Before we had even stepped off the plane at JFK last year, I knew exactly where I wanted to have my first ice cream in New York. Weeks before, Netflix released the Christina Tosi episode of Chef’s Table, documenting her compost cookie making, crack pie baking rise to fame and in the process, becoming one of the most popular bakers in the city. Her cereal milk ice cream, descended from a cornflake panna cotta, sounded so delicious I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. On our first day we wandered the streets near Central Park searching for a Milk Bar and that delicious soft serve. Packed with the brightest coloured sprinkles I had ever seen, I enjoyed every scoop as we wandered round the park.
I’ve always been a fan of Tosi’s style of baking that has made her Milk Bars so famous. Her unique take on cookies, stuffing them full of pretzels and marshmallows, to special soft serve flavours that change regularly are inspiring to me. But I think it was her birthday cakes that truly drew me in, naked sides, fluffy frosting, textures and toppings that result in a work of art. Tosi bakes her cakes in flat sheets, cutting out cake circles and decorating inside acetate for the naked cake look that became popular long after she pioneered it.
I desperately wanted to take part in a Milk Bar baking class while we were in New York last year, but the thought of trying to eat a full sized cake between two of us in a tiny hotel room seemed a bit much, so I settled for making one at home instead. Thankfully during my last trip to the States, I stocked up on proper funfetti sprinkles to make the sponge pop with flecks of colour through each slice. As a happy coincidence, the Betty Crocker sprinkles I chose were actually vegan and with a friend to visit during the holidays, I spent a happy Wednesday adapting a few recipes to make a vegan version of Milk Bar’s most famous cake.
Vegan cakes are notoriously tricky to handle as they are rather fragile, so take care when handling each one. I decided to bake each layer in round pans as it’s what I’m more familiar with, but give Tosi’s method a go if you wish. The cake soak makes all the difference for keeping the sponge moist but does add to its fragility, so make sure to refrigerate the cake until ready to serve.
Points of note: While my main inspiration was Christina Tosi’s original recipe, I took some inspiration from Wallflower Kitchen for the basic sponge and frosting recipes and Flour Covered Apron for assembly tips.
- -For the cake
- 540ml almond milk
- ½ lemon
- 354g caster sugar
- 165ml sunflower oil
- 3 tsp vanilla paste
- 375g self raising flour
- 3 tbsp cornstarch
- ¾ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 5 tbsp brightly coloured sprinkles, plus extra to decorate
- -For the cake crumbs
- 90g caster sugar
- 1 + ½ tbsp soft light brown sugar
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 2 tbsp brightly coloured sprinkles
- 180g plain flour
- 1 tsp vanilla paste
- 60ml + 2 tbsp sunflower oil
- -For the cake soak
- 50ml almond milk
- ½ tsp vanilla paste
- -For the frosting
- 300g vegan butter
- 2 tsp vanilla paste
- 450g icing sugar
- Preheat the oven to 200oc/180oc fan and grease and line three 18cm round tins.
- In a large bowl or stand mixer, add the lemon juice to the almond milk and leave to stand for a few minutes to thicken. Add the sugar, oil and vanilla and whisk together until well incorporated.
- Sift together the flour, cornstarch and bicarbonate of soda then add a little at a time to the wet mix, mixing well before adding more. One combined to a pourable batter, add the sprinkles then divide between the prepared cake tins. Sprinkle over a little extra sprinkles on top for extra colour.
- Bake the cakes for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Once baked, leave the cakes to cool in their tins for 10 minutes then carefully remove and cool completely on a wire rack. The cakes are very fragile so be quite careful.
- For the cake crumbs, keep the oven at 200oc/180oc fan and mix together the dry ingredients in a bowl using a fork. Add the vanilla and oil and whisk together, until the mix clumps together. Pour onto a tray lined with baking parchment, taking care that there are some larger cake crumbs and some smaller ones before baking for 20 minutes, turning halfway through. Once golden, remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.
- To prepare the cake soak, whisk together the almond milk and vanilla paste then set to one side.
- For the frosting, place the vegan butter and vanilla into a large bowl or a stand mixer and beat for around 5 minutes until the butter is smooth and light in colour. Add half the icing sugar and beat again until pale and fluffy. Repeat with the remaining icing sugar until you have a thick buttercream frosting. Place into a large piping bag and snip off the end.
- To assemble, dollop a little buttercream on a board or serving plate then place the first cake on top to secure it. Brush over some of the cake soak over the top of the cake then pipe a thick circle around the edge of the cake. Fill the circle with buttercream then smooth. Sprinkle over a handful of the cake crumbs then carefully place the second cake on top and repeat. Place the third cake on top and again pipe a circle around the edge then fill with buttercream.
- To give the cake its signature ‘naked’ look, pipe buttercream into any holes that emerge between the cake layers. Don't worry if it looks messy, some of the frosting will be scraped away. Using a tall cake scraper held perpendicular to the cake, smooth the edges as you turn the cake away from you, stopping to scrape off any excess buttercream. Once the cake looks more uniform in shape, top the cake with any extra buttercream the decorate with the remaining cake crumbs and extra sprinkles. Keep the cake refrigerated until you’re ready to serve.