I was in a cake mood this weekend so I decide to make my version of Christina Tosi's Milk Bar Birthday Cake! My excuse it that it’s Kyle's birthday soon, but do you really need an excuse to make cake?? This three layer funfetti cake is heavily influenced by her recipe but does have some key differences.
I first heard of Christina Tosi and Milk Bar when I watched her episode of Chef's Table on Netflix (amazing show, if you haven't watched it yet, do you even cook??) and then I found out she has not one, but two locations in DC (I was still new to the city so that's my excuse). Naturally, I immediately went to check it out and tried both the crack pie and the birthday cake. Everything is amazing of course, but I can only eat just a few bites because it's just a bit too sweet for me. So I wanted to make an easy, at-home version of her famous birthday cake that's a little less sweet so that I can eat even more of it! You can find her original recipe here and my version below!
I have nothing but respect and admiration for Christina but I do majorly disagree with her on a couple key points. Mainly her use of certain ingredients to try to achieve that "tub frosting/boxed cake" taste, which frankly I am just not a fan of. In her recipe she emphasizes using commercial vanilla "flavor" in this recipe as opposed to real vanilla extract because of the "fake vanilla" taste but I am 100% team real vanilla. I also use a lot less sugar in my frosting because overly sweet frosting is one of my big pet peeves.
In addition, I find stamping out the layers and wrapping the cake in acetate to build it to be a little more trouble that it's worth. I don't have those tools (and my kitchen has basically any tool you can dream of), so I don't think most home bakers have them either. I just use three 6x2 inch layer cake pans and I highly recommend Fat Daddio's* if you're looking to buy some. With just a tiny bit of pan spray (I also recommend Baker's Joy*) the cakes just slide right out and never stick!
Day One: Cake Layers and Crumbs
Neither of these steps take a ton of time but they do need to cool fully to room temperature, so I usually just do them both the evening before I want to decorate my cake.
how do you get perfect cake layers??
There are a few tricks that will help you get perfect, even layers!
First, you need good nonstick cake pans and pan spray. I use three 6×2 inch Fat Daddio’s* layer cake pans and I love them!! It's super important to get actual layer cake pans because the sides are perfectly straight! It's a little annoying because this means you can't stack them, but your layers will have perfect sides! With just a tiny bit of pan spray, the cakes just slide right out and never stick! For pan spray, I love both Everbake Pan Spray and Baker's Joy*!
Next, is trimming your cake. This can be a little tricky, but it's super easy once you do it a couple times. Let the cakes cool completely to room temperature, then take a large bread knife and very carefully slice off the very top of the cake so that you have a perfectly even layer. I like using a big bread knife because it's sharp, serrated, and long enough to go through the entire layer at one time.
And of course freezing the layers! So after you've let the cake layers cool completely and trimmed them. Wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap in place in the freezer overnight. Don't take them out until right before you start assembling the cake! This allows the frosting to slide on smoothly and prevents any crumbs from getting in the frosting.
Birthday Cake Crumbs
Christina is a genius for these cake crumbs! They add some crunch between the layers of moist cake and creamy frosting and the texture/flavor combination is just divine!
- While the cake is baking, mix up the cake crumbs in the same bowl (I don't even bother wiping it out). Combine all of then ingredients and mix together until it begins to form small clusters.
- Spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake at 300 degrees for about 15 minutes.
- Let cool completely to room temperature. Then store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.
day two: frosting and assembly
This is the BEST and probably most underrated part of this recipe.
You literally just mix together some milk and vanilla and brush it over the cake layers before frosting.
It keeps the cake SO MOIST and adds a little extra hit of vanilla flavor. It might seem like an unnecessary extra step but I promise it’s so worth the extra 5 seconds.
After you make the vanilla cream cheese frosting, remove the frozen cake layers from the fridge.
Mix together the milk soak and lightly brush ⅓ of the milk onto the bottom layer of your cake. Spoon about ⅓ of the frosting in a nice even layer over the cake. Sprinkle on about ⅓ of the cake crumbs evenly over the frosting and then top with your second cake layer and repeat. Add the third layer and then smooth a very light coating of frosting around the top and edges of the cake.
Then put the assembled cake back in the freezer for about 30 minutes to an hour. This is called the crumb coat. It helps trap any crumbs in that thin layer of frosting so that your final layer of frosting is perfectly smooth. The crumb coat isn't always necessary when you're working with already frozen cake layers or if you want to do a semi-naked cake like the one pictured!
- I absolutely love my rotating cake stand*! I hesitated buying one for a long time, but it really does make getting nice, even frosting so much easier!
- My must have tools for frosting cakes are an offset spatula* and an icing smoother*. Both are super helpful in achieving that perfect, smooth outside frosting.
- I use a 6 inch cake board* to transfer my cakes from the turning caking stand, to the stand I like to photograph with.
More Cake & Cupcake Recipes
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Birthday Cake Crumbs
Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
- 8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
- ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2-3 teaspoons milk, as needed for desired consistency
- ¼ cup milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Since both the cake layers and cake crumbs need to cool completely, I recommend making them the day before you want to make the cake.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F and lightly spray three 6 inch layer cake pans with pan spray.
- Whisk the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the melted butter, sugar, brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla together until combined.
- Stir in about half of the flour mixture. Then stir in the buttermilk and the rest of the flour mixture and mix until fully combined. The batter will be thin. Gently fold in the rainbow sprinkles.
- Pour ⅓ of the batter into each cake pan (they will only be about half full).
- Bake at 350°F for 20-30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
- Place a cooling rack on top of each cake pan and invert. The pan should slide cleanly away.
- Let the cakes cool completely to room temperature before trimming.
- Once the cakes are fully cooled. Using a sharp bread knife, trim the cakes until the layers are even. Wrap each layer tightly in plastic wrap and place in the freezer overnight.
- Combine all of then ingredients and mix together until it begins to form small clusters.Spread evenly on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Bake at 300°F for about 15 minutes.
- Let cool completely before assembling the cake. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.
Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
- Cream together the softened cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add in the vanilla extract and salt.
- Add in the powdered sugar ¼ cup at a time until fully combined.
- Beat the frosting on high for 4-5 minutes until lightly and fluffy.
- Mix together the milk soak and lightly brush ⅓ of the milk onto the bottom layer of your cake.
- Spoon about ⅓ of the frosting in a nice even layer over the cake. Sprinkle on about ⅓ of the cake crumbs evenly over the frosting and then top with your second cake layer and repeat.
- Add the third layer and then smooth a very light coating of frosting around the top and edges of the cake.
- Then put the assembled cake back in the freezer for about 30 minutes to an hour. This is called the crumb coat. It helps trap any crumbs in that thin layer of frosting so that your final layer of frosting is perfectly smooth. The crumb coat isn't always necessary when you're working with already frozen cake layers or if you want to do a semi-naked cake like the one pictured!
- Sprinkle the remaining cake crumbs and some extra rainbow sprinkles on the very top!
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