Whose cake will reign supreme?
Funfetti cake calls to mind a simpler time. When I didn’t have to pay rent or clean my own bathtub. When my biggest concern was that math homework was sort of hard. When birthday parties were not complex arrangements of cover charges and subway rides, but simply pizza and cake, maybe a bowling alley. The desire to go back to those childhood moments was the fuel for this recipe throwdown: Funfetti.
The contenders: Birthday Layer Cake from Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi and Funfetti Cake from Molly Yeh’s award-winning blog My Name Is Yeh (there’s also a slightly tweaked version in her cookbook Molly on the Range).
The challenge: Produce a cake that tastes like being at a 10th birthday party surrounded by your best buds.
Both were three-layer cakes achieved by different methods. Christina’s cake is, like most Milk Bar cakes, a sheet cake cut into two circles (the last layer involves pressing together scraps, but more on that later) and assembled in a cake ring lined with acetate. Molly’s is three cake layers.
The Milk Bar baking method is rooted in identifying what exactly makes something taste good and replicating it by any means necessary, even if that means recommending you acquire not-so-common home baking ingredients like clear vanilla extract, glucose, and citric acid. Like Christina writes in the recipe headnote, “turns out that looking on the side of the cake mix box at the monster ingredient list was really helpful in getting the ‘secret’ stuff we couldn’t figure out by taste.” Oh, and you’ll need a cake ring and acetate paper and a quarter sheet pan. Once you get all those things, however, the recipe is fairly straightforward. You cream butter, shortening, and granulated and brown sugar in a stand mixer. Add eggs, buttermilk, oil, vanilla. Mix in cake flour, baking powder, salt, rainbow sprinkles. The mixture is spread onto a sheet pan, covered with another spoonful of sprinkles, and baked at 350ºF for 30 minutes. But that’s just the beginning.
Once the sheet cake is cooled, you must stamp out two layers with a 6-inch cake ring. Or, in my case, if you couldn’t find a cake ring on the island of Manhattan and the one you ordered got lost in the mail, a 6-inch springform pan. You line the pan with 1 layer of acetate and use the remaining cake scraps (the ones you haven’t already eaten—guys, even that bite was really good) to press together the bottom cake layer. This layer is then brushed with a soak—a mixture of milk and vanilla extract—to help glue the pieces together. Next comes frosting, which is butter, shortening, cream cheese, glucose, corn syrup, vanilla extract, powdered sugar, salt, baking powder, and citric acid whipped into submission. Christina says to spread a ⅕th of the frosting over cake layer one. And one more thing: you need cake crumbs, a mixture of cake flour, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, rainbow sprinkles, oil, and clear vanilla extract. The mixture is literally formed into crumbs and baked until just firm. Sprinkle a layer of them over the frosting. Add another layer of frosting, then tuck in a second sheet of acetate. Drop on one of the cake rounds you cut earlier. Another layer of frosting, then cake crumbs, more frosting, then the final cake round, the remaining frosting, more cake crumbs (arrange this layer sort of artfully if desired.) Christina then says the cake should be wrapped up and placed in the freezer for at least 12 hours.
Molly’s cake was more traditional in preparation, but not in ingredients. Whisk together flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder. Cream butter and granulated sugar in a stand mixer, then drop in 4 egg whites. Next, imitation vanilla and almond extract, and oil. The dry ingredients go into the mixer with whole milk, then sprinkles are incorporated. The mixture is poured into three 8-inch cake pans. They bake at 350ºF for 25 minutes.
When the cakes are cool, Molly says to frost them (her frosting is a mixture of butter, powdered sugar, salt, imitation vanilla, almond extract, and whole milk) “as desired.” Considering the amount of frosting the recipe made, the frosting method I desired was essentially a very thin crumb coat, or what the cool kids call a naked cake. Fun fact: Many people actually credit Christina Tosi for popularizing the naked cake—hers have barely any frosting on the cake layers.
To make the cake look purposefully decorated and not like I’d run out of frosting, I frosted the top more thickly and covered the outer perimeter with a layer of sprinkles.
After 12 hours, I removed the ring from Christina’s cake, added a few more cake crumbs, and held my breath as I removed the acetate. It stayed up! The bottom layer did not crumble!! It was leaning to one side slightly but that’s OK! Once I sliced into the cake the bottom layer crumbled a bit, which I’ll owe to the fact that I don’t think I used as much soak as I was supposed to.
After a few bites, it was clear: This cake was really awesome. Tender and not super-sweet. The frosting was tangy and pretty salty, which balanced the sweetness of the cake and crumbs perfectly. The crumbs, which were not great on their own, hydrated a bit and added a delightful crumbly crunch. It also looked really cute. The sum of these parts was a cake I couldn’t stop going back to for another forkful. Was it a lot of work for a cake? Absolutely. Would I make another one? Honestly, yes. Because it was that good. But I’d also venture a guess that if I simply frosted the sheet cake I wouldn’t get any complaints.
Molly’s cake sliced beautifully, and the distribution of sprinkles was perfectly even. It looked exactly like the cake on a box of Funfetti. This was another great cake. Again, tender and not too sweet. The frosting mostly tasted like butter, which certainly wasn’t a bad thing. As a lover of almond-flavored treats, I didn’t mind the addition of almond extract here, but I thought it overpowered the vanilla-ness of the cake as opposed to enhancing the flavor. If I made the cake again, I’d skip it.
This was a close race for sure, but the winner was clear.
Christina Tosi’s Birthday Layer Cake wins!