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Cake of the Art

A sprinkle-filled, nostalgic explosion of a dessert, the funfetti birthday layer cake is an epitome of homegrown celebration and family. But be prepared for the tasking five-part baking process.

Tiffany Duncan
Chelsi Fisher
October 28, 2019

Growing up, birthdays were a big deal in my family. It meant a large gathering of family, friends, and of course a towering platter of sprinkly birthday cake as the pièce de résistance. My family loves to celebrate through food, and even when there aren’t birthday parties going on, there is still an abundance of baked goods all the time; cookies, yeast rolls, cakes, cinnamon rolls, pies … you name it, we have it.

My grandma is the Oklahoma queen of baked goods. She’s won many Tulsa State Fair blue ribbons, creating cakes with names like Autumn Memories, or infusing them with some surprising secret ingredients, like mashed sweet potatoes. I can still feel the gritty spilled sugar beneath my toes on the stool I stood on as a child as I watched her create silky white meringue for chocolate pie, or ate one too many hearty spoonfuls of chocolate chip cookie dough. My mom also loves to bake and have fun in the kitchen. I recall numerous Saturday mornings of making fried doughnuts over the stovetop. For my sixth birthday party, she even made me a cake that looked like a working carousel.

I suspect these memories have something to do with my current obsession with Milk Bar — a Manhattan-based dessert and bakery chain that’s a part of the Momofuku restaurant group. The whimsical brainchild of chef (and my current spirit animal) Christina Tosi, Milk Bar is what confectionary dreams are made of. Everything Milk Bar does mixes the best of childhood nostalgia with innovative baking methods and ingredients, as well as giving absolutely zero craps about calorie content.

Their repertoire of decadent treats includes things like ice cream made from fruity cereal-steeped milk; liquid cheesecake that you just go at with a spoon; corn cookies, in which the main ingredient is sweet corn kernels freeze-dried and pulverized into a powder; compost cookies, which include mini pretzels, potato chips, and ground coffee; PB&J panna cotta; and their trademarked “crack pie,” which is apparently so good it was one of the primary inspirations for launching Milk Bar in the first place.

But the most iconic crown jewel of the Milk Bar empire has to be their multi-layered, sprinkle-filled, nostalgic explosion of a dessert — the funfetti birthday layer cake. From the moment I watched an episode of Chef’s Table about Tosi and Milk Bar this past December, I have been utterly entranced by both this cake, and by Tosi’s unique and very down-to-earth style of desserts. I mean, this girl has studied at the French Culinary Institute and worked at some of the most elite restaurants in New York City. But there she was on Chef’s Table, walking the cramped aisles of a corner bodega and finding her creative inspiration in very ordinary things, like Cap’n Crunch.

In this episode and also in her cookbooks, Tosi talks a lot about how special her childhood was, and how her family-oriented Virginia roots are deeply entrenched in her food ideology. For her, the funfetti birthday cake is the epitome of homegrown celebration and family — a symbol of uncomplicated joy — so she spent years creating and perfecting a cake that mimicked the taste of this childhood favorite.

I, too, have always dearly loved funfetti cake, so when I saw Milk Bar’s rendition, I knew I had to try to make it myself. The problem was that when I grabbed a copy of her cookbook from the library, I realized this is not a dessert for the faint of heart for two reasons. The first is that it’s a five-part baking process that involves the purchasing of unique ingredients and equipment like glucose, citric acid, and sheets of acetate. And the second? This cake could stop an elephant’s heart. Seriously. Some of the ingredients include butter, buttermilk, cream cheese, sugar, brown sugar, vegetable shortening, grapeseed oil, and lots and lots of sprinkles.

But I was committed.

I technically worked on this cake for two weeks. I spent a week slowly gathering ingredients and equipment that I didn’t have. The acetate sheets (what you place the cake layers into before freezing to get those nice and clean, well-defined layers) were particularly hard to find. If you find yourself wanting to attempt this cake, or in need of acetate sheets for another baking project, let me save you some time and tell you that you’re going to have to order it from Amazon because it can’t be found in Tulsa. I called all of the craft stores, office suppliers, and every single local bakery I could think of. Luckily Ludger’s Bavarian Cakery (off 91st Street and Sheridan Road) took pity on me and gave me some laminate sheets that were very similar to acetate.

Since the cake involves five different parts, I decided to split up the workload throughout the week. On Monday night, I made the birthday cake crumb. These are the little crunchies on top of the cake, as well as layered inside of it for a tasty texture surprise. I burnt the first batch badly, so I had to make another. The second batch was still a bit crunchier than I suspect it was supposed to be, but they were still pretty delicious.

On Wednesday night, I made the large funfetti sheet cake, wrapped it, and put it in the fridge overnight. Thursday night, after borrowing a 6-inch cake ring from a friend, I cut out two circles of cake and then cobbled together a third from the leftover pieces.

Next came the icing, which Tosi has specifically perfected to look and taste like it came from one of those plastic store-bought tubs — thick, sweet, and beautifully smooth.

Then, after lining the cake ring with acetate and placing it on top of a parchment-lined baking sheet, I pressed the cobbled together layer into the bottom and drizzled on the “birthday soak” with a spoon. (The “birthday soak” is another Milk Bar creation; it’s milk mixed with clear vanilla to soak into the layers for added moisture and flavor.) I slathered on a layer of the decadent white icing and then alternated between adding cake layers and icing layers until there were three of each. To get those perfectly smooth and defined lines, the cake has to freeze for at least 12 hours.

Friday morning, I removed the cake from the freezer with much trepidation, nervous that I had somehow done something wrong. But when I removed the cake ring and peeled off the acetate, I nearly squealed with delight — it was perfect. I was in such a celebratory mood, I went and got my nails painted Milk Bar’s bright, signature electric pink. Later, after taking about a million pictures of the cake, a friend and I dug in and nearly made ourselves sick, it was so good.

Even though this cake was rather fussy to make, I will 100% be making it again in the future. If you feel inspired, I encourage you to also try your hand at it, as this is the ultimate in funfetti nostalgia. But even if you’re not into elaborate baking, Milk Bar still has you covered — you can order this cake to be shipped fresh to your house in two days. (Disclaimer: I swear I am in no way affiliated with Milk Bar or getting paid to promote them; I’m just that obsessed.)