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We were watching the latest season of Chef's Table. The first episode came to a close, the credits began rolling, Noah turns to me and says: "I want that cake for my birthday."
Five seconds later, after a brief detour to discover you can order and ship the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake straight to your couch for roughly $75, I was furiously scouring the internet for a copycat recipe.
This turned out to be easier than I thought. Christina Tosi has posted the recipe for her cult-status cake on the Milk Bar Bakery website.
In case you haven't heard, the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake is the brain child of NY-based pastry chef, Christina Tosi. Her career as a pastry chef was launched by her Crack Pie, both in reality and on the internet (more on that thought in a bit). She's also known for other cult-status desserts, like her Compost Cookies, Birthday Truffles, and Cereal Milk creations. She herself is an unabashed sweets fanatic with the approach that food should be shared and enjoyed.
So, what about this cake?
Let me think how to go about this. I made this cake recipe twice so I could be confident in what I have to say.
From the start, it's clear this recipe is labor-intensive. It requires specialty kitchen items (like a cake collar and acetate strips) and specialty ingredients (glucose, grapeseed oil and citric acid, among other things). It has four different elements: cake, soak, milk crumbs, and frosting. It also involves foresight and planning, since the cake needs to chill in the freezer for 12 hours, and then defrost in the fridge for another three before serving.
Being the baker that I am, all of these things only excited me further. When I said to Noah: "Sheesh. This thing is so ridiculously involved." He said: "Don't even pretend you're not thrilled about all of this."
Besides the specialty items, the cake itself is, when you get down to it, fairly straightforward. There are plenty of cakes out there with multiple elements...fillings, frostings, soaks, drips, etc. And the assembly is a relief in that there is no fussing with frosting details; no obsessing over smooth sides and crisp edges; no cursing at uncooperative crumb coats. You just plop everything into your cake collar, chill the whole thing, then peel off the acetate strips to reveal beautifully aligned sides that show off all of the cake's different textural elements.
Keeping the sides of the cakes exposed (or, in popular cake lingo, "naked") is part of Christina Tosi's cake philosophy, if you will. After her frustration with the perfection-seeking at culinary school, she concluded that cake shouldn't be covered up with frosting; it's a waste of time that could be spent elsewhere.
I like where she's going with this theory, but it has some problems. Most strikingly, it fails to take into account the truth of many cakes: without frosting on the sides, the whole thing starts to dry out very quickly. Frosting is, to a large extent, a practical measure as much as it is an aesthetic in the cake-baking world.
And I'll say this: Noah's feedback was that the cake's textural balance seemed off. There was a good amount of cake, and then those crunchy crumbs, but just the thinnest smear of frosting to balance. It really needed a glass of milk to help wash down. (Many bloggers recommended 1.5x the frosting recipe, which I did on my second go at the recipe and definitely liked better, even though I am not a "frosting person.")
Which brings me to my next point. The idea behind the Milk Bar Birthday Cake is something of a homage to the funfetti cake of the past. It's a sublimation of the birthday cake. A glorification of that box mix and tub of white frosting. In theory, a great idea. In practice? I'm just going to say it: disaster.
What's my problem with the practical aspects of this cake?
Tosi's recipe requires items outside the reach of the average home baker. Things like glucose and citric acid. The success of the recipe likewise depends* upon other, albeit easily attainable, artificial and processed ingredients, like vanilla flavoring and vegetable shortening. (*depends because the recipe insists that substitutions, like pure vanilla extract, will not do.)
My thought here: why not just make a box mix?
if your goal isn't making a "cake from scratch," avoiding the unnecessary processing and preservation that goes into a cake mix and shelf-stable frosting, then really, what is the point?* A box mix would be a heck of a lot easier, and, quite frankly, might possibly taste better.
*If you're interested in a pastry chef trying to do just that -- pay homage to iconic American desserts while making everything from scratch -- you might want to check out Stella Parks. She even makes her own sprinkles!
Well, how DID it taste?
Honestly, I don't want to turn this blog into a rant against the Milk Bar birthday cake! I have more interesting things I want to say about cult-status desserts and the internet age below. So let me just sum this up quickly: in the flavor department, it's a one-note dessert. Or really, a two-note dessert: sweet and vanilla. Super sweet and overpowering, my taste buds are crying, supersaturated vanilla flavor.
Just so you know I'm not crazy, the recipe for a 6-inch cake uses nearly an entire bottle of artificial vanilla extract. The recipe also recommends serving the cake cold, perhaps to assist in getting clean slices. I definitely found it more difficult to cut and also that the overly sweet vanilla nearly killed me off when I tried it at room-temperature. (Don't worry -- I tried it cold too! Still didn't like it. But coldness retards sweetness, so that might explain why it was waaaaaaay too sweet when served room-temp!)
The cake recipe is complicated, and it falls flat on flavor. I found it a tragic disappointment. In trying to do homage to, or sublimate, the original funfetti cake, it seems to miss the point: The original (box mix and frosting tub) put a yummy, comforting, happy, playful cake within the reach of every home baker in America. THAT is why it is the cake of our generation's past.
Cult-Status Desserts and the Age of Social Media
Now I want to make it clear that my thoughts above pertain to the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake recipe and to the attempt to recreate the cake within your home -- not to the actual experience of eating that cake in a Milk Bar bakery.
Because, when I have the chance, I absolutely plan to walk into a Milk Bar and order every single one of those cult-status desserts. And I'll probably share all about the experience here on the blog.
Why isn't this a contradiction?
Remember way earlier when I mentioned that Crack Pie is what launched Christina Tosi's career, both in reality and on the internet? That's because I want to make a distinction between reality and the internet, which can easily become a pseudo-reality, if not flat out fiction.
First, in reality. Crack Pie originated as something Christina Tosi made for "family meal" at the restaurant she was working at in an administrative capacity (Momofuku). It was an instant favorite. Once the chef-owner, David Chang, caught on to her knack for creating addictive desserts, he had her devise a number of other pastries (including her first Cereal Milk creation) for the restaurant's dessert menu, which eventually led to her opening the Milk Bar bakery next door.
Then, on "the internet." The moment that launched Tosi's career as a celebrity pastry chef was really a media moment -- when CNN's Anderson Cooper raved on Regis & Kelly Live about this Crack Pie he had discovered in New York. From there, the little bake shop sky rocketed into an empire. People started to line up outside in the hopes of getting their hands on a slice of Crack Pie, and the other novelty Milk Bar desserts.
Going to Milk Bar and getting one of Tosi's treats became a thing to do. Not a regular thing, like hanging out at the mall, or catching a movie with friends, or grabbing drinks. A "thing" in the internet-era sense: something to do more or less because it signals something else. Something to broadcast, or, as social media developers somewhat euphemistically phrase it, something to share. As if you are in on a good thing and are doing a good thing by telling others about it. We've been shaped to think about our real-life experiences in this way.
Perhaps this is a cynical thought. But let me tell you how I arrived at it.
the temptations bloggers and influencers face
After the first time I made the Milk Bar Momofuku Birthday Cake, I was admittedly deflated. It was such a frustrating disappointment. I had gone through all that trouble, I had taken pictures of the cake, I had served it up with ceremony at the birthday party, and it turned out to be so...meh. The next night, I sat on the couch trying to muscle down another slice from the leftovers, and just started searching other bloggers who had made the cake, trying to find out if I was alone.
There is a consensus: it takes a lot of work and forethought. But not a single blogger had a criticism for the cake. Some thought it needed more frosting. But no one thought it was too-sweet in a bad way. Everyone raved. THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING CAKE YOU WILL EVER EAT! Only one blogger that I found had the gumption to admit she liked her own cake better, but even she didn't dare criticize the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake.
I was beginning to doubt my abilities as a baker, but then I remembered: I KNOW I can make a good-tasting cake. That's not hubris; that's based on experience.
(Also, it turns out, a number of the party guests were equally disappointed.)
So I began this thought experiment...If I were a blogger, and I decided to try out this complicated cult-status cake recipe, and I went through all the trouble to procure the specialty ingredients and tools, set aside a day or two to make and assemble the cake, stage a photo shoot, and edit the photos, only to discover the cake tasted sub-par...what would I do? Throw away all that time and energy? Or spin it into a blog post?
I'd probably try to spin it into a blog post.
But what food blogger finds success in posting recipes they didn't like? "Hey guys, I made this, and it stinks, so here's the recipe. Share the link!!" The only way to salvage the energy and time and ingredients put into this cake is to put a positive spin on it.
The temptation is STRONG to do just that. I have to admit, I was tempted. I was going to finish uploading my photos, write a short introduction about this cult-status cake and gush over how stunning it looks, neatly ignoring the flavor. I mean, this is the sort of thing food bloggers live for. The opportunity to recreate a cult-status dessert, to get in on the buzz, to get looped in on the hype, to signal that you're in the know and thereby pick up some extra followers.
But then I decided to make the cake a second time, and see if I could change my mind.
I made it again, and disliked it just as much.
You can't imagine how much I wanted to like it. I wanted to write that post: "This cake is so amazing, here's the recipe, and I've included tips from my own experience to make the process easier for you!" I can't.
So I'm not even going to share the recipe here. I don't think you should make this cake. (Although I am itching to use it as inspiration for something better-tasting. Sophie & Maria have each already successfully taken Christina Tosi's knack for mixing textures and developed their own Momofuku-inspired recipes.) But, as a savvy blogger, I'm not going to let that time and energy go to waste. Instead, I'm repurposing the cake here as a post on our use and consumption of social media. Sneaky!
where is all of this going?
I thought you'd never ask! You see, media has the power to make something a thing that it otherwise wouldn't (or shouldn't) be. We all know the power of advertisements, and how susceptible we are to them, whether or not they depict reality accurately. Social media is essentially a million advertisements working to convince you of something that may or may not be the case, all while maintaining a guise of authenticity. Everyone who participates in social media plays a role in this vast web.
Even with out humble little blog, we find we must navigate these challenges and assess our motives. Do we write what we want to write, or what we think our readers want to hear about? Are we writing to sell a recipe, or simply to express our true love for the recipe? How much can we write to our audience while still maintaining that our blog is simply "three sisters chatting about what we are passionate about"?
In the world of blogging and influencing, you have to check constantly that you are keeping honest. Or you have to accept this as the way things are: everyone is trying to get ahead.
As readers and consumers of social media, we should understand what's at play.
So, yeah, even as I participate in social media, you could say I'm a bit cynical about it all. So many bloggers and influencers claim "this is just a picture of me in my real life" (#Iwokeuplikethis) And yet, any time you get in front of a camera, or sit down at a computer, or type out on your phone, some amount of filtering is done. That's just the way it is. It CAN'T be "real life," because real life isn't lived online. And that's okay...we just have to understand as consumers of it all that, to a large extent, the "this is real life" is, when it comes down to it, simply a marketing gimmick.
The layers upon layers of posing, shaping, altering, filtering, editing, influencing, go deep.
The Rainbow Bagel and the Pseudo-Reality of Foods that Go Viral
The age of social media has spawned a multitude of desserts and foods that aren't real things, they're a kind of pseudo-reality. Take, for example, the Rainbow Bagel.
The Bagel Store in Brooklyn was just your average NY bakery churning out deliciously chewy bagels and bagel sandwiches for the local customers until, one day, they invented the Rainbow Bagel. It became a social media sensation, a darling of Instagram. Suddenly, hundreds of people were lining up to order Rainbow Bagels each day. You had to wait three hours to get your hands on one. Anyone who waits in line for three hours is not going to order a plain bagel sandwich. They're obviously going to get The Rainbow Bagel. So you know what happened? The Bagel Store all but stopped making regular bagels, and they all but stopped serving their local customers. All they did was churn out hundreds and hundreds of Rainbow Bagels for food-destination tourists, who would unwrap those psychedelic rounds, snaps a few photos, share on their social media, and then continue on their way.
There is no way a heavily-dyed bagel tastes better than a natural bagel. No freaking way. You've heard of fake news? Enter the era of Fake Food, i.e. food that occupies a pseudo-reality on social media, but isn't real food serving real people.
These food creations are very often over the top, bordering on the absurd. For many of them, their sole goal is, in fact, to become viral on social media. These are foods created so that they can be photographed, foods that will ensure flocks of people want to pose with them, foods that will proliferate in the online world and be consumed by hundreds of thousands of eyes. They are very nearly anti-foods.
i wouldn't bake it, but i'd still order it
I realize those could be damning words above, but I don't intend to be all doomsday about the internet and the phenomena it spawns. At least not yet. I still rely on the internet heavily throughout my day. The online world is a mixed bag, some things good and some things bad. It may very well be that the bad outweighs the good, but for a large part of the world right now, the internet is simply a fact of existence.
I don't think the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake recipe is that delicious. It certainly doesn't merit, based on its taste, the colossal status that it holds in the online world. But for its brand of inventiveness and playfulness, high and low, nostalgia and hope -- something it shares with all of Christina Tosi's Milk Bar creations -- I have to tip my hat.
Tosi's desserts are some of the earliest example of cult-status foods that go viral on the internet (they may even have been the first). For those reasons, I will go to a Milk Bar when I have the chance and pay my respects to Tosi's concoctions. She's an example of a person being in the right place, at the right time, with a touch of shrewd genius.
Other Cult-Status Foods You May Be Intrigued By:
The Freakshake (from the article: "...mason jar mugs are filled with milkshake and piled up with goodies that look as striking as possible – because, while they should taste good, the first bite is usually taken by the camera.") and here's another good one on the stupidity of it all.
The Shock Ice Cream Carnival Cone (from the owner/inventor: "It’s all about the picture,” Richman adds, marveling at the power of social media. “We put emojis in it and dress it up—it makes a really good picture.”)
The Rebel Within is one I kind of love. It seems so normal and humble to have become an internet sensation. And I like how the chef calls it his "ball and chain" and wishes his customers would be more interested in his other delicious pastry creations.