Roxane Gay is mastering the art of cake decorating. “When the pandemic started, I decided to begin teaching myself,” the writer and critic explained recently. So far, she has nailed base coats, florets and borders. According to Gay, there is still room for improvement. “I cannot make a frosting rose to save my life and I have no artistic ability, so pretty much all my decorated cakes look the same,” she said. “But it’s fine because they taste great.”
As for the cakes themselves, Gay has been studiously taste-testing different recipes over the past two years. She’s even developed a few of her own, including those for a “coffee/cake” (brown sugar layer cake, mocha buttercream filling, vanilla buttercream frosting) as well as a “blueberry pancakes” confection (vanilla cake, blueberry cream cheese filling, maple buttercream frosting). “Those are going in my imaginary cookbook,” Gay said.
But the cake she most wants to share with the world? An elegant but simple version inspired by the timeless pairing of milk and cookies that she found in the 2019 cookbook “Icing on the Cake” (Abrams) by the Vancouver-based baker and cookbook author Tessa Huff. “It’s such a crowd-pleaser,” Gay said of the confection, whose alternating layers of fluffy vanilla cake and chocolate chip filling are finished with a blended buttercream frosting. “It actually tastes like milk and cookies.”
Gay, who is 47 and splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, can’t pinpoint exactly when she started enjoying baking, but one thing is clear: “I’ll bake for any reason,” she said. She particularly enjoys whipping up chocolate cakes for her wife, the designer Debbie Millman. “I won’t eat them because I don’t love chocolate. So I get to have the pleasure of baking without the consequences of eating the finished product,” Gay said with a laugh.
Jokes aside, Gay resists thinking of cake, or any food for that matter, as a “guilty pleasure.” The writer, who, with its subtitle, described her best-selling 2017 book, “Hunger,” as “A Memoir of (My) Body,” has worked with her nutritionist to “separate value judgments from food,” she said. “She’s a big proponent of intuitive eating, which I find to be a very useful framework,” Gay explained. “Very broadly, it means you eat what you want. And you only eat until you’re full, and then you stop. That way you never feel deprived and you don’t overindulge, and you trust your body when it tells you what it wants or needs. I think it’s just a very sane way of thinking about food.”
Hence, Gay does not limit cake creation and consumption to birthdays or special occasions. Eat it whenever you want, she encourages. (For the video above, she made it to commemorate her younger brother Joel Gay, who died last year.) And novice bakers needn’t fear the recipe. “There are lots of different steps,” she acknowledged. “But it’s not complicated.”
She herself is partial to shortcuts. “I do think baking requires precision,” she said, “but I also think there are places where you can relax and not take yourself so seriously.” In this recipe, those include opting not to level dry ingredients, using a cake leveler on the baked layers (rather than obsessing with a knife) and placing chocolate chips on the cake’s exterior with reckless abandon instead of in the neat pattern Huff suggests. And Gay is not afraid to add a personal twist or two. For this cake, she prefers to up the amount of mascarpone and add to the standard buttercream recipe she learned from her executive assistant. “I’m definitely the kind of cook who respects the recipe, but doesn’t treat it as the be-all-end-all,” Gay said.
That’s partly why, when Gay needs baking inspiration, she turns to blogs and Instagram accounts sometimes run by casual home cooks who also like to experiment. She particularly likes the website Sally’s Baking Addiction (“She always explains why she’s made some of the choices she has in the recipe,” Gay said). There’s also the Instagram account @thefantasybakery, run by a Los Angeles-based baker who has an affinity for cake pops. Then, Gay said, there’s “Ina Garten, of course.” Though Gay doesn’t concern herself with overly fussy techniques, she follows Garten’s lead in encouraging cooks to “use the good ingredients.” For this recipe, Gay said, “Use a really good mascarpone. And use high-fat European butter for the frosting.”
Roxane Gay’s Take on Tessa Huff’s Milk and Cookies Cake
(The recipe below, apart from Gay’s adjustments, which are italicised, is a lightly edited reproduction of the original, which can be found in Huff’s book “Icing on the Cake” [Abrams, 2019].)
For the cookie dough-inspired filling:
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
2 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon fancy molasses
Pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons whole milk, if needed
½ cup mini chocolate chips
For the white cake:
¾ cup milk
¼ cup sour cream
2 ½ cups cake flour
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced, at room temperature
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
6 egg whites
For the mascarpone buttercream:
1 cup salted butter
1 cup shortening
3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
7 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
5-6 tablespoons milk
Gel food colouring
Mascarpone (to taste)
Make the cookie dough-inspired filling:
1. In a light-coloured medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring to keep the milk solids from sticking and burning at the bottom of the pan, for about 8 minutes, until the butter is very fragrant and nutty, and light-medium amber in colour. There may be dark brown bits at the bottom of the pan. Strain the browned butter through a fine-mesh sieve into a heatproof container and discard any burned milk solids. Chill the browned butter in the refrigerator until it has the consistency of room-temperature butter, about 1 hour.
2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using a hand-held mixer), beat the cooled browned butter on low speed until smooth. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, molasses and salt. Once these are incorporated, turn the mixer to medium and mix for a couple of minutes, or until the filling is smooth and creamy. If the filling is too thick to spread, gradually add the milk, starting with 1 tablespoon. Stop the mixer and fold in the chocolate chips by hand.
Make the white cake:
1. Preheat the oven to 350℉. Grease and flour three 8-inch round cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, stir the milk and sour cream.
3. Sift the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using a paddle attachment, beat the ingredients on low speed until just combined. Add the butter, vanilla and about ½ cup of the milk mixture. Mix on medium until the dry ingredients are evenly distributed and moistened, about 1 minute. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
4. Add the egg whites to the remaining milk mixture and stir to combine. With the mixer running on medium speed, add the egg mixture in three additions, mixing for about 15 seconds after each addition and stopping the mixer between additions to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.
5. Evenly divide the batter among the prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 22 additional minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pans. Allow the cakes to cool completely, right-side up, on the wire rack before removing the parchment. Level the tops of the cakes with a long, serrated knife as needed (Gay prefers to use a cake leveler).
Make the mascarpone buttercream:
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment (or in a large bowl using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter and mascarpone on medium speed until smooth and creamy.
2. With the mixer running on low, slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, the shortening, the milk and the vanilla. Once these are incorporated, turn the mixer to medium-high and mix for 3 to 5 minutes, until the buttercream is white, fluffy and smooth.
3. If needed, add an additional cup of confectioners’ sugar and mix until the desired consistency is reached; the buttercream should be soft and spreadable but not runny. Tint the buttercream using gel food colouring, if desired.
Assemble the cake:
1. Place one cake layer on a cake board or serving dish. Spread on half of the chocolate chip filling with an offset spatula. Top with a second cake layer and repeat. Place the final cake layer on top.
2. Crumb-coat the cake — that is, coat it with a thin layer of frosting so stray crumbs don’t fall off — and let sit in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Decorate the cake:
1. Fill a piping bag with a star tip with 1 cup buttercream and set aside. Using the remaining buttercream, frost the cake with a smooth finish. To create a fluffy shell border, use the filled piping bag to pipe buttercream around the top edge of the cake.
2. To decorate the cake with chocolate chip polka dots, press the pointed tip of each chip into the frosted cake so the flat bottoms are facing out.
If eating the cake the same day as assembled, store it at room temperature until ready to serve. If assembled in advance, store in a cake box in the refrigerator overnight. Bring to room temperature for 30 minutes before serving. Store leftovers loosely covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days.