vibe, but trust me, the reality is anything but (at least for an amateur pastry chef). I realized that assembly seemed to require a 6″ spring form pan or cake ring and acetate (a bendy plastic that can be formed into, say, a ring shape), and that I had none of these things.
But I had made it this far and was determined to press on. The acetate is meant to roll up and sit inside the cake ring, allowing you to build your cake tall and keep the edges clean. I looked around my kitchen for no less than 20 minutes and finally settled on parchment paper as my next best alternative.
I free-formed my 6-inch cake cutouts and got to work layering the parchment paper on top of itself, trying to make it sturdy enough to roll into a circle and stand on its own on top of the cake stand. Approximately half a roll later, I was satisfied, taping the parchment down, ready to tackle the stacking.
I set to work on the layering: cake, milk soak, frosting, crumb, frosting, repeat. After putting the final crumbs on top, I stuck the cake in the freezer, as instructed, and hoped for the best. Feeling a bit dejected, I focused my energy into cleaning the war zone that was now my kitchen. Before I knew it, the time had come to assess how well (or poorly) I’d done. I took the cake out of the freezer and peeled back my janky parchment paper tower.
To my surprise, the cake looked pretty damn good. It was no Milk Bar carbon copy, but it wasn’t too far off. At this point, however, I was so over the aesthetics of the beast that I was just ready to taste test.
After one bite, I understood why someone would take this project on. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? Hell no. Does is taste pretty great? Absolutely. I’ve had the pleasure of having the real Milk Bar birthday cake, and I can attest that this homemade version was spot on. Perhaps my real vanilla extract left something to be desired, but I’ll never know. The cake was fantastic and everyone raved about its looks and taste.
So, was it worth it? If you want a very impressive, very tasty knockoff of a trendy pastry, this is your cake. But you’ve been warned — you have to be ready to work for it. And if you’re not, well, you can always just order a fresh one right to your door.