There is something incredibly satisfying about a layer cake — making it, eating it, taking photos of it. I know, because I’ve baked a lot of them.

But sometimes (or most of the time), a big cake is not in the offing. And yet sometimes (okay, a lot of the time), I still have a craving for cake.

Enter the cake truffle.

We can thank Christina Tosi, chef and owner of the ever-growing and ever-popular bakery Milk Bar, for helping cement cake truffles — you may also know them as cake balls — in the cultural zeitgeist. What started as a snack for Milk Bar staff to use the scraps left behind after round layers were cut from large sheet pan cakes is now a staple on the menu at its shops in Washington, New York City, Toronto and Las Vegas.

Milk Bar now sells so many cake truffles that cake is baked specifically for it. Its truffles come in flavors such as birthday cake and chocolate malt cake. A strawberry-lemon cake truffle will be on the menu at its third District shop, which opens Saturday in Logan Circle. I’ve made and tested this delightful recipe, which you can find here.

Cake truffles, however, are also an ideal treat for when you don’t want to follow a recipe at all, when you have ingredients you want to use up, and when you just want to have a good time.

“For me, the spirit of the cake truffle is all about your imagination,” Tosi says.

Before you let your imagination run wild, it’s worth understanding the major components of the cake truffle: the cake, a binder, a chocolate shell and an outer coating of crumbs.

The cake

Tosi says she prefers using fresh cake when possible, but truffles allow you to breathe new life into slightly stale cake or cake you have under- or overbaked. Homemade is great, of course. No one will judge you, or even notice, if you use cake made from a mix or cake you bought at the store. Vanilla (yellow) cake is the most neutral base for customizing flavors with your binder and coating. Citrus-flavored cakes are versatile, too. Whatever you choose, break the cake up into relatively small, even pieces and place them in a large bowl. Set aside a little cake you can use for adjusting the consistency later if you need it.


The binder

This is what will hold the cake truffles together. Options include milk, flavored milk (add extracts or mix with nut butters), beer, liquor, jams, jellies or fruit purées. Work the cake and binder together with your hands, adding a little at a time. When the mixture is ready, you will almost be able to knead it into one big mass, Tosi says. If about a tablespoon of the batter rolled into a ball crumbles, you need more binder. If it’s a little squishy but holds its shape, you’re golden.


Scooping

Form the cake mixture into 1-tablespoon portions with a disher, small ice cream scoop or your hands. Roll them into smoother balls. “You’re not looking for perfection, you’re looking for something with round edges,” Tosi says of the shape. “They’re meant to be imperfect.” If you are working in stages, this is a good stopping point to pop the truffles in the refrigerator for a few days or the freezer for up to a few months.

The coating

Tosi likes white chocolate for its fairly neutral flavor, but milk or dark chocolate work well with a chocolate cake. Chips or bar chocolate are fine. Melt the chocolate in the microwave in 30-second bursts, or in a double boiler, with a heatproof bowl set over a pot of simmering water. (Don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl.) Adding a neutral oil such as canola, grape seed or vegetable once the chocolate melts helps make the chocolate more fluid and set the coating. Olive oil or flavored oils can work in the right ingredient combinations. Tosi’s strawberry-lemon cake truffles called for a ratio of 12 ounces chocolate to 2 tablespoons oil. Keep the chocolate warm and fluid, which can be done in a slow-cooker or by just leaving the bowl set over the warm water.

The goal is to achieve a thin coating of chocolate. “You don’t want your cake truffle to taste like white chocolate,” she says. Warm chocolate contributes to a thin layer of chocolate, but so does coating the truffles with your hands. (I tried dipping the truffles directly in the chocolate, which proved too thick and resulted in a clumpy crumb layer once it came time to dip.) Gloves are especially nice here. Put a tablespoon or two of the melted chocolate in your hands and then roll the ball around between them. Do a few in a row and drop them into your crumbs.

This is where having friends is not only fun but also efficient, because you can set up a chocolate and crumb assembly line.


The crumbs

The crumbs add crunch and flavor, whether it be sweet or salty. This is your chance to make a first impression on appearance, which is one reason freeze-dried fruit is a great choice. Whatever you choose, keep the texture fairly fine. A food processor is ideal, but there’s still a lot you can do with a zip-top bag and a rolling pin or wine bottle. Think about raiding the pantry for your crumbs. Pretzels, cereal, graham crackers, potato chips and nuts are just a few possibilities.

Put your coating in a bowl large enough to hold a few truffles at a time, but not so large that the crumbs are too shallow. Ideally, Tosi says, you’re just scooping the crumbs over and around the truffles to get a thin, even layer that adheres to the chocolate without disturbing it. Pop the coated truffles in the refrigerator to set for a few minutes. At this point, you can serve or store them. Tosi suggests trying them at three temperatures: fresh out of the fridge while cold, at room temperature and frozen. “It’s just a totally different sensory experience,” she says.

Don’t forget to have fun

Tosi says kids especially enjoy making these, although it can be a great group activity for parties of any age. Fun also means letting yourself be free to try whatever flavor and ingredient combinations you want. “Get creative with what’s in your pantry,” Tosi says.

Need some inspiration? Here are a few ideas to get you going.

  • chocolate cake + kirsch + dark chocolate + freeze-dried cherries
  • chocolate cake + peanut butter thinned with milk + dark chocolate + ground peanut butter cereal (e.g. Panda Puffs)
  • vanilla cake + lemon juice + white chocolate + pistachios
  • vanilla cake + caramel sauce + white chocolate + graham crackers
  • chocolate cake + beer + milk chocolate + pretzels

If you want even more guidance, Milk Bar offers classes that include cake truffles in New York City and the District, including the new shop at 1525 15th St. NW.

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