mocha hazelnut layer cake (milk bar-style)

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Chocolate cake with a coffee soak, layers of hazelnut frosting, crunchy filling, and a stout ganache make this Mocha Hazelnut layer cake a real showstopper.


I’ve been itching to make one of Milk Bar’s spectacular, bare-sided triple-layer cakes ever since my sister and I dropped $75 at the opening weekend of Milk Bar’s L.A. store to try “a bit of everything.”

If you haven’t seen a Milk Bar cake before, they’re towering cakes with bold layers of frosting and crunchy fillings visibly between equally thick, plush layers of cake.

Christina Tosi, the brilliant mind behind Milk Bar’s spectacular creations is known for inventive desserts that are rich and decadent without being tooth-achingly sweet. They’re great.

The official Milk Bar All About Cake cookbook has been staring me down for months now so, when Jimmy requested a coffee hazelnut birthday cake, I finally had a good reason to crack it open.

I was determined to deliver something unique. The wrinkle: Jimmy loves hazelnut but doesn’t like Nutella (weird, I know!) so I had to find a way to incorporate the hazelnut flavor without using a Nutella-based recipe.Ā 

In the end, I used Milk Bar’s basic Chocolate Cake recipe, the Stout Ganache from the Pretzel Layer Cake, the Chocolate Hazelnut Frosting from the Banana-Chocolate-Hazelnut Cupcakes recipe, and adapted the crunchy filling from the German chocolate cupcakes to use hazelnuts instead of pecans.

The coffee soak, to keep the cake layers moist, I basically made up on the fly. And thus, a Milk Bar-style mocha hazelnut layer cake was born.

Close up of the side/bottom of Mocha Hazelnut cake. The cake is sitting on a wide, flat black plate with an upturned rim. The plate has 6 loose hazelnuts on it.

but is a 3 layer mocha hazelnut Milk Bar-style layer cake practical?

Oh, absolutely not! There are five-and-a-half components that need to be created before you can even begin assembling this cake. If you’re looking for a practical cake, go for this ginger-pumpkin spiced pound cake or do a basic sheet pan cake with frosting.

To make this just slightly more practical, though, I’ve noted which two components are optional (the ganache and the hazelnut crunch). Bare minimum, all you need to make are the cake, the frosting, and the coffee soak.

pros and cons of a Milk Bar cake

What I really loved about the process of building a Milk Bar cake was that the assembly itself was so simple that my brain was free to focus more on creating the individual components without feeling frazzled or rushed.

Yes, there are multiple components but because they can all be prepped ahead, or quickly created right before assembly, you don’t feel like you’re constantly fighting against a clock or trying to time everything perfectly or convince icing to stick on a warm cake.

I also appreciated how efficient Milk Bar recipes are. Where usually you’d bake 3 separate round cakes for a layer cake, the Milk Bar method has you bake one rectangular cake and use a 6″ cake-cutting ring to cut your layers out of it.

But, like I said, this is not the kind of cake you can ā€” or should ā€” make all in one day. Here’s how I did it:

  • Day 1: Make the hazelnut praline paste for the frosting
  • Day 2: Make the frosting and the cake, refrigerate both
  • Day 3: Make the hazelnut crunch, the chocolate ganache, and the coffee soak. Re-whip the frosting. Assemble the cake.

What I didn’t love about some of the recipes in the Milk Bar book is that they call for really specific, often expensive, hard-to-find ingredients like hazelnut praline paste and Feuilletine and don’t include recommendations for cheaper alternatives.

I’ve noted below where I’ve made more affordable alterations to the recipes, but if you’d rather spend the money to just have the right thing without any extra steps, you do you.

A three layer mocha hazelnut cake sits in the center of a flat black plate with upturned edges. The cake has bare sides, with three layers of frosting, two layers of ganache, two layers of hazelnut crunch visible. There are loose hazelnuts on the plate with the cake and on the counter in front of it. In the background, out of focus, are some potted green plants.

making the chocolate cake

While you can probably use any 13×9″ chocolate cake recipe here, the official Milk Bar chocolate cake recipe produces a uniform cake with an exceptionally flat surface.

Most cakes end up with a slightly domed top that needs to be sliced off for layering, but the Milk Bar recipe produces a flat-topped cake that requires zero trimming.

Make sure that you really let your mixer run for as long as the recipe says between steps to get a beautifully airy cake batter. If you use a different chocolate cake recipe or end up with a dramatically domed top to your cake, use a serrated knife to trim it flat.

The cool thing about these cakes is that you don’t need to make 3 separate cakes to get your layers. You punch the top two layers out of a rectangular cake using a 6″ cake cutter, and then use the remaining scraps to form the bottom layer.

If your cake top is only slightly domed, it should be fine. These aren’t meant to be perfect-looking cakes, anyway. A little unevenness is okay.

TIP: Double-triple check the size of your sheet pan. In doing some research for this post I ran across several blog posts and forums that say the Milk Bar recipes are sometimes inconsistent with the size of sheet pan they call for. I found it works perfectly in a 13×9″ rectangular cake pan, so I recommend using that.

Money Saving Alteration: The original recipe calls for a 1/2 cup of buttermilk, but since the frosting calls for 4 TBSP whole milk, I’ve adjusted the cake recipe below to use whole milk (mixed with lemon juice or vinegar) to replicate the chemical reaction of buttermilk without spending money on two kinds of milk.

A rectangular chocolate cake sits on a counter. A 6 inch metal cake cutting ring has been pressed through the bottom left corner of the cake. On the counter in the top right of the photo is a 1 cup measuring cup with a coffee soak in it. A small measuring spoon sits inside the cup.

the secret to true hazelnut chocolate frosting

This frosting, which I borrowed from All About Cake‘s Banana-Chocolate-Hazelnut cupcakes is the icing on the cake here, literally and figuratively. It’s buttery and light, and the hazelnut praline paste adds a rich, sweet texture that doesn’t make your teeth ache.

The only thing is… hazelnut praline paste is both expensive and hard to find. I couldn’t find it in any grocery store near me, and online it was going for almost $20 for 11 ounces, which meant that, even though I was doubling the batch, I’d have leftover praline paste, which I didn’t need.

So… I made my own praline paste. Exactly the amount I needed, with none leftover. And honestly, if you have the right tools, I think you should do that too. It’s really not that hard.

What is hazelnut praline paste? It’s hazelnut praline (toasted hazelnuts coated in a hardened caramel) pulverized in a food processor until the nuts release their oils and it reaches a peanut butter-like consistency.

How to make hazelnut praline paste: First make, make hazelnut praline. Toast the hazelnuts and remove the skins, then heat granulated sugar and water in a non-stick skillet on the stove to make caramel. Pour the caramel over the toasted hazelnuts and let it harden and cool. Then, break the hazelnut praline into pieces and send them on a trip through the food processor until it turns into a peanut butter-like paste. Refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. Boom.

You will need: A food processor (I used my beloved 3.5 cup mini-KitchenAid food processor) and a silicone baking mat.

I know it seems complicated and potentially messy, but the caramel is actually really easy to clean up ā€” once it hardens, it comes off the silicone mat without a problem, and if it gets anywhere you don’t want it, hot water will melt and dissolve it right off.

Time-Saving Tip: Just buy the pre-made stuff.

All the components for a Mocha Hazelnut Cake sit on a counter. From left to right: A rectangular chocolate cake with a 6" metal cake cutter sitting on top of it, a measuring cup with 1/3 cup coffee soak, a square tupperware with golden colored hazelnut crunch, a white 8" cardboard round, a glass bowl with chocolate stout ganache, and a 2 quart cambro bucket with hazelnut frosting.

how to assemble a Milk Bar-style layer cake

Instead of baking individual cake rounds, Milk Bar cake rounds are cut out of a single 13×9″ rectangular cake. The bottom layer of cake is built out of cake scraps inside of the metal cake ring, which you line with the acetate cake collars to hold everything in place.

Start by cutting out your two 6″ cake rounds. Then, place the 6″ metal cake cutter in the center of one of the cardboard cake rounds and line it with a sheet of the acetate to hold everything in place.

A shot from the back of the a kitchen counter at the mocha hazelnut cake being assembled. Closest to the camera on the right are two chocolate cake rounds. In the bottom center is a measuring cup with coffee soak in it. To the left is a glass bowl with chocolate stout ganache. In front of the frosting and coffee soak is a square tupperware with the hazelnut crunch in it. To the left, closer to the front edge of the counter is a 2 qt cambro bucket with the hazelnut frosting in it. A light blue spatula sticks out of the bucket. In the middle of the image, and in the center of the counter is the cake being assembled ā€” the first layer of cake is in, and a layer of ganache has been spread on top of it. The cake is on a white 8" cake round and is being assembled inside a metal cake ring with a clear sheet of acetate lining it and sticking out above the cake.

Order of mocha hazelnut layer cake assembly:

  • Layer 1: Cake ā€” Break the remaining cake into chunks, and press it into the bottom of the cake round. Don’t be shy here. The cake scraps don’t have to be pretty but they do have to support another three layers of cake and frosting. Press ’em in, tear the cake pieces into chunks, crumble them up, and really push them in firmly. Once the cake comes out of the cake ring and you remove the acetate sheets, that bottom layer still has to support the weight of a cake above it. You want a firm foundation!
  • Layer 2: Coffee Soak ā€” Use a spoon or a pastry brush to liberally douse the cake layer with 1/3 of your coffee soak. The coffee soak will help the scraps stick together and keep the cake moist.
  • Layer 3: Chocolate Ganache (OPTIONAL) ā€” Half of the ganache goes on here. It’s a pretty thin layer, spread it as evenly as you can across the surface of the cake.
  • Layer 4: Pecan Crunch (OPTIONAL) ā€” Half of the pecan crunch mixture goes down here ā€” this one’s a bit harder to spread so try to scatter it evenly and then use the edge of your spatula to gently shift the mixture around on top of the ganache layer.
  • Layer 5: Chocolate Hazelnut Frosting ā€” 1/3 of the chocolate hazelnut frosting goes down next. If you made this a day or two in advance it will firm up in the fridge. Loosen it by putting it back in your mixer bowl and beating it at medium speed for 3-4 minutes.

Insert the second cake round (if one of the two cake rounds is messier than the other, use that one). Then, take the second acetate cake collar strip and insert it inside the first one, tucking it behind the second cake round to hold it in place.

Repeat the order above: Coffee soak, chocolate ganache, pecan crunch, and chocolate hazelnut frosting.

This image is the same as the previous one, only a second layer of cake has been added, along with another layer of frosting and another layer of hazelnut crunch. A second sheet of acetate has been added to give more room to build the cake even taller.

The final layer: Place your last cake round on top, with whichever side is smoothest facing up. Apply the rest of the coffee soak, and a final layer of chocolate hazelnut frosting.

And that’s it! You’re done.

The final step is to stick the whole mocha hazelnut layer cake in the freezer for 3-5 hours

This gives the cake a time to set ā€” the coffee soak freezes, the cake layers get all cozy and meld together.

Before serving, take the cake out of the freezer and let it defrost for 2-3 hours. Before serving, slide the metal cake ring off and peel off the acetate. That’s it! You’re ready to start slicing!

Use a dish towel dampened with warm water to wipe the knife blade between slices to help make clean cuts, especially if any parts of the center are still a little frozen.

The same as the previous image, though now the cake has been completely assembled. All the bowls are now empty. The cake has three layers of chocolate cake, two visible layers of crunchy hazelnut filling, two layers of chocolate ganache, and a layer of hazelnut frosting across the top.

To make a Milk Bar-style cake you will need:

  • Acetate cake collars ā€” The Milk Bar book calls for 3″ tall ones, but I bought 4″ ones and found they were just the right height. You’ll need two 20″ long strips.
  • 6″ cake-cutting ring ā€” You will use this to cut out your cake layers and also to assemble the base of your cake.
  • 8″ cardboard cake rounds ā€” You’ll need to refrigerate or freeze your cake when you’re finished, these are perfect for moving/picking up your finished cake and fitting it in your freezer or fridge.
  • Small spatula ā€” Since you need to be able to reach down into the acetate tube to spread your frosting and ganache layers, it helps to have a small, easily maneuverable tool on hand.
a close up of the side of a chocolate cake showing layers of cake, hazelnut crunch, chocolate stout ganache, and hazelnut frosting. the cake sits on a black plate and there are whole hazelnuts scattered around the base of it.

mocha hazelnut Milk Bar-style layer cake

The Practical Kitchen
Day 1: Make the hazelnut praline paste for the frosting
Day 2: Make the frosting and the cake, refrigerate both.
Day 3: Make the hazelnut crunch, the chocolate ganache, and the coffee soak. Re-whip the frosting. Assemble the cake.
The cake needs to freeze for at least 3-5 hours after assembly and defrost for 2-3 hours before slicing. Take it out 2-3 hours before serving to thaw.
Note: Estimated times do not include time to chill or defrost the cake.
0 from 0 votes
Prep Time 2 hrs
Cook Time 30 mins
Assembly time 30 mins
Total Time 3 hrs
Course Dessert
Cuisine American
Servings 1 6″ cake

Equipment

Ingredients
  

hazelnut praline paste

  • 115 grams hazelnuts (1 cup, toasted with skins removed)
  • 115 grams sugar (Ā½ cup)
  • 30 grams water (ā…› cup)

basic Milk Bar chocolate cake

  • 113 grams unsalted butter (8 TBSP, room temp)
  • 225 grams sugar (1 cup + 2 TBSP)
  • 60 grams brown sugar (Ā¼ cup, tightly packed)
  • 3 large eggs (at room temp)
  • 110 grams whole milk* (Ā½ cup, at room temp)
  • 14 grams lemon juice or vinegar* (Ā½ TBSP)
  • 105 grams neutral oil (Ā½ cup + 3 TBSP)
  • 5 grams vanilla extract (1Ā¼ tsp)
  • 154 grams cake flour (1Ā¼ cups)
  • 70 grams cocoa powder (Ā½ cup)
  • 6 grams baking powder (1Ā½ tsp)
  • 7 grams kosher salt (1Ā¾ tsp)

chocolate hazelnut frosting

  • 80 grams semi-sweet baking chocolate (3 oz)
  • 220 grams unsalted butter (1 cup, room temp)
  • 320 grams powdered sugar (3 cups)
  • 60 grams cocoa powder (Ā½ cup)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 60 grams whole milk (4 TBSP)
  • 200 grams hazelnut praline paste (Ā½ cup + 2 TSBP)

hazelnut crunch (optional)

  • 125 grams hazelnuts (1 cup, toasted with skins removed)
  • 40 grams neutral oil (3 TBSP + 2 tsp)
  • 20 grams brown sugar (1 TBSP + 1 tsp, tightly packed)
  • 60 grams frosted flakes cereal (Ā¾ cup)(a cheaper alternative toĀ feuilletine)

chocolate stout ganache (optional)

  • 70 grams chocolate stout (ā…“ cup)
  • 45 grams heavy cream (3 TBSP)
  • 250 grams 72% dark chocolate (9 ounces, melted)

coffee soak

  • ā…“ cup freshly brewed coffee
  • 3 TBSP sugar

Instructions

Hazelnut Praline Paste (Day 1)

  • Heat oven to 350Ā°F. ToastĀ hazelnutsĀ on an un-greased sheet pan for 10-15 minutes.
  • Wrap the toasted hazelnuts in a clean dishtowel and rub them around. The skins should come right off. If they don't, pop the hazelnuts back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes.
    Itā€™s okay if some skins are still on, but try to get most off.
  • Transfer the toasted, peeled hazelnuts to a sheet pan lined with a silicone mat.
  • CombineĀ sugarĀ andĀ waterĀ in a skillet over medium high heat. Swirl to combine. The sugar will begin to melt and bubble and after a few minutes will take on an amber color. Keep gently swirling so the sugar doesnā€™t burn.
    Itā€™s up to you how dark you want the caramel to be. The darker it is, the deeper the caramel flavor will be. If you start to see wisps of smoke thatā€™s a good sign that you should be done.
  • Quickly and carefully pour the liquid sugar mixture over the hazelnuts on the silicone mat. If the mixture doesnā€™t coat all the hazelnuts, pick up the loose ones and place them on top of the liquid or try to roll them in it. The caramel will harden quickly, so work fast.
  • Once the praline has cooled, peel it off the mat (it should come up easily!) and break it into pieces. Place the pieces in the bowl of a food processor and puree until a peanut butter-like texture forms.
    If you seem to be struggling to achieve the peanut butter texture, drizzle a teaspoon or two of canola, sesame, or peanut oil into the food processor. This whole process might take anywhere from 3-5 minutes.
  • Transfer to an airtight container and leave out at room temp until ready to use. (Praline paste can be stored in an airtight container at room temp for several months.)

Chocolate Cake (Day 1 or 2)

  • Preheat your oven to 350Ā°F. Generously spray a 13×9" rectangular cake pan and line it with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Try to keep the edges and corners as wrinkle free as possible.
  • Place theĀ softened butter,Ā brown sugar, andĀ granulated sugarĀ in the bowl of your stand mixer. Use the paddle attachment to cream the butter and sugars together onĀ medium-highĀ speed forĀ 2-3 minutesĀ (set a timer!) until very light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl about halfway through and again at the end.
  • Add theĀ eggs one at a time, beating onĀ medium-highĀ for at least 1 full minute after each egg is added. Scrape down the bowl before and after adding each egg.
    After all three eggs are in, beat the mixture onĀ highĀ forĀ 4 minutes.
    Seriously, set a timer here. Let the mixer do its thing. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl when the 4 minutes are up.
  • As soon as you set the 4 minute timer, whisk together theĀ whole milkĀ andĀ lemon juice or vinegar in a bowl or measuring cup*.
    Let sit 5 minutes. Then whisk in the neutral oilĀ andĀ vanilla extract.
  • With the mixer atĀ medium speed, slowly pour the liquid mixture into the mixer bowl. Set a timer forĀ 3 minutesĀ ā€”Ā it should take you about that long to pour them in.
    Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then increase the mixer speed toĀ medium-highĀ and beat forĀ 2-3 more minutesĀ until the mixture is white and has almost doubled in size.
    The mixture should be completely homogenous with no visible streaks of fat or liquid. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again.
  • In a separate bowl, mix theĀ cake flour,Ā cocoa powder,Ā baking powder, andĀ salt. With the mixer running on a veryĀ low speed, use a measuring cup (Ā½ cup or Ā¾ cup recommended) to slowly add the dry mixture to the wet mixture.
    Once all of the dry mixture has been added and the batter comes together ā€” donā€™t over mix! ā€” scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix onĀ low speedĀ forĀ 45-60 seconds justĀ to make sure there are no lumps.
  • Pour the cake batter into the prepared sheet pan and use a spatula to spread it in an even layer, making sure to get it into the corners.
  • Bake at 350Ā°F forĀ 30-35 minutes. Halfway through the bake time, rotate the pan. The cake will rise and puff, but ultimately settle down into a flat top.
    At 30 minutes, jiggle the pan slightly ā€” the center of the cake should not be jiggly. If the center of the cake still looks jiggly, leave it in an additional 5 minutes.
  • Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a wire rack or in the fridge or freezer. You want it to be completely cool before you use it, and it will be easier to remove from the pan once itā€™s cool.
    The cooled cake can be stored in the fridge, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 5 days.

Chocolate hazelnut frosting (Day 1 or 2)

  • Melt theĀ chocolateĀ over a double boiler, or in the microwave (10-second bursts until melted).
    Set aside and let cool to room temp.
  • Use the stand mixer with the paddle attachment to combineĀ softened butter,Ā powdered sugar,Ā cocoa powder, andĀ salt.
    Set a timer for 2-3 minutes and cream atĀ medium-highĀ speed until smooth and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  • Reduce mixer speed asĀ lowĀ as it can go and slowly stream in the milk. Increase the speed toĀ medium-highĀ and beat for additionalĀ 5 minutesĀ (again ā€” set a timer!).
    The mixture should be silky smooth and glossy. As always, scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  • Add theĀ hazelnut praline pasteĀ andĀ cooled melted chocolateĀ to the mixing bowl and stir onĀ low speedĀ until the frosting is fully combined and no streaks of chocolate or hazelnut remain.
  • Transfer to an airtight container.
    If not using immediately, store in the fridge and re-whip using the mixer with paddle attachment atĀ mediumĀ speed forĀ 3-4 minutesĀ before use.

Hazelnut crunch (Day 2 or 3)

  • Toast theĀ hazelnutsĀ on an un-greased sheet pan atĀ 350Ā°FĀ for 10-15 minutes.
  • Wrap the toasted hazelnuts in a clean dishtowel and rub them around. The skins should come right off. If they don't, pop the hazelnuts back in the oven for another 5-10 minutes.
    Itā€™s okay if some skins are still on, but try to get most off.
  • Puree theĀ toasted hazelnutsĀ in a small food processor with the oil, brown sugar, and salt until a wet, sandy texture is achieved.
  • CombineĀ hazelnutĀ mixture in a small bowl with crushedĀ Frosted Flakes. Transfer to airtight container until ready to use.

Chocolate Stout Ganache (Day 3)

  • Combine the chocolate stout and heavy cream in a small pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil.
  • Meanwhile: Finely chop or grate the chocolate and place it in a heat-proof bowl.
  • Pour the stout mixture over the chocolate, and stir in circles (clockwise or counterclockwise ā€”Ā pick one and stick with it!) until completely smooth and no lumps remain.
  • Use the ganache immediately. If you arenā€™t ready to use it right away, you can reheat it in the microwave in 15-second bursts, stirring in between.

Coffee soak (Day 3)

  • Prepare a cup ofĀ coffeeĀ using whatever method you prefer. I use a French press, but you do you.
  • Pour ā…“ cup of freshly brewed coffee into a small bowl or glass, add 3 tsp sugar and stir until dissolved.

Cake assembly (Day 3)

  • Use a 6ā€³ cake cutter to cut two 6ā€³ rounds out of the refrigerated chocolate cake. Place the ring in the center of a cardboard cake round, and line the inside of the ring with a cake collar (a 20ā€³ strip should be enough).
  • Use the remaining cake scraps to create the bottom layer of cake. Break them up, and crumble them with your hands, pressing them tightly, especially into the bottom corners, to create an even, solid foundation for your cake.
  • Use a spoon or pastry brush to apply ā…“ of theĀ coffee soakĀ to the cake layer.
    Then apply Ā½ of theĀ chocolate stout ganache, using a spatula to spread it all the way to the edges of the acetate.
    Top the ganache with Ā½ of theĀ hazelnut crunch, again taking care to make sure itā€™s pressed up against the acetate.
    Finally, spread ā…“ of theĀ chocolate hazelnut frostingĀ over the crunch layer.
  • Carefully place theĀ second cake layerĀ on next. If one of the two cake rounds is messier or more uneven than the other, use that one.
  • Take the secondĀ 20ā€³ acetate cake collarĀ and insert it into the first one. Tuck it just under the top edge of the second cake layer so it stays in place.
  • Now repeat the layers: ā…“ of theĀ coffee soak, the rest of theĀ chocolate stout ganache, the rest of theĀ hazelnut crunch, and another ā…“ of theĀ chocolate hazelnut frosting.
  • Insert the finalĀ cake round. Place whichever side is flatter and smoother facing up. Then apply the rest of theĀ coffee soak, and apply your final layer ofĀ chocolate hazelnut frosting.
  • Take the whole cake and put itĀ in the freezer for at least 3-5 hours, or overnight. If you plan on keeping it in the freezer for longer than overnight, cover the top with saran wrap.Ā½
  • Before serving, take it out of the freezer andĀ allow it to defrost for at least 3 hours.
    When ready to serve, slide the cake ring up to remove it and peel off the acetate sheets.

Notes

  • *Or, use Ā½ cup buttermilk.
  • I find it’s easiest to remove the cake ring after the cake has been in the freezer for about 2 hours. The outside of the cake will have frozen enough that the acetate won’t come off (or you can tape the acetate closed with masking tape) but the cake also hasn’t expanded so much that the ring is stuck in place.Ā 
Tried this recipe?Let us know how it was!
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