Oh, hello March. I know February is a short month, but I really didn’t expect those last couple of weeks to get sucked into a vortex. It’s getting to the point where I am embarrassed to say I’m a food blogger anymore. Not because being a food blogger is embarrassing, but because it’s hard to say your a blogger when you post once a quarter (if even that)!
So, my incredibly patient and sweet and tolerant husband had a birthday last month and we celebrated by drinking a trail mix beer he helped brew at Benchmark Brewing. Since we were already gathering people in one place, I figured it would be a good time to blow out candles and eat birthday cake, too. For some reason, I’ve been on a Milk Bar baking tear, wanting to make everything in the cookbook but not wanting to eat it all myself. I mean, I DO want to eat it all, but there are jeans in my closet yelling at me to not eat it all, maybe not even eat half of what I want to shove in my mouth. So, I take advantage of parties to bake to my heart’s content while pushing butter-and-sugar-laden treats on other people.
I’m not going to detail out the recipes for you or even post photos of the entire process of building a cake. Mainly because I didn’t take photos of the process (I was making THREE cakes – who has time to set things down and pick up a camera while doing that?) and also because a lot of the recipes are on the Milk Bar site. There are also numerous people who have photodocumented their cake assembly process, like Serious Eats and BakeLoveGive, whose cake-making adventure at a Milk Bar class is likely what prompted me into this mini-obsession. So, instead I’m going to tell you some of the tricks I learned while making 3 cakes in a week and confessing what I thought would work but didn’t (so you don’t have to make my mistakes, as delicious as mistakes are).
I think this has the potential to become a long post, so I’m going to start with the prep work. The first thing I did was throw sticky notes on all the pages I would need to reference, which also helped me narrow down which cakes I was going to make. I settled on:
- The Birthday Layer Cake – the cake with sprinkles and that flavor that ends up in everything from lattes to ice cream. Fun fact: when you tell people you made a Birthday Cake, it gets confusing to explain that it’s The Birthday Cake, rather than A Cake for a birthday that has sprinkles and a candle. Fun fact #2: I am the person who always scraped frosting off layer cakes and eats just the cake. I actually licked the spatula after making this frosting and ate every last bit of frosting with my slice of cake. I think it’s the cream cheese and corn syrup and vanilla that makes it delicious. Or maybe I’m just that awesome at making frosting.
- The Chocolate Malt Layer Cake – a chocolate cake with malt fudge sauce and charred marshmallows. This is the cake you make for chocolate lovers and not for the faint-of-heart. It is rich and fudgy and decadent. And sticky.
- The Chocolate Chip Layer Cake – the recipe isn’t on the Milk Bar site; you can probably find a version of it on the Internets, but I would tell you that this cake (just the cake!) is worth the purchase price of the book. The layer cake has passion fruit curd (I used Trader Joe’s lemon curd because Travis doesn’t like passion fruit), chocolate crumb (which I forgot to use), and a coffee frosting. It sounds like an odd combination, but it was actually quite delicious and this was the only cake that had no leftovers at the end of the day. Aside from that, the chocolate chip cake is beyond delicious and is a cake I could eat, by itself, by myself, any day of the week. It’s moist, buttery, sweet but not too sweet, with specks of chocolate sprinkled throughout. I’ve since made the cake twice more, pairing it with a chocolate frosting and a plain white frosting (the birthday cake frosting, minus the sprinkle part, basically) and it’s been amazing every time.
Once I knew what cakes I was going to make, I made a list of all the ingredients I’d need, so I could get it all done with one shopping trip – butter, shortening, powdered milk, corn syrup, the right kind of sprinkles… I skipped buying glucose and haven’t noticed a major issue with subbing in more corn syrup. I DID buy the clear imitation vanilla, but I’ll probably skip buying more after this bottle runs out. It does help keep the frosting white, but I’m not such a birthday-cake-flavor purist that I care enough to keep it on hand.
There are some tools you are going to need, no way around it:
- A 6-inch cake ring/cutter – easily found on Amazon.com, you need this to stamp out your cake layers. Yes, you could use 6-inch cake pans, but you’ll lose that “naked layer” look on the sides of the cake, plus it’s easier to cut out the circles from the sheet pan and eat all the cake scraps. Not to mention it’s easier to just line one pan rather than lining 3 circular cake pans. Which leads me to…
- The quarter sheet pan – also referred to as a jelly roll pan, you want one that’s about 12 1/4″ by 8 3/4″. Could you use a 9×13 pan? Probably. But I like using sheet pans for other things (roasting, spreading, toasting, etc) so I don’t mind keeping a couple with my other pans. I like the Commercial Metallic one because the sides are straight and not sloped, which helps when baking a cake. I buy the non-coated ones since whenever I bake I line it with parchment paper anyway.
- 4-inch acetate cake collars – These usually come in packs of 12 for $5, so buying them online and paying an extra $5 for shipping is a little silly. Any cake supply or decorating store will have them (except for Michaels or Jo-Ann’s, as I found out). I’m fairly certain they’re meant to be disposable, but I’ve been gently washing them and they seem to be holding up okay. The Milk Bar recipes call for using 2 3-inch cake collars, but I’ve found that a 4-inch one is just about the right height for a layer cake. Before I got these, I made a cake using folded parchment paper, which worked, but it’s not as easy as the cake collars. Aside from the “inconvenience” of having to go to an actual store to get these, I’d highly recommend getting a pack or two if you plan on making “naked” cakes more than once. For a one-time thing, use parchment paper.
So, I knew the cakes would need to be refrigerated (or frozen) and also knew I wouldn’t be up to baking and assembling three cakes in one day. I basically took one day to prep everything and measure ingredients out, and then I baked one cake a day and put the assembled cake in the freezer. The day of the party, I pulled the cakes out of the freezer 3 hours ahead of time, removed the acetate collar, and let them defrost on plates.
One of the nice things about having ingredients set out by weight means you can get all your measuring done super fast. I’ve been using 16 oz. deli containers for freezer organization (soups, chili, broths, smoothie ingredients, etc) and these were perfect for the various components for each cake, since each cake is composed of cake, frosting, crumb, and an intermediate layer.
For each cake, I measured out the wet (butter and sugar) and dry (flour, salt, baking powder, milk powder, sprinkles, etc) ingredients separately, and each part fit into the 16 oz. container. I labeled everything using my new best friend, Frog Tape, and wrote down what needed to be added (eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, chocolate chips). I also wrote on the raw eggs which cake it was being used for, so I could make sure the eggs wouldn’t get accidentally used before the cake baking happened. Like, for breakfast.
For each frosting, I did the same, measuring out sugars, butter, and shortening into a container and labeling what it was for and any other instructions or additions.
Any container with butter in it, I stored in the fridge, since I did all the prep work the week before I was going to start baking. Dry containers stayed on the counter. I pulled out the containers I needed the morning I was going to bake and the butter had softened enough by the time I started to cream into the sugar or whatever I was doing.
I actually spent an afternoon making/baking all the crumbs I would need and storing those in the 16 oz. containers. This made it seem easier, as now I had a container of crumb as an ingredient, rather than one more thing to mix and bake on cake day. I started with the birthday cake crumb, then made the malted crumb, and then the chocolate crumb so I wouldn’t need to worry about washing the mixing bowl in between.
I didn’t want to make the frosting ahead of time since I wasn’t sure if refrigerating and then re-mixing the softened frosting would affect the texture. Plus, the coffee frosting specifically says not to make it ahead of time. I figured making the frosting while the cake was baking and cooling wouldn’t really take me that much more time, and I don’t think it did.
It took a while to get everything measured, checked, labeled, and set aside, but it helped immensely when I started making the cakes since I didn’t have to keep checking the recipe to double-check my measurements. And, by doing one cake a day, I didn’t have to worry about needing multiple cake pans or cake rings. I’d finish one cake, wash the pans and then just take the clean ones for the next cake.
Okay… stay tuned for Part 2, where I lay out the things that gave me trouble and how to avoid that!