The story of Christina Tosi's "crack pie," a bestseller at the Momofuku restaurants in Manhattan, is indicative of the cooking style in the Milk Bar kitchen. Tosi and her staff are constantly taking risks and trying new things. They have an in-house tasting panel at their daily staff meal. The staff comes from around the country--and the world--so if you can make something that all of them want more of, you have a hit. The "crack pie" was at first deemed a failure, but upon tasting it, the staff was jonesing for more. Just like crack. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Tosi has just written her first cookbook, Momofuku Milk Bar, where she shares recipes for the baked goods New Yorkers line up for in droves--things like cereal milk ice cream, candy bar pie and kimchi & blue cheese croissants. She gives you recipes for the "mother doughs" many recipes are built on, "crunches" and crumbs" that make Milk Bar desserts so irresistible, techniques for the chewiest cookies, and permission to experiment, since some of the worst mistakes are the most delicious.
I recently had a chance to chat with Christina Tosi, and here's what she had to say:
You talk a lot about nostalgia in the book and how it has inspired your recipes. What are some foods/memories you are currently nostalgic for?
The flavor of vanilla extract. It reminds me of my mom or grandma baking for me. I'm a big salty sweet fan. I am big into balance. That salty/sweet combo never gets old to me. I'm always thinking about this and what we can try. The Ritz cracker crunch that's used for the PB&J pie, we've been using for a cookie called The Ritz. It's a butter cookie that we fold the crunch into. It's buttery with salty and sweet. It's more about that balance than the overall flavor.
With all the use of cereal and crackers you experiment with, I imagine some attempts didn't turn out.
There have been so many failures it's not even funny. We wanted to try making various things from candy, and bought all this candy we thought would be great, but wasn't. I really wanted to make gummy bear ice cream or sorbet, but it turned out awful. Fireballs, surprisingly, worked great. Lemon Drops were disgusting though. Sour Patch Kids however, made an amazing ice cream.
We make family meal every day for all our staff. Some of it is savory, obviously, but there are plenty of sweets. We have some transplants from Texas that love those hot, savory and sour flavors like chiles, sour cream, lime, and corn chips. I tried making a chile lime Frito cookie. I tried and tried and was like, it's palatable, but not really working. There have been plenty of failures like that. It has to be a grand slam, and has to pass the "snack test" of the staff. You have to make yourself sick off of snacking on it. I say, if it makes me sick today, it can go on the menu tomorrow!
Half of the recipes were born from something mismeasured or burned. We're left with the challenge of how to salvage that failure. That's the rule--you have to try and salvage any failures. We make croissants with these compound butters. I had one with caraway butter that was a failure. We're trying to salvage that dough though, so we've been playing with a version of Hot Pockets.
What is your favorite item at Milk Bar?
The chocolate chip cake is my favorite. The flavors, the moistness, the chocolate chips. And the batter--you can eat with a spoon.
Some of your recipes in Momofuku Milk Bar are pretty complex, as in "on Day 1." Any tips for bakers approaching this cookbook?
There are people that want to arrive home to a batch of cookies waiting for them, and others that want to roll up their sleeves and make them. We offer mail order. But we don't have any secrets. If you want the recipe for the candy bar pie, this is it. There are no shortcuts to these recipes. It's our honest approach to how we make them. You don't make the eggs benedict all at once if you've never cooked before. You break it down into small sections until you can make the English muffins, the Hollandaise and so on. Many people working at our bakery have never gone to culinary school, but if you want to learn you can.
You do offer lots of tricks for success, like using gelatin in the lemon curd and mixing cookie dough for a good 10 minutes.
Our layer cakes aren't covered on sides, so you need that insurance so the curd doesn't spill out. You want to be able to get a perfect slice every time, and in every temperature. You don't want it to be like a sandwich that the filling squeezes out the bottom of. This is how we make our cakes and how we slice them.
For cookie dough--we blast the heck out of it. It makes ALL the difference in the world. When I worked at wd50, Chef Wylie's wife made the best chocolate chip cookies. He'd hoard them but maybe give you half of one on occasion. I kept asking, how and WHY are these so good? I tried, but they were never the same. Turns out she uses lots more sugar and butter. That's the secret. So later on -- I messed with the ratios and paddled the hell out of it. Like a meringue, you want to get it to bond. It needs that aeration. It really makes a difference.
How did testers react to the recipes?
We sort of approached this in two different ways. First, we scaled down recipes in size. They are all are already in grams, and then we wrote our best procedures. We started converting them from metric to imperial (in the book, Tosi refers to these as "freedom measurements"), but also listed each ingredient in grams. Metric is much more accurate and our publisher agreed to let us list both. We sent recipes out to family and friends that were avid bakers. It was important to us that they understood our approach or had at least been to the bakery, so they could provide accurate feedback. My sister was pregnant and at home at the time, so she did a lot of testing. We tested recipes in our kitchen twice, then at home using more ordinary ingredients. One stressful thing about recipe writing is you can't force people to use a certain butter or uniodized salt. After testing with iodized salt though, I freaked out. The taste was totally off. People have to use kosher salt for these recipes.
What's next for you?
The bakeries are always crazy busy in November and December--we have four locations in the city. We have tons of plans for 2012. We always do. "Let's open in Australia!" Until it really happens, I believe it all and I don't believe any of it. We just buckle our seatbelts and keep our heads down.
This book tour is just getting started. We just did the Martha Stewart show. We are going to Seattle, Portland, L.A., and San Francisco. We are bringing treats with us everywhere. You can't talk about all this food and not serve some. We are bringing TONS of cookies. There will also be some kitchen equipment giveaways. We even have a web site tracking the tour at tosiontour.com.
Any favorite regional baked goods or candy?
Well, when I go to St. Louis, I have to have the gooey butter cake. When I visit unfamiliar cities, I like to look up bakeries and find out what the local specialties are. In Europe - London in particular, I love buying candy like that crazy honeycomb brittle bar. Dave (Chang) always travels, so he is constantly bringing me crazy baked goods and candy.
How about some of the desserts from the South? Like baked goods made with mayo or Velveeta?
I LOVE THAT SHIT! If we could do more and get away with it, we would. I tried forever to make this Velveeta pie with Ritz crust, served with green tomato sorbet. We have a great, diverse staff. One South Carolina girl was totally into it, but someone from California was like, "This is disgusting."
I love those Southern traditions and wish I could get away with them more. A diverse staff is great for this, but I have a unique palate. We take risks, because we are passionate about the outcome. We do it because we stand behind the product. It's not about being risky just because, it has to pass that test of tasting and snacking and provide a unique point of view.
Meet Christina Tosi next week, when she visits Seattle to promote Momofuku Milk Bar. She'll be at Elliott Bay Books on Monday, October 31 at 4 p.m. and at Book Larder on November 1 from 6:30-8:30 p.m.