I was so nervous about making this cake. Nervous, and also psyched. Pretty psyched, actually. It’s my first attempt at a Momofuku Milk Bar cake! And if you think the cookies are a big production, they’re nothing compared to the layer cakes. There are special cake rings and acetate strips to purchase, multiple recipes to complete and let cool, fancy layering and freezing…tons of things. But I’ve almost finished baking the Milk Bar cookies from the book, and I’m moving on, so getting this cake under my belt seemed like the perfect thing to do this past Easter. And so, there was cake.
Spoiler alert: it obviously turned out or you in place of the top photo, you would see my tears and broken heart. But it was work. Hand-wringing, timer-obsessing, breath-holding work. And it was all worth it, because now I have for you the first of my now-semi-famous (at least, that’s what I hear) tutorials on Milk Bar Cookbook Things: Layer Cake Edition. It all started when my cornflake chocolate chip + marshmallow cookies were giving me troubles, and it blossomed into a whole series, it seems. So here goes nothing: I hope I can be of help so you too can avoid cake heartache.
Tips + Hints for Making the Carrot Layer Cake
1. Grate your own carrots. Not only do freshly grated carrots have a better flavor than their pre-grated and bagged counterparts, but I believe they add a richness and slight dampness to the cake you can’t get from the pre-grated kind. And you have to work, I mean work, with this cake, and the better you make it, the more willing it will be to work with (and for) you. Also, use good carrots: go to your farmer’s market, or at the very least get good organic ones from your local grocery store.
2. Plan your attack. I find the Milk Bar recipes relaxing at this point. You know why? Because every recipe I’ve tried you can do in stages. that means you can get them all done in one day, or leisurely spread them out over a few days. it’s fantastic. Same with this cake: if you don’t want to tackle this all in one day, don’t. I made this over two days, in the following order:
- Day 1: pumpkin ganache + milk crumb
- Day 2: carrot cake + liquid cheesecake (that’s it right up there)
If there is one thing I’ve learned in the relatively few years of cooking/baking I have under my belt, it is to read through recipes before even getting the first ingredient out. This holds especially true with Momofuku recipes. For instance, the ganache needs to chill overnight, the milk crumb needs to cool completely, and so on. If you know this, and have a strategy, and plan accordingly, you don’t need to spend extra time waiting for things to get to where they need to be before proceeding to the next step.
3. Do NOT even think about skipping your pan liner. Seriously, who does that when you have to unearth an entire quarter-sheet size cake without disturbing it? A masochist, that’s who. have copious amounts of parchment on hand, and butter, butter, BUTTER that pan. You’ll need every last bit of this cake for the three layers, so tearing it is not an option.
4. Apply biscuit-cutting strategy to cake layers. You know how you can’t really roll biscuits out more than one time without ruining them, so you have to cut as many as you can from the first rollout? Same here. You have to get three 6-inch cakes out of a quarter sheet pan. This takes some thinking. I made my first cutout on the bottom corner, getting as close as I could to the edges on both sides. I set the next cutout directly across from it (diagonally), leaving two larger pieces and a few smaller ones I could smoosh together to create the third layer. Don’t worry, it works.
See? Ugly, maybe. but you didn’t see that on the final photo, did you. Nope.
Another cutting tip? As with biscuits, press your cake ring down firmly and quickly, give it a little shimmy back and forth, and then pull straight up. You should have a lovely circle of cake which is relatively unsmooshed. If there are any jagged or loose edges, just press them gently back into the cake.
5. Fill your layers with care. I’m terrible at frosting and filling cakes: it’s almost my worst baking thing. I dread it. And with these, there is no crumb safety layer; there’s just you, and some filling, and luck. If you don’t spread it enough, it’s too clumpy. Spread it too much, and it’s got crumbs all up in it. This was where my problems really started, so I had to step back, do some deep breathing, and figure it out before I let all my hard work go to waste. The smartest thing you can do is separate your fillings into equal parts before you start. You have three layers: depending on how you want to adorn the top, you have to get filling in two sections, saving some for decorating. It’s sometimes difficult to tell how much you’re using, so be prepared with split-up fillings prior to starting your assembly. Letting those fillings warm up a bit before spreading also makes the process easier.
The liquid cheesecake was the easy part, because it’s soft, pliable, and goes on after you do a milk soak on the cake, which eliminates most of that crumb factor. And don’t skip the milk soak, either: it really gives the cake a boost, and the end result is phenomenal. So please don’t forget the milk soak.
the milk crumb is obviously easy because you’re doing a sprinkle; however, this is where splitting up your ingredients ahead of time really comes in handy; you don’t want to run out and have a wimpy crumb on the next layer or on the top. Be sure to evenly sprinkle, because they’re difficult to get unstuck after soaking in all that cheesecake. Which leads me to tip #6…
6. Don’t be a hero with the pumpkin ganache. The original recipe calls for graham frosting, so you know. But the book also say if you want to be even more awesome, you can use the pumpkin ganache. I believe you all know me well enough to know I really had no choice in the matter but to use, yes, the ganache. It’s how I roll, people. I do not turn down a challenge.
That being said, the pumpkin ganache is not the easiest thing to spread. Especially when trying to spread it evenly over something akin to loose gravel (the milk crumb). I knew right away that was not going to work well for me, so I employed a much-loved technique of mine I like to call…
The Pumpkin Ganache Squeezie Bag. Laugh if you want, but it’s a gallon-sized Ziploc freezer bag full of saving grace. Not only does it totally do it’s thing in terms of evenly frosting your layer, it also allows the warmth of your hands to soften the ganache, which means your ganache slides out of that bag warm and ready for spreading. See here:
Now doesn’t that look easier than gingerly spreading ganache over crumb topping? Why yes it does. I piped it on as evenly as possible over the top of the layer and spread it with a spatula; not a crumb was out of place after I was finished.
Rinse, repeat, and…finished! Use whatever cheesecake/ganache/crumb you saved to decorate the top, and place it in the freezer.
I decorated mine with a dollop of the liquid cheesecake and my leftover milk crumbs. Then I stuck it in my always-too-tiny freezer for 24 hours, making sure it was on a level surface, safely tucked away from anything which could bump or otherwise disturb it. You don’t want to spend this much time baking and assembling a cake only to balance it precariously on your half-empty box of frozen waffles and the leftover pretzel ice cream you’ve been eating off of.
The next day was a little bit like Christmas morning, I won’t lie. I was excited and anxious to see how this turned out. Obviously, the big silver cake ring eliminates you seeing exactly what’s gone on with your cake whilst you layered it, so it’s like this big, frozen carroty secret. Having the cake frozen solid actually made me less nervous when handling it; you know the layers won’t slide around and the cake isn’t going to break or bend.
Popping it out of its shell was pretty easy; all you do is push upward on the cake and it un-sticks itself (thank you, acetate strips) without incident. All that’s left is the removal of the acetate strips, and your cake is ready to defrost slowly in the refrigerator. I used the same care placing it in the fridge; ideally, you want an undisturbed corner you won’t accidentally shove your pickles into. While it defrosts, it will get soft around the outside, so it’ll show if you bump things into it. I let mine defrost for about 3 hours, and it was ready to go. Keep it in the fridge until serving, especially on a hot day. After all, it’s a tower of cake balanced on liquid cheesecake and ganache; probably not too steady once it starts to hit room temperature.
I’m very excited to try the rest of these cakes. This one had its moments, but as with the first Momofuku cookie I did, once I understood the potential trouble spots/parts where disaster may strike and worked through them, it wasn’t difficult or intimidating at all. I could do the cookies in my sleep now; even that cornflake chocolate chip + marshmallow one. Let’s hope it’s the same with the cakes.
Adapted from my beloved Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook by Christina Tosi. Inexplicably on Amazon, it has only 4 out of 5 stars currently. INCORRECT. 5 stars.
And you should know; I went back and forth on how to list the ingredients/instructions. Although you will jump back and forth, I thought I should do it as I normally do, with all the ingredients at the top and the instructions – in the same order – below. All the better to make your shopping lists with, I suppose. When its assembly time, I’ll be referring back to the pictures and the notes above, so if you skimmed through, you’ll be reading it again later.
Carrot Layer Cake (in sections, and in order of appearance)
for the pumpkin ganache:
- 5 1/4 ounces good white chocolate (NOT the chips, please)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon corn syrup (or 2 tablespoons glucose)
- 1/4 cup cold heavy cream
- 1/3 cup Libby’s pumpkin puree (you could possibly use your favorite, but the book recommends Libby’s, as do I. sometimes there are consistency differences, and that matters here.)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
for the milk crumbs:
- We’ve made this recipe before; it is very easy. You can find the ingredients and directions here.
for the liquid cheesecake:
- 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 1 egg
for the carrot cake:
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup tightly packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1/4 cup grapeseed oil
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 1/2 cups shredded peeled carrots (eye this up when you buy them: I buy the organic ones by the bunch, and I used most of that bunch; maybe 4-5 because they tend to be smallish)
Make the pumpkin ganache:
For those of you who know me, you know I worship at the throne of the double-boiler, and I always warn against using the microwave to melt chocolate. But with butter, I thought I’d give it a go: it worked just fine. I still wouldn’t recommend this without the added fat of the butter. If you’re nervous, go with the double boiler over low heat/barely simmering water.
Combine the white chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe dish and gently melt them in the microwave in 15-second bursts, stirring well between blasts. The result should be warm to the touch and totally homogenous.
Transfer the chocolate mixture to a container that can accommodate an immersion blender – something tall and narrow, like a 1-quart plastic deli container. You could also use a large tall hard-plastic tumbler. Warm the corn syrup in the microwave for maybe 10 seconds, then immediately add to the chocolate mixture and buzz with the hand blender. After a minute or so, stream in your cold heavy cream, with the hand blender running (I know, tricky; get a helper if you need to) and the mixture will come together into a silky, shiny, smooth substance.
Blend in the pumpkin puree, salt, and cinnamon. Put the ganache in the fridge to firm up before using, at least 5 hours, or ideally (and I did this), overnight. Stored in an airtight container, your ganache should keep fresh in the fridge for up to 1 week.
Make the milk crumbs:
May I kindly direct you here again for your milk crumbs, please.
Make the liquid cheesecake:
Preheat the oven to 300˚F. Line an 8×8 inch square baking pan (the book calls for a 6×6 pan, but really…who has that?) with parchment or wax paper.
Put the cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix on low speed for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Add the sugar and mix for 1-2 minutes, until the sugar has been completely incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Whisk together the cornstarch and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the milk in a slow, steady stream, then whisk in the egg until the slurry is homogenous.
With the mixer on medium-low speed, stream in the egg slurry. Paddle for 3-4 minutes until the mixture is smooth and loose. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Pour your cheesecake batter into the prepared pan, put the pan in the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. Gently shake the pan. The cheesecake should be firmer and more set toward the outer boundaries of the baking pan but still be jiggly and loose in the dead center. If the cheesecake is jiggly all over, give it 5 more minutes in the oven. Check again, and add another minute or two if you think it’s still jiggly, no more than a total cook time of 25 minutes. If you see the cheesecake browning at all or beginning to rise more than a 1/4 of an inch, take it out of the oven immediately.
Cool the cheesecake completely, to finish the baking process and allow the cheesecake to set. The final product will resemble a cheesecake, but it will be pliable enough to easily spread or smear, while still having the body and volume of a no-bake cheesecake. Once cool, the cheesecake can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.
make the carrot cake:
Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Spray a quarter sheet pan* with Pam spray (or you can grease it with butter) and line it with parchment so it overhangs a bit on 2 of the sides; I think it helps when you remove the cake.
*A quarter sheet pan seems to have two definitions: 9 x 13 and 10 x 13. Although the book defines this as a 10 x 13, it seems as though that size eludes us (“us” as in home cooks). After searching, I found a 9 x 13 pan; what seems to be commonly referred to as a “brownie pan.” It works. Very well, in fact.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt in a medium bowl.
Combine the butter and sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high speed for 2-3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and mix on medium-high for 2-3 more minutes. Scrape down the sides again.
On low speed, stream in the oil. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and paddle for 4-6 minutes, until the mixture is practically white, twice the size of your original fluffy butter and sugar mixture, and completely homogenous, with no streaks of fat. Don’t rush the process. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.
On low speed, add the flour mixture. Mix for 45-60 seconds, just until your batter comes together and any remnants of dry ingredients have been incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add carrots on low speed, only mixing until just incorporated. Remove the bowl, grab a spatula, and run it through the batter, making extra sure everything is combined. Pour into prepared pan.
Bake for 22-27 minutes, checking at the 20-minute mark for doneness. I find with cakes, baking time depends not only on how hot your oven cooks, but also on what type of pan you’re using (nonstick, dark, light, etc). Check early and as often as you need to. You want your cake to be done, but you also want it to retain its moisture and not be dry.
When it’s done, it will have risen and puffed, doubling in size, but will remain buttery and dense. At your 20-minute checkpoint, poke the cake edge gently with your finger; the cake should bounce back slightly and the center should not be jiggly. If it’s jiggly, put back in the oven, checking every 3 minutes or so.
Take the cake out of the oven and cool completely on a wire rack. Using the overhanging sides as handles, gently lift the cake out of the pan. The cake can be wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the fridge for up to 5 days, but I can’t personally attest to how it behaves when you do that. I say make your cake when you’re ready for cake assembly.
OMG: it’s time for cake assembly.
First things first: have at the ready your cake ring, acetate strips, plastic zipper storage bags, pastry brush, and the thing you’ll be placing your cake on. You can buy cardboard cake boards, or the plastic, more permanent versions, at any store which carries decorating supplies. The cake ring and acetate strips I ordered at Amazon.com.
- bonus ingredient: 1/4 cup whole milk
Take your cake, still on its parchment handles, and lay it on to your work surface. Use the cake ring to stamp out 2 circles from the cake (see photo in post). Those are your top 2 cake layers. Using the remaining carrot cake, your creativity, and the cake ring, piece together the third circle (your bottom ring) of the cake.
Clean the cake ring and line it with an acetate strip, and place it onto whatever base you’ve chosen to use. PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING HOLY remember that this must be able to fit in your freezer once finished. Place Circle #3 (cake scrap circle) inside the acetate-lined ring.
Dunk the pastry brush in the milk and give your cake a good once-over with half the milk. Use the back of a spoon to spread the liquid cheesecake in an even layer on the cake. If you’re nervous about this, don’t be: the cheesecake is the easy part. if that didn’t quell your fears, use that plastic storage bag technique I mention above (see photos in post).
Sprinkle 1/3 of the milk crumbs evenly over the cake. I say if you want more milk crumbs, and you still have the whole recipe at your disposal, use them. I used probably 3/4 the whole recipe of milk crumbs when all was said and done.
Fill your plastic storage zipper bag with pumpkin ganache. Massage it a little in your hands to warm it up, cut a decent sized hole in one corner (you’re not icing cookies here), and squeeze evenly over the milk crumbs (see photos in post). Use the back of a spoon to spread your lines of ganache evenly over the milk crumbs, using a gentle hand and patience.
Congrats! you’ve completed your first whole layer. Moving on.
Gently tuck your second strip of acetate between the cake ring and the tip 1/4 inch of the first strip of acetate, so you have a clear ring of acetate 5-6 inches tall-high enough to support the height of the finished cake.
Set Circle #2 (either of your remaining circles, the least pretty of the 2) on top. This is nerve-wracking, a little bit. It’s not the easiest thing navigating the circle inside the acetate strips, but you can do it. Go slowly, and think before you drop, trying to disturb the cake layer sides as little as possible.
Repeat the whole cheesecake/milk crumbs/ganache thing. Settle your final circle (Circle #1! You did it!) on top. Decorate as you see fit: From my above photos, you can see I just did a simple cheesecake/milk crumb center. That’s me, however. You do it how you like.
Transfer the cake, on its sturdy base, to your freezer and freeze for a minimum of 12 hours to set the cake and filling. The cake will keep in the freezer for 2 weeks.
At least 3 hours before serving, pull the cake 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 in plastic, it can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. I couldn’t figure out really how I would do this to the entire cake. If it were me (and indeed, I did this) I would defrost and serve, then wrap the remainder. I wouldn’t risk making this for a big to-do and then having it stick to plastic wrap.
Enjoy. You worked so, so hard on this.