the absolute best birthday cake in new york city

March 1, 2017


The Project Which Will Not Be Named started as a fantasy; something to text my friends about while we exchanged woes about work and the state of the country's politics. Almost daily, while hunched behind our monitors or while shoveling a hasty lunch in between meetings, we would exchange wishful text messages:

"Wouldn't it be cool if we ran our own letterpress company?" asked one friend, forwarding along an Instagram account of a successful letterpress print shop. "We could make greeting cards — think of all the puns we could make! It would be SO MUCH PUN."

"Maybe we should just pool all our savings, buy a bunch of houses, and run a mini Airbnb empire." (This one was quickly shot down, with one of us voicing concern that Airbnb was destroying neighborhoods and local communities.)

"How about we start an ice cream store and call it MilkFat?" (The market for gourmet ice cream was already oversaturated.)

"What if we made jump ropes with fruit-shaped handles?" asked one former coworker; we were both really into Crossfit at the time and were impressed by the ubiquity of Rogue-brand exercise equipment. (Still, this was definitely grasping at straws.)

As you can see, most of these text messages were just half-baked and not-at-all serious ideas. They were simply the pleasant fiction that we told ourselves in order to escape the drudgery of updating JIRA tickets, answering Slack messages, and checking our email every waking minute until we finally retired. All of them had the implicit message: it's okay that things suck right now because there is a brighter, more creative future ahead of me where I am in control of my work, time, and life.


But this past November, an idea took hold of me that wouldn't let go. I fired it off with the usual, playful "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" Immediately, my friend responded: "OMG, yeah! I'm surprised you didn't think of this sooner!" We volleyed the idea for another half hour or so, building off each other when we hit a particularly resonant sub-idea. Already, something felt different and more electric. These sorts of conversations usually only lasted five minutes, after which we would duck our heads down and go quietly back to work. But this one was unstoppable — ideas kept flowing, one after the other after the other! Most of them good, too.

Then the holidays came, and I expected myself to forget about The Idea. I waved off my enthusiasm for it as a symptom of burnout. In particular, I was feeling uninspired and resentful towards my blog — Hummingbird High, once a refuge from my day job, felt like an extension of it. But that was because I hadn't been able to take a break from and recharge for it all year, right? Some time off would get the creative juices flowing again and would give me perspective. I just needed to spend some time alone in the kitchen, without the pressures of my agent, my camera, or my laptop.

So I spent time in the kitchen, baking goodies without photographing or writing about them, expecting myself to be inspired by my love for baking and regain my motivation. But none of that came. I didn't find myself thinking about recipes or planning future blog posts like I expected to. Instead, while scooping cookies and rolling out babka dough for recipes I didn't expect to post for the blog, The Idea grew louder and clearer in my head, batting away every hesitation and curve ball that I could throw at it.

Work started again, and although I was refreshed and rested, still, The Idea was there waiting patiently for me to acknowledge it. While annotating receipts for my blog's accountant, I found myself staring at my bank accounts and calculating the financial viability of it all. During my commute to the office, I found myself backtracking to stop at certain businesses, peeking through the windows, and dissecting how all of it came to be.


In many ways, all of it actually reminded me of Hummingbird High's early days. In Denver, I was still eager to bake and tinker around with my then-new and very intimidating Canon Rebel XS after a long day at the office. Despite a ten hour work day, I had the energy to bake batches and batches of cupcakes. Recipe ideas would hit me in the middle of meetings, while running reports, and on my commute; I would furtively scribble them in a quick email to myself. Later, I would stay up late to decipher the hasty notes, all the while scrolling through Pinterest and other blogs, excited by the potential of it all.

With the idea, all that was happening again. But instead of researching recipes and combing through pastry school textbooks, I was researching business plans and drafting emails to friends and acquaintances who had successfully pioneered their own enterprises. And then, one day, I caught myself thinking of it as not The Idea, but instead, The Project.

And that's when I knew I was in trouble.

I wish I could share more details with you today, but the truth is, the reality of The Project is incredibly far out and in its very, very early stages. It will likely be years until I can really fully commit to it and even work on it at all. In time, I will share with you more details, but at this point, I'm honestly not sure if The Project can even come to fruition.

That being said, it does feel like the beginning of something real, something that merits its own birthday cake.


This birthday cake is from Butter & Scotch, a bakery/bar in my adjoining neighborhood in Brooklyn. According to New York Magazine, Butter & Scotch makes the absolute best birthday cake in New York City. That's not something to be taken lightly — this is, after all, the city where Christina Tosi pioneered gourmet funfetti naked cakes. The Butter & Scotch birthday cake is an incredibly moist and tender white cake (its moistness comes from an "expert reduction" of flour in the original recipe), all topped off with a vanilla cream cheese frosting. It's a little on the dense side, but it's pretty damn good. Enjoy!


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Some baker's notes:
  • This is one of the weirdest cakes I've ever made. To make the batter, you first reverse cream the butter into the dry ingredients to make a super chunky and seemingly curdled base. You then make a meringue from the leftover sugar and egg whites, that you then fold into the curdled base. It seems like it won't work, but it actually does and results in a super moist cake with a feather-light crumb. Trust the recipe, even though it's weird.

  • If you're using a stand mixer, you'll need to clean your bowl between making the cake base and the meringue. Be sure you clean and dry your bowl thoroughly. The meringue won't whip up properly if there's even a drop of batter (or any moisture, really) left over! 


The Absolute Best Birthday Cake in New York City
(adapted from Butter & Scotch)

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Ingredients

For the White Cake:
(makes one 8-inch, three layer cake)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks // 8 ounces) cold unsalted butter
  • 1 1/3 cups (11 fluid ounces) whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
  • a "scant" 2 cups (7 ounces) all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar, divided into 1 1/4 cups (8 ounces) and 3/4 cup (6 ounces) portions
  • 2 tablespoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 6 large egg whites

For the Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting:
(makes around 6 cups, enough for one 8-inch cake)
  • 2 cups (4 sticks // 16 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) cream cheese at room temperature, divided into 1/2 cup (4 ounce) portions
  • 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
  • 8 cups (32 ounces) confectioner's sugar, sifted

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Recipe

For the White Cake:
  1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare three 8-inch round cake pans by spraying generously with cooking spray and lining the bottom of each pan with a circle of parchment paper; spray the paper as well and set aside.

  2. Chop 1 cup unsalted butter into small, pea-sized pieces and return them to the refrigerator to chill for 10 to 15 minutes after handling. Combine 1 1/3 cups whole milk and 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract in a liquid measuring cup, and set aside.

  3. In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine a "scant" 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/4 cups of the granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Mix on low for 30 seconds. Add the cold butter to the flour mixture and bring the mixer speed up to medium. Continue mixing until the butter breaks down and the flour mixture is the texture of wet sand. Bring the mixer speed back down to its slowest setting and add the milk mixture. Mix just until the wet ingredients have incorporated into the dry ingredients — at this point, it will seem like the mixture hasn't mixed well. It will look curdled and chunky. That's okay though, I promise! Transfer the mixture to a large, deep bowl and set aside.

  4. Fully clean and dry out the bowl of the mixer. You need to be really thorough — the bowl needs to be bone dry, and without any residual grease or liquid from the batter. Combine 6 large egg whites and the remaining 3/4 cup granulated sugar in the bowl. Swap out the paddle attachment with a whisk attachment, and whisk on the mixer's fastest setting to make a meringue. Continue mixing until the meringue forms soft peaks. Once the meringue reaches this point, carefully scoop the meringue on top of the flour and milk mixture (from the 3rd step). Use a rubber spatula to fold the meringue into the flour until fully incorporated, scooping the curdled batter from the bottom of the bowl onto the foamy meringue. Keep on repeating this step, and avoid the urge to mix. You'll find that the curdled batter will pair nicely with meringue to make a light, foamy batter that is fairly homogeneous. Be careful not to overmix, or you'll lose all that light and fluffy air that you worked so hard to get! Fold the ingredients, not stir.

  5. Carefully scoop the batter equally between the prepared pans and bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 40 minutes until they are a golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before frosting.

For the Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting:
  1. In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream 2 cups unsalted butter, making sure to stop the mixer every so often to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. It's important to have the butter all nice and soft so you don't get any clumps!

  2. Once the butter is light and fluffy, add 2 cups cream cheese half a cup at a time on medium speed. Once the cream cheese is fully incorporated, turn the mixer speed to its lowest setting. Add 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract, and slowly, a quarter cup at a time, add 8 cups confectioner's sugar. Once all the confectioner's sugar is added, crank the mixer back up to medium-high speed and beat for another 30 seconds, until fully blended and fluffy.

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