Baking a Birthday Cake

by Erin Allen

As mentioned in this post, Erin will be attempting to get through the recipes in Christina Tosi's "Milk Bar" cookbook. This post is one in a series. Official recipes will be posted as they are available.


Last Tuesday (May 26) was my birthday, and considering quarantine life right now, I knew I'd have to treat myself to baking my own birthday cake. Luckily, the Milk Bar cookbook has a recipe for that. (You can also buy one from the bakery and have it shipped, but what's the fun in that?


One of the first things that hit me in preparing for baking this cake is the many steps. I've never baked a layer cake before – I usually buy the box and put it all in a cake pan and call it a day. And, forget about adding layers of frosting and other home-made add-ons. Oh, and hoping the finished product stacks well and looks uniform. I was preparing for a long afternoon.


One thing I love about this cake that it is the quintessential birthday cake with the sprinkles and the "guilty tub-of frosting, box-cake" vanilla. I mean, when you get the boxed stuff, with the funfetti, this cake is that on steroids.


Sprinkles

Tosi acknowledges that it could be "cheating" to not make your own sprinkles, but the recipe in the cookbook uses store bought sprinkles. With Tosi’s Baking Club, she showed how to make your own sprinkles. So, I figured I do so to really up the ante on this cake.


I went ahead and used the clear vanilla extract that is prevalent throughout the cake recipe. And store-bought sprinkles are kind of a fake sweet anyways.


In making the sugar paste, you definitely need to use a bit of elbow grease for the final paste once it starts to absorb that last cup of powdered sugar. As I worked with the paste to add color, it definitely became sticky with the heat of my hands, so adding the powdered sugar to the paste and coating my hands helped. This is not a clean process.


The rolling out of the sprinkle ropes is definitely a “learned technique.” I found that rolling it out lightly with my fingertips from center to the out worked the best. I definitely had to start over several times, because the ropes would become kind of crumbly, as I worked them over and added powdered sugar to my surface to prevent sticking. Once you get going, you get into rhythm, and it becomes easier. My sprinkles were definitely different sizes, though.


It's a slow-going process. It took me well over an hour to roll out all the ropes.


Cake Batter

The cake batter was pretty easy to make. Buttermilk kind of grosses me out a bit — like mayo — and the milk looks curdled in the mixture. But, I tasted it, and it was fine. With the buttermilk step, I didn’t find that the batter turned white, as Tosi suggested it would.

I feel like there should be more sprinkles in the batter. When you think of the stuff in the box (also sometimes known as confetti or funfetti cake), there seems to be a ton of the little colored blobs. Of course, my homemade sprinkles were thicker than the store-bought ones. So, they filled up that 1/4 cup pretty quickly.

My sheet pan was also slightly larger than the quarter-sheet pan required. So, Sara MacGyvered me the right size pan using some foil.


I’m pretty sure that clear vanilla extract is the best thing ever and the only thing I’m going to use from now on. There’s something about that imitation vanilla flavor. It's nostalgia. It's bad-for-you box cake in the best possible way.

After the cake was in the oven for a bit, the house quickly began smelling like vanilla. Like that birthday cake flavor. There really is nothing better. I kind of wonder if baking isn't just as much about making your house smell good as it is about the final product.

Once out of the oven, the cake turned out perfectly. I mean, the MacGyvered sheet pan may have made the cake not as tall and fluffy (more on that in a bit), but the flavor was that perfect birthday cake flavor. I was hard-pressed not to call it day there and just eat fist-fulls out of the pan.

Birthday Crumb

In the Milk Bar cookbook, Tosi is enamored with the crumb. And, like a lot of things at Milk Bar, the" invention" of something so simple is a game-changer and a "why didn't I think of that" moment.


The crumb easily came together. Uncooked crumb has a very sand-like consistency, which hardens up out of the oven. It was crunchy, sweet and quite colorful.

Frosting


One thing that you'll see a lot of in Tosi's recipes is the call for glucose. I do plan to get some eventually, but for now I'm using Karo syrup. Tosi says it is a suitable substitute.


According to the recipe, once you cream the butter and cream cheese, it's supposed to end up glossy and white once you add the Karo/glucose and vanilla extract. I didn't find that to be the case. And there was also liquid in the bowl. Maybe the vanilla didn’t fully incorporate?

Adding the dry ingredients did make the frosting white, as suggested in the cookbook. Regardless of what may or may not have turned out as the cookbook instructed, the final product was very much like the tub of frosting you can buy in the store! Seriously, I just wanted to eat it with a spoon!

Assembling the Cake

Now came the daunting part — cake assembly. I had neither sheets of acetate nor the cake ring that Tosi said you need. I hoped I could stack the layers of cake and frosting without the need of the acetate, which gives you clear walls to build your cake in. I also had a bowl about six inches in diameter to use as a cake ring. I really did think that I could do without these tools.

I used the bowl to cut out the middle and top layers of the cake, and they were pretty uniform circles. I did notice they seemed a bit flat compared to the look of the layers in the pictures in the cookbook. But that obviously had nothing to do with the bowl and more to do with the rise of the cake when baking.


When trying to put together the bottom layer, I definitely see the need for the cake ring. You use it as a mold to make the bottom layer from cake scraps. The cake was extremely moist and sticky, so it was a bit tricky making a six-inch layer by hand without the ring as a mold.


I had plenty of cake scraps left over. Because you have to freeze the cake for 12 hours, those scraps came in handy for eating. I think I'll make Milk Bar's birthday cake truffles with the leftover cake. I'll use chocolate instead of white chocolate, because white chocolate is gross. Change my mind.

This was definitely a messy cake to make with its layers of cake, frosting and crumb. I understand the importance having all the necessary tools, like the acetate sheets in keeping everything together. A step I won’t overlook next time. I not only had trouble with layering the frosting (it would get stuck to the crumb and pull away), but I also think there wasn't enough. When you look at the pictures in the cookbook, the frosting is this nice, thick layer. Next time, I'll make more and pipe the frosting on.

Once put together, my cake was a bit slumpy and, I'm not going to lie, a bit of a mess. Not quite "Nailed It" level, but not the prettiest thing either. Again, likely because I didn’t have the necessary tools. I also had crumb left, and I set some frosting aside in an attempt to fix my presentation after the cake had set in the freezer. I'm not sure it really helped because of its design flaws.

Quarantine baking has definitely meant taking shortcuts because of lack of availability of items and slow delivery of online orders. Also, it really is hard to mimic the same conditions of Milk Bar's actual kitchen and techniques, because I simply don't know. And as a novice baker, I think I need a bit more hand-holding. But, as I've said before, hopefully as I bake more, I'll learn from my mistakes and get better. There are a few more layer cakes in the cookbook that I'm looking forward to tackling.


The bottom line, though, was that

the cake was pretty tasty. Super rich and dense, it had that birthday-cake flavor without a doubt. And, the crumbs added a nice texture and crunch. Sara and I demolished it within a couple of days.


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