Just over a year ago, I made the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake for my husband’s birthday. He requested it. We had just finished watching the first episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pastry, and he turned to me and said “I want that for my birthday.” That being pastry chef Christina Tosi’s iconic Birthday Cake.
So I made it once. And I made it twice. And then I wrote a long blog post about my thoughts on the recipe, and other musings on cult-status desserts in the age of social media. You can read it all here.
The summary is basically I didn’t love the cake when I made it at home. The consistency was fluffy but dry, the ratio of frosting/filling/crumbs didn’t seem right, and it was overpoweringly sweet with a strong artificial-vanilla flavor. But more importantly, I didn’t get it. Yes, it’s a show-stopping dessert: stacked tall with dramatically exposed layers. Yes, it’s a play between modern and vintage, sophisticated and fun, with a heavy dose of nostalgia. But the recipe is involved and time-consuming, it requires out-of-the-ordinary equipment and ingredients, some of which, like citric acid and artificial vanilla flavoring, gave me pause. What exactly is the point of “recreating” a box mix Funfetti cake and vanilla frosting out of the tub? It’s generally understood that those items, box mixes and shelf-stable frostings, sacrifice authentic flavor and quality of ingredients for convenience.
I was a little nervous to share my thoughts in a blog post, especially when they constituted a criticism of a famous and successful pastry chef’s hugely iconic creation. Who am I? A home-baker with virtually no technical training—just a whole lot of trial and error experience in the kitchen. So I added a caveat to the end of my post. Maybe the Milk Bar Birthday Cake just can’t be done justice in the home kitchen. Maybe the real deal, made at a Milk Bar location, just blows your mind.
That’s one way to make sense of the widely popular bakery, which now has locations across the country. Maybe it’s not just a gimmick—it truly is delicious—you just have to try the real thing.
After sharing the blog post on my experience making the Milk Bar Birthday Cake, I was relieved to see a steady trickle of comments, still coming, of people who agree: they tried the recipe and it’s not that great. Still, it seemed a final judgment couldn't be made until we tried the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake, at a Milk Bar location, ourselves.
sister weekend 2019: NYC
We had a family wedding over the Fourth of July in New York City, so Maria, Sophie and I seized the opportunity to spin it into a Sister Weekend.
The Sister Weekend isn’t necessarily a weekend; it’s just a span of 3-5 days we set aside each year to spend time together. Since we’ve lived nearly all of our adult lives far away from each other, we try to take a few days each year to spend time together in person, growing and strengthening our friendship.
After all the wedding festivities died down, we realized we would have one full day that we could spend in Manhattan. Our foodie brains were awhirl with the possibilities! We agreed on a plan:
Breakfast at the hotel with friends.
Coffee in the city at NYC-based coffee roaster, Birch Coffee.
Elbow our way onto the Brooklyn Bridge.
Lunch in Chinatown at an amazing hand-pulled ramen shop, Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle.
Birthday cake & other novelties at the original Milk Bar in East Village (!!!).
Walk till you drop.*
Bagel sandwiches to-go from the famous Ess-a Bagel.
*We walked a total of 12 miles this day.
New York, New York, what a strange, marvelous, crazy, wonderful place.
New York City: there is no place quite like it. Right now, Maria and I both live in suburbs of major cities, and Sophie lives further outside the city in farming country. All of us are, on a day-to-day basis, so far removed from so much of humanity. The sheer number of people in NYC is astonishing—and not just how many people live on the island, about 1.6 million, which is an enormous number itself, but also the non-residential traffic onto the island, which ranges from another 1-2 million or more each day. That’s a lot of people.
And you feel it. Every square inch of the city is packed to capacity. Buildings are piled on top of each other, street after street after street, with hundreds of thousands of people wandering to and fro. You can feel in the air the history of the place—so many things have happened, so much has been created and built, so much destroyed, so many lives lived. Hopes and dreams. Suffering and loss. So many stories to be told.
I can’t possibly relate all the funny encounters we had that day. I can tell you how our plans for the day panned out. Birch Coffee, our first stop, delivered deliciously smooth coffee with the most luxuriant foam. The Brooklyn Bridge was, as usual, a mob. We elbowed our way up onto the bridge and snapped an obligatory selfie. (It is a bit of a tourist gimmick, but I just love being on the Brooklyn Bridge.) Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle is a complete hole-in-the-wall that served up wonderfully satisfying ramen, and fried pork dumplings that were so delicious we ordered a second round. Window shopping is about as fun in NY as anywhere else, but with a little extra pizzazz, especially when you find yourself handling a Chanel t-shirt with a $400 price tag in a second-hand store. And when you’re in New York, you have to have a bagel sandwich. Ess-a bagel is a NY establishment, and the staff was so courteous about making the bagel-sandwiches we were drooling for, even though they were just minutes from closing.
so…milk bar: the verdict
Okay, here we go.
First thought: the original Milk Bar location is so charmingly unassuming. It’s a tiny little shop that can only fit about a handful of people inside to place an order—no indoor seating. Thankfully there wasn’t a line out the door to order—in fact, we were the only people ordering when we arrived. There was a steady stream of people who came and went while we sat outside, but the place wasn’t exactly hopping at around 2pm on a Saturday afternoon. That initially surprised me, but then I remembered that the NYC nightlife is strong, and the shop’s posted hours are 9am-1am, so doubtless many people hit up Milk Bar in the evening hours.
What did we try? The Birthday Cake, obviously. Also, Birthday Cake Truffles, Corn Cookie, and Compost Cookie Soft Serve. We also sampled the Compost Cookie and Cereal Milk Soft Serve. I’m kicking myself for not ordering a slice of Crack Pie, but at the time it seemed exorbitant. In quantity of sweets to eat, yes, but also in price. The slice of cake alone was $9!
The cookies, both Corn and Compost, were yummy.
The ice cream was…strange. We each had our different takes. The Compost Cookie soft serve has a chocolate pretzel soft serve base that I found nearly inedible on its own—it was just way too salty—but that was mitigated by the sweet and crunchy “Compost Cookie” topping. And that’s exactly Christina Tosi’s trademark: marrying dynamic textures with super salty and super sweet to create an addicting treat.
Sophie enjoyed the Cereal Milk soft serve topped with Corn Flakes, while again, I found it strange and nearly inedible. But I have to admit, I had been reading reviews the night before and many people described the flavor of “cereal milk” to be like sour milk. That stuck with me, and that was the primary note I tasted: cold, creamy, sour milk with a side of corn flakes.
We all agreed the Birthday Cake Truffles were a bit like extremely sweet unbaked cookie dough. But we ate them straight out of the package and didn’t, as was suggested at the time of purchase, zap them in the microwave to heat up the centers into warm gooey cake.
Finally: THE MILK BAR BIRTHDAY CAKE.
It was so difficult, standing there on the sidewalk on a hot July NYC day, to work through what I thought of it. I’m well aware that preconceived notions, expectations that are too high or too low, can have a huge effect on an eating experience. I stood there, taking a first bite, torn in two directions. Half of me wanted to be vindicated: I wanted the cake to taste awful. Half of me wanted to be blown away: I wanted this bite of cake to be so spectacularly delicious to justify the craze.
It was neither.
Here’s what it was: it was a fun slice of cake. A sweet, one-note, slice of vanilla cake. I didn’t hate it—in fact, I kind of liked it. The cake itself was pretty good. Plenty moist, fluffy and light. The frosting was nice. The milk crumbs added a subtle crunch.
First: why didn’t I like it when I made it at home? I’ll openly admit, the cake I produced in my home-kitchen wasn’t as good. The cake itself wasn’t as fluffy and moist. Perhaps I overbaked it. Also, the amount of cake crumbs called for in the Milk Bar website recipe was way more than we found in the actual Milk Bar Bakery’s cake, where there were very few in the layers, and absolutely none on top. (The website’s recipe calls for 2 1/4 cups of crumbs distributed between the two layers and the top.) This is a significant difference, because one of the problems my husband particularly had with the cake I made for him was the overall sense of “dryness,” between the drier cake, mounds of cookie crumbs, and thin layer of frosting.
Second, and more importantly: why is this slice of cake such an absolute phenomenon? I think we all agreed, as we wiped our mouths and tossed our empty plates and bowls in the trash, that it was a branding phenomenon. Momofuku, or really, David Chang, made Milk Bar what it is. It started out as “Momofuku Milk Bar,” that is, under the Momofuku empire. Eventually, it dropped the “Momofuku” and took flight simply as its own brand: Milk Bar.
Now that I think about it, so much about the bakery’s beginnings contain the elements of a successful brand. A distinctive name and logo, easily recognizable and unique products (think the exposed layers of the Milk Bar cakes) and memorable product names (think Cereal Milk, Compost Cookie, and Crack Pie). I don’t think that if Milk Bar—even still under the Momofuku Empire—served up regular old chocolate chip cookies, humble shoofly pie, and slices of classic vanilla cake, it would have met with quite the same sensational success.
But even if Milk Bar did have the heavyweight of the Momofuku brand behind it when it launched, what exactly accounts for people going gaga over it at the time, and still today? The simply fun, creative energy the Milk Bar products exude. Tosi’s thumbing-her-nose at established pastry norms coincided with the rise of the social-media-driven “food culture” phenomenon. Milk Bar caught the limelight because it stood out. It is refreshingly, unapologetically unsophisticated.
I said it before and I’ll say it again:
I don't think the Momofuku Milk Bar Birthday Cake is spectacularly delicious. It certainly doesn't merit, based on its taste, the colossal status that it holds in the food 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.