I think I've finally done it. No, I haven't figured out time travel or found mates for all my pairs of socks. I've done something far, far greater: I've found my signature birthday cake. The one recipe I will go to each year to be the holder of an ever-increasing amount of candles.
It all started on a trip to New York several years ago where I visited Milk Bar - the dessert outpost from Momofuku. It was created by Christina Tosi - a young chef in New York - who had been creating desserts for several of the Momofuku restaurants before given the opportunity to open a store based on her dessert recipes. She's inventive, fearless, and never met a raw cookie dough or cake batter she didn't like (my kind of girl!).
So on this particular visit to Milk Bar, they had pistachio lime cake truffles on the menu - and I was intrigued. I purchased a package (along with their claims-to-fame: the compost cookie and crack pie) and was blown away by the unique flavor of these cake truffles. I nibbled at them, trying to dissect the ingredients and how it was all put together. Long after my trip, I kept thinking about them - wanting to replicate them somehow - but who had ever really heard of a pistachio cake before? Much less cake truffles. Little did I know that the next year, Christina Tosi would put out a Milk Bar cookbook, and a friend would get it for me, and that it would have a recipe for...pistachio cake!
Now, to my initial disappointment, there wasn't an exact recipe for how to make the pistachio cake truffles - but I had a recipe for the cake and instructions for how to make cake truffles using another cake flavor. So I cobbled them together and did my best to recreate those original cake truffles. And they were delicious - but I was soon to find out that the instructions for the full pistachio layer cake (filling, frosting and all) would quickly transcend the cake truffles and become one of my favorite recipes in the whole book.
And that now brings us to the current cake at hand. The basic elements are as follows: a pistachio flavored spongecake, layered with lemon curd, milk crumbs and pistachio frosting. Put them all together and you've got a little slice of heaven.
This cake isn't difficult in terms of technique or assembly; but it does require some unique (and somewhat expensive) ingredients and a little bit of extra time compared to your traditional cake. But it's totally worth it - time. money and calories!
First up to make are the milk crumbs. This is a signature element of many of Milk Bar's desserts. Many of the recipes in their cookbook utilizes powdered milk - a terrible substitute for drinking actual milk - but a wonderful and surprisingly flavorful addition to your baking. (Seriously, try some in your cookies or cakes next time!). When mixed with some flour, sugar and butter - you get a crumbly little mixture and spread on a baking sheet. Bake in a low temperature oven (250) for about 20 minutes or as the cookbook says, "your kitchen should smell like buttery heaven." Believe me, you'll know when it's ready. Once you've let the crumbs cool, you pour melted white chocolate over it all and toss it until the chocolate sets. Set it aside...if you can (trust me, you're gonna want to shove a spoonful of this stuff in your mouth).
Next, move on to making the pistachio cake. Bump up your oven temperature to 350. The cake calls for a few unique ingredients: pistachio paste, pistachio oil and glucose. I've been able to find pistachio paste online at King Arthur Flour. The pistachio oil I've found in stores at Williams-Sonoma but you can find it much cheaper on Amazon. Glucose is an ingredient Christina uses in many of her recipes - she claims it's worth it - but I've yet to purchase a container. Instead, I've used light corn syrup as a substitute (which she has said is OK, though not ideal), since it's an ingredient I always have on hand in my pantry.
OK, enough talk - let's get to the baking! In a large bowl (or bowl of your stand mixer), beat the pistachio paste and glucose together. It may be a little crumbly - but that's OK. (Sorry - one more bit of talk regarding the pistachio paste. I've found that the size of the pistachio paste container I get doesn't have quite enough paste to make the cake and frosting, according to the recipe. So as to not have to buy a second container, I've slightly reduced the amounts for both the cake and frosting - essentially giving half the can to the cake and the other half to the frosting. I think the result is pretty much similar to what you would get had you used the full amount. Also, it's likely your paste will have separated a bit - this is normal - just mix it all thoroughly before using.)
Then you add your egg whites, one at a time, until you have a "snotty green soup in your mixing bowl." Yup - that looks pretty snotty to me! I think we're right on track!
Next we add the powdered sugar and the almond flour. Mix for a few minutes until it all thickens. Don't forget to scrape the sides of the bowl after each step to ensure everything gets mixed in properly!
Then we stream in the pistachio oil and the heavy cream and mix for about a minute until fully incorporated.
The last additions are the flour - just 1 cup (remember we put in the almond flour earlier) - and the baking powder and salt. The recipe called for 1 1/2 teaspoons - but I would go for just a teaspoon or a teaspoon and a quarter. Mix the last of the ingredients until the batter is shiny, smooth and "slightly more viscous than your average box cake mix."
Spray a jelly roll or half sheet pan with Pam and line it with parchment paper and spray again. You can also use a Silpat. Pour the batter into the pan and spread it out evenly. Bake in the oven for 20-22 minutes. It will be ready when the edges of the cake start to pull away from the sides and the cake bounces back when pressed lightly with your finger (like a sponge!). If it doesn't do either of these things - cook for an additional minute or so until it does. Let the cake cool completely before beginning assembly.
The last thing we need to prepare is the pistachio frosting, which comes together quite easily while your cake is baking!
in a medium bowl, beat butter and powdered sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Then add the last half of the pistachio paste and a bit of salt (use less if you used salted butter - which I pretty much use exclusively). Beat on high for a few minutes until the frosting is a uniform pale, green color. You can use the frosting right away - or if you're going to wait to assemble your cake, place it in an airtight container in the fridge.
The only thing I haven't covered is the lemon curd. I've found that the store-bought variety in a jar is just as good (and maybe better) than making it from scratch (I've always had troubles with the right consistency). But if you're a make-it-from-scratch lemon curd purist - by all means, use your favorite recipe and use it during final assembly.
Yay! We've now made all the elements of our cake - now for the final assembly! This step is where I differ a bit from the Milk Bar style. They use cake molds and acetate rings to form their cakes. The result is a beautiful, rustic looking cake - but I don't have that special equipment (nor I suspect, do you). So I've modified this just a bit to make it a bit easier - but still have an impressive dessert.
Grab your cooled sheet cake and grab onto an edge of the parchment paper and gently slide the cake out of the pan onto a flat surface. Be careful in this step as to not break the cake. With a large knife, carefully trim about 1/4-1/2 inch off the sides (this can be your nibbles before serving the cake!). Then cut your cake into thirds along the long edge of the cake.
Find your serving platter and carefully transfer one of the thirds to the platter. Using a pastry brush, apply a generous lather of pistachio oil to the top of the bottom cake later and let it soak in. Next, spread half a jar of lemon curd over the bottom layer. Then pull out those scrumptious milk crumbs and spread 1/3 of them over the lemon curd and lightly press them into the curd. Then carefully spread pistachio frosting over the milk crumbs (use a little less than a third of the frosting). Repeat these steps again: transfer middle cake layer on top of the first. Layer lemon curd, milk crumb and frosting. Place the top layer of cake and cover the top with the remaining frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the milk crumbs generously over the top of the cake and around the base of the cake on the platter. The sides will not be frosted so as to show off the layers.
Now before we start slicing into the cake - it's recommended that you place it in the freezer for at least a few hours or overnight to let all the layers set. Pull out a few hours before you're ready to serve...and enjoy! Hopefully this well help you on your journey to find your signature birthday cake!
Here's the full recipe:
PISTACHIO LAYER CAKE
(Adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi)
- 1/2 cup milk powder
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 Tbsp cornstarch
- 2 Tbsp sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 4 Tbsp butter, melted
- 1/4 cup milk powder
- 3 oz white chocolate, melted
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Combine 1/2 cup milk powder, flour, cornstarch, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add melted butter and toss until mixture comes together and forms small clusters. Spread clusters on parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet - bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely. Transfer clusters to a bowl, add 1/4 cup milk powder and mix. Pour melted white chocolate over crumbs and toss until all crumbs are coated and chocolate is set.
- 1/2 cup pistachio paste (about half an 11 oz can)
- 1 1/2 Tbsp light corn syrup
- 6 egg whites
- 1 3/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 1/4 cup almond flour
- 1/2 cup pistachio oil
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup flour
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, beat pistachio paste and corn syrup for 2-3 minutes. On low speed, add egg whites, one at a time, scraping down sides of bowl every other egg. You should have a "snotty green soup in your bowl." Add powdered sugar and almond flour and mix for a few minutes until mixture thickens. Scrape sides of bowl. Stream in oil and cream and mix on low speed for about a minute. Add flour, baking powder and salt and mix until batter is smooth, shiny and viscous. Pour into a jelly roll or half sheet pan, Pam-sprayed and lined with parchment. Bake for 20 minutes or until cake comes away from edges of pan and springs back when lightly touched with your finger. Bake for 1-2 more minutes until it does. Let cake cool completely before assembly.
- 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 powdered sugar
- 1/2 cup pistachio paste (the other half of your can)
- 1/2 tsp salt
Beat butter and sugar until pale yellow and fluffy. Add pistachio paste and salt and mix on high until a uniform, pale green color. Remember to scrape down sides periodically. Set aside.
- Milk Crumbs
- Pistachio Cake
- Pistachio Frosting
- 1 jar Lemon Curd
- 1/3 cup pistachio oil
Cut cake into thirds along the long end. Place one layer on bottom of platter and brush half of pistachio oil over the top of layer - let it soak in. Spread half of the lemon curd over the cake. Sprinkle 1/3 of the milk crumbs, pressing down lightly into the lemon curd. Carefully, spread 1/3 of pistachio frosting over the crumbles, as evenly as you can (it'll be a little tricky). Add the middle layer and repeat steps: pistachio oil, lemon curd, milk crumbs, frosting. Top off with the final cake layer and spread the remaining frosting over the top only (leave the sides unfrosted). Sprinkle the rest of the milk crumbs over the top of the cake and around the base on the platter. Transfer cake to the freezer and freeze overnight to let the cake and filling set. Pull out of freezer a few hours before serving. Slice and enjoy!