I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I handed over my Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook to my friend Rob and told him to pick out any cake he wanted me to make for his birthday. It was no surprise to me that he selected a banana layer cake. Just looking at the photos of this cake are enough to make you drool. However, I was quite surprised at how intricate this cake was when I started reading about it.
The intro starts out “this banana cake is a doozy to make,” and goes on to say the only reason they still make it at Milk Bar is because it’s so popular (probably because it’s Oprah’s favorite cake). Then I started to read the recipe…
Milk Bar doesn’t just make cake with frosting. They make ridiculously tall layer cakes with piles of crunches, ganaches, and various fillings. This one consisted of banana cake, chocolate hazelnut ganache, hazelnut crunch, banana cream, and hazelnut frosting. Each one of these items had its own time-consuming and ingredient-heavy recipe. And most of those auxiliary recipes have recipes of their own within them! For example, to make hazelnut crunch, you first need to make hazelnut brittle. I knew this cake would be a nightmare, but I like a good challenge. So I set out to make my grocery list.
Have you ever heard of Feuilletine? No? Neither had I. Neither had any of the four stores I visited trying to find the ingredients for this cake. According to the book, it’s basically little bits of toasted crepes that don’t get soggy. Elsewhere on the internet, I read it was more like wafers. I found the stuff on Amazon, but with a $50 price tag, I decided to make my own. I found Butter Crisp Wafer cookies, which resembled an ice cream cone, and threw them in the food processor with some Frosted Flakes. Tasted good enough to me… though I have no idea what real Feulletine tastes like, so I can’t really compare.
The next ingredient challenge was hazelnut paste. The frosting, ganache, and hazelnut crunch all require hazelnut paste, which I didn’t think would be difficult to find. I’ve worked with almond paste before, which you can find at any grocery store. Hazelnut paste is a different story. Four stores and several phone calls yielded me with no results, so I turned to the internet. To buy this seemingly simple ingredient will run you about $150 on Amazon!!!! For hazelnut paste?! I found a recipe to make it myself, which involved roasted hazelnuts, egg whites, confectioners sugar, and Frangelico. It was easy to make, but even using my amazing KitchenAid food processor, I wasn’t able to get the paste as smooth as I would’ve liked.
After hours of shopping, visiting specialty stores, consulting the internet, and spending more money than I care to admit on ingredients, I was finally ready to start making this cake. Making it required a lot of steps and a lot of time, but the book was great about going into detailed instructions, and also explaining the science behind what you were doing. Some techniques involved included blooming gelatin and making a dry caramel.
With all the layers ready to go, it was time to assemble this monster. Another weird thing Milk Bar does is assemble its cakes in a cake ring, lined with acetate sheets to hold the layers up. The creation is then frozen to let it set, and then you pull the acetate sheet off and leave the sides of the cake bare. Acetate sheets are basically the transparency sheets you use on a projector. I didn’t feel like making another trip out to track those down, so I just used plastic binder dividers for this. Assembling it was a little difficult… the middle layer of cake broke apart while I was trying to place it, but it was easily glued together with a little ganache. One thing I found annoying is that you barely use most of the sub-recipes you’ve spent hours making. You only use half a recipe of banana cream, half a recipe of hazelnut crunch, a quarter of the fudge sauce, half the brittle. So I ended up spending a ton of money for stuff I only needed a couple tablespoons of and now have leftover containers of cake ingredients in my fridge, which will most likely go in the trash.
I was super happy with the finished product. Looked almost exactly like the pictures in the book. Jordan and Rob were raving about it, but they could have just been overly complimentary because they both knew how much time and effort went into this project. I served the cake with some homemade coconut ice cream, and the two flavors worked really well together. I did actually make the banana cake recipe (just the cake part) for another birthday cake this past weekend, and the cake itself is amazing — very moist and light, with an intense banana flavor. I might try making some cookies or pies from the Milk Bar cookbook next, but I will be sure to read the recipe thoroughly before I commit to making anything.
You can find the recipes for this in Christina Tosi’s book, which I do recommend despite how ridiculous making this cake was. I don’t think this book is for the average home baker, though, so be warned.