Before we had even stepped off the plane at JFK last year, I knew exactly where I wanted to have my first ice cream in New York. Weeks before, Netflix released the Christina Tosi episode of Chef’s Table, documenting her compost cookie making, crack pie baking rise to fame and in the process, becoming one of the most popular bakers in the city. Her cereal milk ice cream, descended from a cornflake panna cotta, sounded so delicious I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. On our first day we wandered the streets near Central Park searching for a Milk Bar and that delicious soft serve. Packed with the brightest coloured sprinkles I had ever seen, I enjoyed every scoop as we wandered round the park.
I’ve always been a fan of Tosi’s style of baking that has made her Milk Bars so famous. Her unique take on cookies, stuffing them full of pretzels and marshmallows, to special soft serve flavours that change regularly are inspiring to me. But I think it was her birthday cakes that truly drew me in, naked sides, fluffy frosting, textures and toppings that result in a work of art. Tosi bakes her cakes in flat sheets, cutting out cake circles and decorating inside acetate for the naked cake look that became popular long after she pioneered it.
I desperately wanted to take part in a Milk Bar baking class while we were in New York last year, but the thought of trying to eat a full sized cake between two of us in a tiny hotel room seemed a bit much, so I settled for making one at home instead. Thankfully during my last trip to the States, I stocked up on proper funfetti sprinkles to make the sponge pop with flecks of colour through each slice. As a happy coincidence, the Betty Crocker sprinkles I chose were actually vegan and with a friend to visit during the holidays, I spent a happy Wednesday adapting a few recipes to make a vegan version of Milk Bar’s most famous cake.
Vegan cakes are notoriously tricky to handle as they are rather fragile, so take care when handling each one. I decided to bake each layer in round pans as it’s what I’m more familiar with, but give Tosi’s method a go if you wish. The cake soak makes all the difference for keeping the sponge moist but does add to its fragility, so make sure to refrigerate the cake until ready to serve.
Points of note: While my main inspiration was Christina Tosi’s original recipe, I took some inspiration from Wallflower Kitchen for the basic sponge and frosting recipes and Flour Covered Apron for assembly tips.
5 tbsp brightly coloured sprinkles, plus extra to decorate
-For the cake crumbs
90g caster sugar
1 + ½ tbsp soft light brown sugar
½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp brightly coloured sprinkles
180g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla paste
60ml + 2 tbsp sunflower oil
-For the cake soak
50ml almond milk
½ tsp vanilla paste
-For the frosting
300g vegan butter
2 tsp vanilla paste
450g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 200oc/180oc fan and grease and line three 18cm round tins.
In a large bowl or stand mixer, add the lemon juice to the almond milk and leave to stand for a few minutes to thicken. Add the sugar, oil and vanilla and whisk together until well incorporated.
Sift together the flour, cornstarch and bicarbonate of soda then add a little at a time to the wet mix, mixing well before adding more. One combined to a pourable batter, add the sprinkles then divide between the prepared cake tins. Sprinkle over a little extra sprinkles on top for extra colour.
Bake the cakes for 25 to 30 minutes until golden brown and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Once baked, leave the cakes to cool in their tins for 10 minutes then carefully remove and cool completely on a wire rack. The cakes are very fragile so be quite careful.
For the cake crumbs, keep the oven at 200oc/180oc fan and mix together the dry ingredients in a bowl using a fork. Add the vanilla and oil and whisk together, until the mix clumps together. Pour onto a tray lined with baking parchment, taking care that there are some larger cake crumbs and some smaller ones before baking for 20 minutes, turning halfway through. Once golden, remove from the oven and leave to cool completely.
To prepare the cake soak, whisk together the almond milk and vanilla paste then set to one side.
For the frosting, place the vegan butter and vanilla into a large bowl or a stand mixer and beat for around 5 minutes until the butter is smooth and light in colour. Add half the icing sugar and beat again until pale and fluffy. Repeat with the remaining icing sugar until you have a thick buttercream frosting. Place into a large piping bag and snip off the end.
To assemble, dollop a little buttercream on a board or serving plate then place the first cake on top to secure it. Brush over some of the cake soak over the top of the cake then pipe a thick circle around the edge of the cake. Fill the circle with buttercream then smooth. Sprinkle over a handful of the cake crumbs then carefully place the second cake on top and repeat. Place the third cake on top and again pipe a circle around the edge then fill with buttercream.
To give the cake its signature ‘naked’ look, pipe buttercream into any holes that emerge between the cake layers. Don't worry if it looks messy, some of the frosting will be scraped away. Using a tall cake scraper held perpendicular to the cake, smooth the edges as you turn the cake away from you, stopping to scrape off any excess buttercream. Once the cake looks more uniform in shape, top the cake with any extra buttercream the decorate with the remaining cake crumbs and extra sprinkles. Keep the cake refrigerated until you’re ready to serve.
I am not ashamed to say that I enjoy Valentine’s Day. It is probably the only holiday that has people furiously writing think pieces on the consumerism of it all whilst others sip sparkling pink champagne and watch romantic comedies. There are those swept up in bunches of blushing pink tulips in brown paper, cards that suggest the sender does not take the day too seriously or those for whom the holiday is a sad reminder of things that have been or will not be. I’m a romantic at heart, and buried beneath stands of cards in degrees of reds and pinks, I really believe people find a way via paper to express their love, thankfulness and delight towards another. Like an older couple wandering down the street holding each other’s weather-worn, weary hands, the holiday just tugs on my heart eye emoji strings. I hope that come February 14, people across the globe will pause to thank the person who helps them be the best version of themselves.
First Valentine’s are a scary prospect. There is the fear that you can go over the top or understated and not match your other half’s plans. Thankfully last year, C and I managed to sync up perfectly with gifts so personal to us it made for the most magical day. I had made an edible horses heart from a red velvet cupcake, cream cheese frosting and a dark berry coulis in homage to our mutual love of Game of Thrones (you can see it here). While C had pulled out all the stops to cook for me which was a really wonderful, touching gift. When we first started dating, I taught him basic meals like meatballs, pasta sauces, burgers and his favourite, Tuscan fries with herby steak strips. To regift me his knowledge, he made me these burgers, soft brioche buns with strong cheddar, sharp cranberry and peppery rocket with some parsnip fries. It was so thoughtful, I wanted to return the favour this year by making my own brioche for the first time and recreating those burgers from our first February 14 together.
Bizarrely, brioche buns are hard to come by in Aberdeen, so making my own was almost a necessity, albeit one I had been putting off on account of my fear of enriched dough. Much like making doughnuts, the buttery mix of eggs and yeast is soft to the point of pourable, a decidedly difficult dough to master. I cheated a little and made it in my stand mixer to save my countertops and when I make it again, I would probably knock down the dough and re-knead in the mixer again, adding enough flour to a sticky, but mallable consistency. Adding water to the bottom of the oven as it cooks creates a cloud of steam which ensures the buns are soft and tearable once baked. Then it’s simply a case of griddling some beef burgers and going wild with toppings to create what I think is the ultimate Valentine’s gift. Pouring your heart into a tray of brioche, especially when it is this tricky to work with, to me seems like the perfect way to show you care. Plus everyone knows the way to anyone’s heart is through their stomach.
Brioche Burger Buns with Cranberry Rocket Cheeseburgers
For the brioche buns
450g strong white flour (plus extra)
65g unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp milk, warmed
250ml warm water
2 tsp dried yeast (not fast action yeast)
2 eggs, plus 1 for egg wash
Pinch of sea salt
For the burgers
1 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
500g beef mince
1 sprig rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Rocket leaves, washed and patted dry
To make the brioche buns, rub the flour and butter together in a stand mixer bowl or the largest bowl you have to resemble light breadcrumbs. Set aside and together whisk the caster sugar, warm milk, warm water and dried yeast together in a jug. Make sure both the milk and water are warmed and not hot as this will kill the yeast. Leave to stand for five minutes until frothy then pour into the bowl with the two eggs and the salt. With the dough hook attached, turn on the mixer. If you don't have a mixer you could use a handheld electric whisk using the same attachment or just your hands. This dough is very wet so it will be messy, which is why i went for the easiest opinion of the stand mixer. Knead by hand or turn on the mixer to medium high for ten to fifteen minutes, until the dough is soft and bouncy when pulled. Once ready to prove, oil a clean bowl and a piece of clingfilm and place the dough in the bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave to double in size for one to three hours in a warm place.
Once the dough has proved, remove the clingfilm and punch down the dough in one motion to knock out the air. Tip onto a well floured surface and keep kneading until it comes together into a workable dough. It may take a bit of extra flour at this stage and you can always do this in a bowl to save your worktops - it gets fairly messy. Once the dough is soft but malleable, line two baking trays with baking parchment and oil your hands with olive oil. Take chunks of dough and roll in your hands tucking the ends underneath into rounded balls then place on the trays. You should be able to make around 9 to 12 buns depending on how large you roll them. Once the dough has been used up, cover the trays in cling film and leave to double in size for around another hour in a warm place.
Preheat the oven to 200oc/180oc fan and place a deep tray on the bottom rack of the oven. Uncover the buns and beat the remaining egg. Brush over the egg wash over each bun then place the trays in the oven. Quickly pour water in the tray in the bottom of the oven to create steam and shut the oven door - this will ensure the rolls stay soft. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until golden then remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire rack. Rolls will keep in an airtight container for a further day, so freeze any leftovers in freezer bags.
To make the cheeseburgers, heat the tablespoon of olive oil in a saucepan placed over a medium heat and add the onions, cooking for 10 minutes until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one minute then remove from the heat to cool. Once cool, spoon the onion and garlic mix into a bowl and add the mince, rosemary and some salt and pepper. Mix together with your hands then roll into four equal balls, flattening slightly. Heat a griddle or frying pan over a medium heat, adding some cooking spray before placing the burgers in the pan. Cook for five minutes each side until charred on the outside and cooked through. If your oven is still warm from the brioche buns, layer the sliced cheese over each burger and place in the oven to melt it. Slice a brioche bun lengthways and place one burger on the bottom, topping with cranberry sauce, rocket and the top of the bun. Serve with some sweet potato or regular fries and a glass of red or a whisky cocktail.