the layer cake: milk bar edition / by Annie Jefferson

I moved to New York City the same year the Momofuku Milk Bar did. It was 2008 and me and their soft serve were braving the chaos together. For my birthday that year my mom sent the Milk Bar's dulce de leche layer cake to my East Village apartment and my friends and I had never seen such a thing. The cake was short-lived because our 21-year old stomachs were able to take down multiple slices at a time, but I never forgot it. The Milk Bar cakes became more and more popular over the years to the point where it eventually became assumed, even expected, that one would be provided at every birthday dinner for every 20-something on the island. The cakes even started coming in plus size for weddings. And the bakery embraced its growing popularity, publishing recipes and offering classes to spread the word about their famous cakes.

When I moved from New York to London, there was no longer a Milk Bar to visit, and I'm not sure what the Brits would make of these mega cakes made of layers stacked upon naked layers of cake and frosting, sweetened milk and cake crumbs, gooey curds, sauces, candy and sprinkles. Moving from London to Los Angeles last year didn't solve the problem, seeing as there's no Milk Bar here either. So, I figured the time for a reunion was nigh when my best friend and 2008-birthday-cake-eating-partner visited LA from New York to turn 30 a few weeks back.  

The Momofuku Milk Bar was started by James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef award-winner, Christina Tosi. Like many of us, it took trying multiple paths - for her, electrical engineering, applied mathematics - before the Virginia-raised chef was able to realize that her hobby - baking - was actually her life's passion, and her lifelong preference for junk food and casually throwing together unlikely flavors - 'mayonnaise and brown sugar with Doritos' - was her ticket to novelty and success in the pastry world. As Tosi told the New York Times, “I was never raised to take myself so seriously when baking...certain parts of me aren’t fussy enough to make those plated desserts. It doesn’t speak to me, that delicate dreaminess. I just didn’t have it.”

This approach worked for David Chang, the man behind the Momofuku empire, who saw Tosi's talent when she was showing up each day to her desk job - writing Momofuku's food safety plan - with a different chocolate chip cookie sandwich or brownie topped with crushed potato chips that she'd made in her free time. Chang was intrigued, and after putting her in charge of just one dessert to be served at his Ssam Bar, it quickly became clear that the empire would need to make room for a full pastry division. It was confusing for everyone when an ice cream and pastry shop opened up in a tiny alcove on 13th Street attached to Ssam Bar, an Asian restaurant, but the ice cream made with cereal infused milk was good enough for people not to question it. 

Since then, Milk Bar has expanded, opening locations all across New York City, and in Washington, D.C., Toronto and soon in Vegas. Tosi has published two books and won multiple James Beard awards, all the while standing firmly behind her quirky, messy, whatever the opposite of 'delicate dreaminess' is, approach to baking. And we and this recipe thank her for it.

I say that this blog is a direct reflection of the way that I eat, so while most days - and most posts - are conscious of using whole and natural ingredients, as with life there are times for experimentation and special occasion. This cake is one of them. It's rich in flavor and impressive in appearance, yet it's playful and doesn't take itself too seriously, kind of like Christina Tosi. 

I changed the traditional dulce de leche recipe slightly to incorporate coconut at several stages and cream cheese frosting to balance out the otherwise unrelenting sugar. I also doubled the recipe for the milk crumbs because they're easily the best part! I can't wait to play around with these little crumbles and use them in other recipes. You will end up with extra by using the doubled recipe below, but you can just zip-lock baggy and send them with your friend for a plane-ride-back-to-New-York-snack, as I did. 

The cake appears impossible to make at home, but with a few tools and special ingredients it's really pretty simple. There are multiple elements to a Milk Bar cake: cake, soak, filling, crumbs, filling, repeat. This behind the scenes gallery from Serious Eats has lots of helpful photos and descriptions of each step. As you work through the recipe below, especially the assembly portion, I would suggest using the visuals in the gallery as a guide. Once you've made the cake one time, take a page from Tosi's book and come up with your own flavor. I'm thinking dark chocolate cake with halva filling and sea salt crumbs for the next DIY Milk Cake!

COCONUT DULCE DE LECHE MILK BAR CAKE
Adapted from the Momofuku Milk Bar recipe

Makes 1 (6-inch) layer cake, 5 to 6 inches tall, serves 8-12

EQUIPMENT
1 quarter (9in x 13in) sheet pan
1 (6-inch) cake ring
2 strips acetate, each 3 inches wide and 20 inches long (I got mine from Blick art supply store)

INGREDIENTS
1 recipe coconut dulce de leche cake (below)
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon (65 grams) canned coconut milk
1 cup (275 grams) dulce de leche (you can use any brand, or opt for homemade, even vegan)
1 recipe dulce de leche cream cheese frosting (below)
1 recipe milk crumb (below)


COCONUT DULCE DE LECHE CAKE

INGREDIENTS
8 tablespoons (115 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (275 grams) dulce de leche
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup (110 grams) coconut milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) grapeseed oil
1 teaspoon (4 grams) vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups (185 grams) cake flour (here is an easy cake flour substitute using cornstarch from The Kitchn if you don't have cake flour in your pantry)
1 teaspoon (4 grams) baking powder
1 teaspoon (4 grams) kosher salt

METHOD
Heat oven to 350° F. Grease and line with parchment a quarter sheet pan, and set it aside.

Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the dulce de leche, and cream on high for another 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl again. Add the eggs and yolk, one at a time, beating on medium-high for 1 minute after each addition. After you add the last egg, beat on high for 4 more minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl once more.

On medium-high speed, pour in the coconut milk, oil and vanilla very slowly. It should take 3-4 minutes to add these liquids. Don’t rush this process - you’re basically forcing too much liquid into an already fatty mixture that doesn’t want to make room for that liquid. There should be no streaks of fat or liquid and the mixture should look smooth and not curdled. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

On very low speed, add the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix for 45 to 60 seconds, just until your batter comes together and any remnants of dry ingredients have been incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. If you see any lumps of cake flour in there while you’re scraping, mix for another 30-45 seconds.

Using a spatula, spread the cake batter in an even layer in the pan. Bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes. The cake will rise and puff, doubling in size, but will remain buttery and dense. At 30 minutes, gently poke the edge of the cake with your finger. The cake should bounce back slightly and the center should no longer be jiggly. Leave the cake in the oven for an extra 3 to 5 minutes if it doesn’t pass these tests.

Allow to cool completely. The cake can be made several days ahead of time. I stored mine in tightly wrapped plastic wrap for 2 days in the refrigerator. 


DULCE DE LECHE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

INGREDIENTS
1 stick (226 grams) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup (226 grams) cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons (35 grams) dulce de leche
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) vanilla extract
2 cups (375 grams) confectioners’ sugar

METHOD
Using a standing or handheld mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese and dulce de leche. Gently stir in vanilla extract. Then slowly add confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, scraping down sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as you go. Continue to mix until fluffy.

Set frosting aside in a sealed container in the fridge until you are ready to assemble the cake. Just be sure frosting is room temperature at the time of assembly.


MILK CRUMB

INGREDIENTS
1 cup (80 grams) milk powder + 1/2 cup (40 grams) 
1/4 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour
4 tablespoons (24 grams) cornstarch
2 tablespoons (50 grams sugar)
1 teaspoon (2 grams) kosher salt
8 tablespoons (110 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/2 bars (180 grams) coconut white chocolate, melted (I used Lindt brand)
1 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened

METHOD
Heat the oven to 250°F. Combine the 1 cup milk powder, flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl. Toss with your hands to mix. Add the melted butter and toss with a spatula, until the mixture starts to come together and form small clusters.

Spread the clusters on a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for 20 minutes. The crumbs should be sandy at that point, and your kitchen should smell like buttery heaven. Cool the crumbs completely.

Crumble any milk crumb clusters that are larger than ½ inch in diameter and put the crumbs in a medium bowl. Add the remaining 1/2 cup milk powder and toss together until it is evenly distributed throughout the mixture.

Pour the coconut white chocolate over the crumbs and toss until your clusters are enrobed. Stir in shredded coconut. Then continue tossing them every 5 minutes until the chocolate hardens and the clusters are no longer sticky. The crumbs will keep in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer for up to 1 month.


CAKE ASSEMBLY
Put a piece of parchment paper onto a flat surface. Invert the cake onto it and peel off the existing parchment from the bottom of the cake. Use the cake ring to stamp out 2 circles from the cake. These are your top 2 cake layers. the remaining cake “scrap” will come together to make the bottom layer. Clean the cake ring and place it in the center of a sheet pan lined with clean parchment. Use 1 strip of acetate to line the inside of the cake ring

Layer 1: put the cake scraps together inside the ring and use the back of your hand to tamp the scraps together into a flat even layer. Dunk a pastry brush in the coconut milk and give the cake a good, healthy bath of half the milk. Use the back of a spoon to spread one-half of the dulce de leche in an even layer over the cake. Sprinkle one third of the milk crumbs evenly over the dulce de leche. Use the palm of your hand to anchor them in place. Next use the back of a spoon to spread a third of the frosting as evenly as possible over the crumbs.

Layer 2: using your index finger gently tuck the second strip of acetate between the cake ring and the top ¼ inch of the first strip of acetate, so that you have a clear ring of acetate 5 to 6 inches tall-high enough to support the height of the finished cake. set the less perfect of the remaining 2 cake rounds on top of the frosting, and repeat the process for layer 1.

Layer 3: nestle the remaining cake round into the frosting. Cover the top of the cake with the remaining frosting and garnish the frosting with the remaining milk crumbs. Transfer the sheet pan to the freezer and freeze for a minimum of 12 hours to set the cake and filling. The cake will keep in the freezer for up to 2 weeks.

At least 3 hours before you are ready to serve the cake, pull the sheet pan out of the freezer and, using your fingers and thumbs, pop the cake out of the cake ring. Gently peel off the acetate, and transfer the cake to a platter or cake stand. Let it defrost in the fridge for a minimum of 3 hours (wrapped well in plastic, the cake can be refrigerated for up to 5 days).