Behind the Scenes in Momofuku Milk Bar's Kitchen: Making Strawberry-Lemon Layer Cake

[Photographs: Jamie Feldmar]

Every Saturday morning, a group of people (mostly in their 20s, mostly female) huddles in the driveway of a commercial kitchen space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, looking around nervously while adjusting their lunch-lady hairnets. At 11 a.m., the warehouse doors open, and a loud, cheerful voice calls the shuffling group inward: "Come! This is where the magic happens!"

Christina Tosi

No, this isn't Willy Wonka welcoming the Golden Ticketholders to his chocolate factory (though it's close): it's Christina Tosi, owner of Momofuku Milk Bar, meeting her students for the day. Every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning, Tosi and her crew of merry Milk Maids teach a "Bake the Book" class in their commissary kitchen, a sprawling industrial space that produces all of the desserts for the empire's five NYC locations. Every week, they showcase a recipe from the Milk Bar Cookbook, walking a group of 30 pupils/fans through the dish, with take-home edible results at the end.

I'm here to learn how to build a strawberry-lemon layer cake, Milk Bar-style. After passing the mammoth mixers churning industrial-sized portions of cookie dough and tray upon tray of still-warm candybar pie, we're herded into a shiny classroom space. Before class begins, we trade the hairnets for rainbow-colored headscarves, hand-sewn by Tosi's mom, and tied, as is Milk Bar's signature, in oversized bows at the front. New Order floats out from speakers in the corner.

Tosi checking in with her pupils

The classes aren't meant to be start-to-finish demonstrations, per se: each station is arranged with a pre-baked quarter-sheet of vanilla cake and plastic containers of frostings and fillings, which we'll learn to assemble into Milk Bar's signature layer cake. "It takes us three days to make all of components, so we figured we'd give you a little head start," explains Tosi. This helps keeps the classes light for novice bakers, though full recipes are available online and in the book.

Tosi and her crew, Jena Derman and Sarah Heasley, know how to have fun, but they're also serious teachers, illustrating cake-cutting and layering technique with a series of charts and diagrams. They have some unconventional methods, including baking the cake in a sheet pan as opposed to a circular cake mold (it cooks more evenly that way), and leaving the sides unfrosted so the colorful layers are on full display. The cake's construction is designed not just to show off the physical layers, but tiers of flavors as well—careful attention is paid to stacking each layer with a balance of sweet fillings, citrusy liquid "soaks," a crunchy textural element, and a complementary whipped frosting.

The all-knowing cake chart

Two hours and plenty of surreptitiously snacked-upon cake scraps later, we each had our own colorful six-inch layer cake to take home, wrapped neatly in two sheets of acetate to show off the unfrosted sides. Click through to the slideshow to see every step of the construction of the cake, and learn more about the Bake the Book classes here.