This centerpiece has occupied our dining room table since probably Thanksgiving. Last week Jeff put our omnipresent plastic deer (deers?) on its two highest peaks for no real reason, but they reminded me of that scene in The Lord of the Rings when representatives of every--I don't know, I barely paid attention--every type of creature?--climbed to the top of mountains and lit things to signal each other that--what? A war or maybe something awesome was going to happen? This scene:
Again, LotR is not my bag and I don't care enough to investigate this further. Please don't bother to tell me what's happening, but I'd like to think that maybe those are signals of celebration. And that's what our plastic deer (deers?) are doing up there: they are lighting their party beacons because holy Moses look at that cake!
Yesterday I wanted to plunge myself into a major baking project. Jeff's been feeling just sick enough to not want to do anything, and I've been alllll about painting lately and harboring some low-level feelings of dread regarding an upcoming medical checkup. My parents' crotchety but beloved and ancient cat Robert died on Friday. This winter has been a complete washout as far as snow is concerned, and I'm jealous of the east coast's blizzard. I just really needed to do some next-level baking. This recipe from Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook had been haunting me for months. The fact that Valentine's Day is coming up was reason enough to make a cake that tastes like apple pie.
Here are the cake's six components: a "barely brown" butter sheet cake, pie crust crumbs, apple pie filling, an apple cider soak, pie crust frosting, and something called liquid cheesecake. Special equipment is involved. Don't bother making this if you don't have a stand mixer. Christina Tosi is a culinary genius and an entertaining writer, and I felt like she was coaching me through the entire process. She's the kind of coach who is not going to put up with your bullshit shortcuts, though, and I was on my best baking behavior all afternoon. I didn't want to let her down!
The end result (which Jeff and I tried after the prescribed 12+ hours of freezing and 3 hours of thawing) was as good as any non-chocolate, fruit-based dessert gets. We shared one of the cake's six triple-decker megaslices and were stunned by its complexity. The recipe is below, along with my notes in italics, just to give you some idea of what you'd be dealing with should you decide to take on this lunacy. Please buy the book if this kind of thing appeals to you. The entire book is that way, and the photos will make you cry.
Dude. I think I just heard a robin.
Barely Brown Butter Cake
Makes 1 quarter sheet (9x13) pan
2 tablespoons or 40g brown butter, see recipe for instructions
4 tablespoons or 55g butter
1.25 cups or 250g sugar
1/4 cup tightly packed or 60g light brown sugar
1/2 cup or 110g buttermilk
1/3 cup or 65g grapeseed oil <-- unavailable here; I used vegetable oil instead
1/2 teaspoon or 2g vanilla extract
1.5 cups or 185g cake flour
1 teaspoon or 4g baking powder
1 teaspoon or 4g salt
- Preheat the oven to 350F/175C. To make the brown butter, microwave the 2 Tbs of butter in a microwave safe bowl covered with a microwave safe plate, for 3. The butter will pop while browning, so don’t worry if it sounds like your microwave is going to explode. If not browned enough after three minutes, continue to microwave at 1 minute increments. Be very careful when removing the bowl and plate from the microwave – it will be very very hot. While brown butter is cooling, stir occasionally to melt the caramelized bits of butter. Cool completely in the refrigerator. There is something decidedly weird-ass about brown butter. I've yet to put my finger on it.
- Combine the butters and sugars and beat on medium-high for 2-3 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add the eggs and continue to beat for 2-3 minutes. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Return the speed to medium-high and beat for at least 5-6 minutes, until the mixture is very light and has doubled in size.
- If the mixture hasn’t reached this stage by 6 minutes, continue to beat it.
- Reduce the speed to very low and add the cake flour, baking powder and salt. Continue to mix on very low for a minute or two until all the batter is smooth and free of lumps.
- Pam-spray and line your quarter sheet pan with parchment. Bake for 30 minutes, until the cake holds its shape when poked and the center is no longer jiggly.
- Cool the cakes on a wire rack and store for up to 5 days, well wrapped in plastic wrap, in the fridge.
- Note: this cake baked perfectly flat (no doming) tastes almost exactly like Twinkies. The batter alone is delicious and lets you know that you're making something special.
Makes one 6” square baking dish
8 ounces or 227 g cream cheese, room temperature
3/4 cup or 150 g sugar
1 tablespoon or 15 g cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon or 2 g kosher salt
2 tablespoon or 25 g milk
- Preheat the oven to 300F/150C.
- Beat the cream cheese on medium for a couple of minutes, scraping the bowl once or twice. Add the sugar and continue to beat for 2 minutes, until completely incorporated.
- Mix together the cornstarch and salt, then gradually whisk in milk, then egg, until the well combined.
- Whisk the cream cheese on medium-low and slowly add the egg/milk mixture, until the batter is smooth.
- The recipe says to use plastic wrap to line your baking pan, so that's what I did, and it was kind of strange and melty around the edges when I took it out of the oven. I've read other takes on this recipe where parchment paper is used instead, and I will do that next time. Also, who has a 6x6 pan? I used a standard loaf pan and it was perfect.
- Pour the cheesecake into your lined dish and bake for 15 minutes, or until the edges are set but the center is still jiggly. Remember, this is supposed to be a spreadable liquid cheesecake, so you don’t want to over cook it, but if the edges aren’t set, continue to bake for up to 25 minutes, checking every 5 minutes. Do not allow it to brown at all. Mine took 15 minutes.
- Cool completely in the pan, then store for up to a week in the fridge.
Makes about 350g (2 ¾ cups)
1.5 cups or 240g flour
2 tablespoons or 18g sugar
2/4 teaspoon or 3g salt
8 tablespoons or 115g butter, melted
1.5 tablespoons or 20g water
- Preheat the oven to 350F/175C.
- Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl and mix well, then add the butter and water and continue to mix until small clusters form. This can be done in a mixer with a paddle attachment on low speed, but it isn’t necessary.
- Spread the clusters on lined baking sheet, and bake for 25 minutes, breaking them up occasionally. When ready, the crumbs will be golden and a little moist--they will dry as they cool. Mine seemed too dark after 25 minutes. They still tasted good, but I'd check them at 20 minutes next time.
- Cool the crumbs completely, then store in an airtight container for up to a week at room temperature or up to a month in the fridge/freezer.
Pie Crumb Frosting
Makes about 220 g (3/4 cup)--this is enough for one very generously frosted 6-inch cake (with plenty of leftovers--Christina Tosi recommends you snack on it with apples). Also, Christina's cakes typically have no frosting on the sides, just the tops, because she likes people to be able to see what's going on inside.
1/2 recipe Pie Crumb
1/2 cup or 110 g milk
1/2 teaspoon or 2 g kosher salt
3 tablespoons or 40 g butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup or 40 g confectioners’ sugar
- Blend the pie crumbs, milk, and salt in a blender or food processor on medium-high until smooth, scraping down the bowl a few times. The mixture was shockingly thick and smooth!
- Cream together the butter and confectioners’ sugar using a stand mixer on medium-high until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add the crumb puree. After a minute, increase the speed to medium-high and blend for another couple of minutes, until very the frosting is a very pale light brown.
- The frosting can be stored for up to a week in the fridge.
- Note: this frosting is like no other frosting I've ever tasted. Not too sweet, it's basically a spreadable pie crust. Bizarre and amazing.
Apple Pie Filling
Makes about 400 g (1 3/4 cups)
2 medium or 300 g Granny Smith apples
1 tablespoon or 14 g butter
2/3 cup tightly packed or 150 g light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon or 1 g cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon or 1 g kosher salt
- Half fill a medium bowl with cold water, then add the lemon juice.
- Wash and peel your apples, then quarter and core them. Cut each quarter into three sections, lenthwise. Then cut each of these skinny pieces into four small chunks. Store apple pieces in the lemon water.
- Drain the lemon water from the apples, then put them in a medium saucepan and add the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, gently, over medium heat and stir the apples occasionally. Once they have begun to release their juices, simmer for 3-5 minutes, until soft but not mushy. Cool completely before cake assembly.
- Store this filling for up to a week in an airtight container in the fridge, but do not freeze it.
- Note: I had some very juicy apples, I guess, and the sauce never quite thickened for me. I used all of the apples in the cake but not the liquid. I strained that off and drizzled a bit over the apples when assembling the cake. Maybe if this happens next time I will add some corn starch while cooking.
Apple cider soak
Makes about 60g (1/4 cup)
1/4 cup or 55g apple cider
1 teaspoon tightly packed or 5g light brown sugar
pinch or 0.25g cinnamon
- Whisk together all of the ingredients in a small bowl until the sugar has dissolved.
Invert the cooled cake onto a piece of parchment and cut out two x 6’’ circles of cake, using a 6’’ ring as a guide. Use the remaining scraps to form another layer of cake.
Lay a piece of parchment paper on a sheet pan or cake pan (I used an 8-inch round cake pan). Clean the 6" ring and place on top.
Line the 6” ring with a 20"x3" piece of acetate or another type of strong but flexible plastic sheeting. Place the cake scraps inside the ring and flatten them into an even layer. Brush half of the apple cider soak over this layer, then layer over half of the liquid cheesecake. Sprinkle over 1/3 of the apple pie crumbs, then half of the apple pie filling.
At this stage, you can use reinforce the walls with another layer of acetate, overlapping the bottom one slightly and tucking it between the first piece of acetate and the cake ring. This is delicate, awkward work.
Place another layer of brown butter cake over the apple pie filling (waaay easier said than done) and brush on the remaining apple cider soak. Cover with remaining cheesecake, then half of the remaining pie crumbs, and all of the leftover apple pie filling.
Top (awkwardly; that acetate is not easy to deal with) with the last sheet of cake, then add the pie crumb frosting. Decorate it as you will or smooth it flat. Use the remaining pie crumbs to make a border around the outside of the frosting.
Transfer the cake to the freezer and leave it there for at least 12 hours, or up to 2 weeks. 3-4 hours before you want to serve the cake, remove it from the freezer and slide off the metal cake ring. Peel off the acetate and stick the cake in the fridge, where it can stay for up to 5 days. Wrap it in plastic or cover it with a cake box if you are going to leave it for an extended period of time.