Thanks to Momofuku Milk Bar pastry chef Christina Tosi, Lemon Berry Crunch Cake is a majestic new addition to my dessert lineup.
It consists of soaked brown-butter cake layered with lemon curd, berry crunch and raspberry frosting, and it is what chefs refer to as an “adaptation,” which is often just a polite word for stealing. Smart ones know a good thing when they see it, and make it their own by lifting the parts they can’t improve upon and then adding their own creations — along with elements obtained elsewhere.
A lot of cooks leaf through cookbooks as though they were travel guides depicting places to be fantasized about but never visited. Their initial desire to explore fades in the face of perceived obstacles, such as the inconvenience of having to find ingredients or equipment; the insecurity of unfamiliar techniques; the unwillingness to find the time.
I’m as prone as anyone else to sticking with what I know. I admired the artful pictures in “Under Pressure” (2008), Thomas Keller’s tome about sous-vide cookery, and “Alinea” (2008), Grant Achatz’s exploration of molecular gastronomy, but I wasn’t willing to suspend my disbelief enough to run out and buy meat glue or a nitrogen tank.
Tosi’s cookbook,“Momofuku Milk Bar” (2011), however, got me into the kitchen. I had seen and sampled her work in New York and realized that she had a fresh approach to baking that was whimsical yet sophisticated. Her trademark is to turn familiar American foods, especially those evoking childhood memories, into adult desserts. Cereal milk becomes ice cream and crunches made from cornflakes; Ritz crackers or pretzels wind up in cookies, pies and cakes.
And, oh, those cakes. Chocolate chip cake layered with passion fruit curd, chocolate crunchies and coffee frosting; a signature birthday cake riddled with rainbow sprinkles; chocolate cake soaked with Ovaltine and filled with malted fudge sauce and malt crumb, then topped with charred marshmallows.
I resolved to make one.
Tosi’s cakes are triple-layered. She bakes the batter in a quarter-sheet pan, uses a six-inch metal cake ring to cut out rounds that will become cake layers, then lines the ring with a thin, clear acetate collar. She builds the cake with multiple, alternating components. To set it, the cake gets frozen; for serving, it’s defrosted in the refrigerator and removed from its cake ring and acetate collar.
Tosi, a Springfield native, explained via a phone interview that her childhood memories play a role in how she came to put cakes together the way she does.
“Remember Fudgy the Whale from Carvel? With that layer of fudge sauce and chocolate crumbs? I always loved that differentiation of textures when I was a kid,” she said. “I layer with a lot of different things and tie in all the flavors. The colors and textures give cakes a visual pop. Why cover all that up with a crumb coat?”
Plus, she adds without shame, she was never very good at frosting cakes, anyway.
Admittedly, I was put off by a quick glance at “Milk” recipes. In particular, the cakes seemed like a lot of bother. I kept seeing things listed that I didn’t have: acetate sheets, that sheet pan (measuring 10 by 13 inches), the cake ring, glucose (similar to corn syrup), feuilletine (French crepe cookie crunch), clear vanilla extract, grapeseed oil (I had that, but I use it so rarely that it had gone rancid). At least I had powdered milk and, believe it or not, freeze-dried raspberries.
Once I focused in, though, the recipes were so intriguing that I did something I rarely do: I devoured the cookbook, cover to cover.
“Read our ridiculous mantras, understand the need for certain ingredients and kitchenware — and you will become one of us,” Tosi wrote.
Done and done.
I found myself at Sur la Table buying a good pan (about $20) and ring (about $6), then gathered the necessary ingredients at the grocery store to make Tosi’s apple pie layer cake. The picture of it in the book displayed the components: apple cider-soaked layers of yellow cake speckled with brown butter; fillings of barely set cheesecake batter, pie crust streusel and cooked apples; and a simple confectioners’ sugar-and-butter frosting blended with salty, pulverized pie crust.
The idea of cutting layers with a ring from one even sheet of cake instead of dealing with separately baked, usually unevenly cooked layers is smart. Even smarter is that Tosi uses scraps to form the bottom layer. The six-inch cake looks small, but it feeds eight because the cake is so vertical. You’re not left with half a cake you have no business eating but can’t bring yourself to throw out or foist upon departing guests. Not having to frost the cake’s sides is a bonus.
Preparing the cake in one chunk of time makes it seem like it’s more work than it really is. The first lesson I learned: Spread out making the components over a few days. Assembling the cake takes at most 30 minutes.
Lesson No. 2: Rely on your ingenuity and trust your instincts. I used plastic transparencies I had on hand and taped them together rather than tracking down acetate sheets (available at craft and office supply stores). The recipe for the cake itself called for beating separated-looking batter until it came back together, but my gut told me that once I added the dry ingredients, it would be fine. It worked for me. The batter was silken and baked into a lovely crumb, as promised.
Tosi says that how dark you get your brown butter can affect the texture of the batter and how it emulsifies.
A crucial tip: Don’t trust printed baking times. Subtract generously and check constantly when you first use a recipe. Your oven might not be calibrated correctly (always keep a thermometer inside to know for sure), and the recipe could be off. Because the pan I bought was slightly larger than what Tosi called for, my baking time was several minutes shorter.
The effort was so successful, I formulated a cake for a Memorial Day gathering to suit the season’s latest fruit. I planned to layer Tosi’s brown-butter cake and berry crumb (a streusel coated with white chocolate and pulverized freeze-dried berry powders) and cookbook author Molly O’Neill’s lemon curd. (The last recipe comes from a magazine page now covered with 14 years of splatter, which I altered only to increase the amount of lemon zest used.)
In an attempt to reduce the recipe’s steps, I decided not to brush/soak the cake layers with syrup. But I changed my mind when the layers in a slice of my first attempt fell away from the filling too easily.
Adaptation is a cook’s key to success in more ways than one. When the number of guests grew from eight to 15, I deconstructed the cake. My guests could then put together their own refreshing, hot-weather dessert from squares of brown-butter cake, homemade strawberry ice cream, lemon curd, berry crunch, fresh berries and chunks of watermelon on the side. (See sidebar online for tips on compote possibilities.)
Three weeks later, strawberry season was over, but blueberries were in. I invited a different set of guests and had them taste-test two versions: one cake made with lemon curd, the other with blueberry compote. The former won the day, as well as rapturous praise. I showed off a little with excess, offering a completely superfluous side of yet another adapted recipe: cake-scrap cherry ice cream.
In a month’s time, look for Melba cake at my house, made perhaps with Tosi’s brown-butter cake and liquid cheesecake, a schnapps soak, my own peach compote and raspberry frosting and my stepmother’s peach ice cream.
One of those desserts that are, in Tosi’s words, “larger than the sum of its parts.”
Hagedorn’s The Process column appears monthly. He’ll join today’s Free Range chat: live.washingtonpost.com.