The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook by Christina Tosi is the most frustrating and ridiculous book I have ever tried to bake from. It is also one of the most brilliant. I pulled it off the shelf for the first time 10 days ago to attempt Tosi’s famous crack pie, which is supposedly so sugary that people start trembling after a few bites and so delicious that they keep right on eating. (The pie, a souped-up version of the classic Southern chess pie, retails for $44 at the Milk Bar bakery in New York City.)
I soon discovered that a key ingredient – freeze-dried corn – had to be mail-ordered. As I waited for that to arrive (I’m waiting still), I also discovered that once you’ve opened this book, it is hard to close. Milk Bar isn’t just another pretty collection of cobbler and cookie recipes. Tosi’s garishly colored confections range from the unusual to the demented, and they marry premium ingredients, like Plugra butter, to American junk food, like Cap’n Crunch. This is the only baking book on the planet that will show you how to make a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow cookie and a Saltine panna cotta.
Flipping through Milk Bar, I was transfixed by a photograph of Tosi’s confetti cookies, big crackle-topped beauties with rainbow sprinkles stirred into the dough. The picture is posted here. See what I mean? I’m not sure you ever pine for sweets the way you do as a child, and some of my most primal longings were shaped by lurid cake mixes circa 1978. Those confetti cookies, inspired by Pillsbury’s Funfetti cake mix, brought it all flooding back.
This is the only baking book on the planet that will show you how to make a Fruity Pebbles marshmallow cookie and a Saltine panna cotta.
While they are childish in their appeal, baking these cookies is a serious adult undertaking. First, you have to track down glucose and clear vanilla, which in my case entailed a 30-minute drive to a bakery supply shop. Then you make so-called “birthday cake crumbs,” a clumpy paste of flour, sugar, and oil that you drop on a cookie sheet, bake until crunchy, and break into chunks. On the knife edge between salty and sweet, the crumbs were disturbingly delicious and I had to resist snarfing up the entire batch before I could mix them into the cookie dough. Roughly four days after I first had the impulse to whip up a batch of confetti cookies, we had confetti cookies.
How were they? They were fine. Not as bright or adorable as in the photograph and not as tasty as the hassle of producing them had led me to expect, but definitely fine. Also fine: the banana cream pie I made the next day. It looked like a 9-year-old’s dream of a banana cream pie – Laffy Taffy yellow custard in an Oreo-black chocolate crust – but it was really just a fine banana cream pie.
The Saltine panna cotta, however, was not fine. It’s a genius idea, because a panna cotta that distilled the elusive flavor of a soda cracker would an unforgettable dessert. Oversalted, slushy, and inedible, Tosi’s Saltine panna cotta was unforgettable in its own way.
I wouldn’t describe the compost cookies as unforgettable, but everyone liked her giant, gnarled cookies packed with chocolate chips, potato chips, butterscotch chips, pretzels, and more. But the best Milk Bar recipe I tested was the pretzel ice cream pie. Here again Tosi walks the line between salty and sweet. We’re so used to our foods declaring themselves upfront, that the brief moment when you really can’t tell if the pretzel ice cream is going to break salty or sweet is unsettling. And then, suddenly, the sugar overpowers the salt, and it’s all the sweeter for that initial uncertainty. The pretzel ice cream hit the mark; the crumbly pretzel crust was a messy distraction.
Clearly, Milk Bar has problems. But they are not the “problems” that the book’s most prominent detractor seized upon. Last winter, Alice Waters, the Berkeley, California chef and longtime crusader for local, organic foods, slammed Milk Bar for its use of processed ingredients. As Waters wrote in Food52, she was “more than a little disappointed” to see talented young chefs like Tosi stoking the North American addiction to sugar and fat. Waters: “I am predictable and I always want to celebrate books and cooks that are helping people to fall in love again with fruits and vegetables.”
Waters’ distaste stems from the fact that cereal milk panna cotta acknowledges the very existence of cereal, an unwelcome reminder that we live in a country with tacky gastronomic traditions. That the United States is not, and never will be, Provence.
She sure is predictable and she sure is wrong about Tosi. Is it the fate of the old guard to always miss the point?
To start with, cereal milk panna cotta contains no more sugar or fat than, for instance, the honey pistachio brittle ice cream with lavender sauce that appears in Waters’ Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook. It probably contains less. No, Waters’ distaste stems from the fact that cereal milk panna cotta acknowledges the very existence of cereal, an unwelcome reminder that we live in a country with tacky gastronomic traditions. That the United States is not, and never will be, Provence.
Food is an edible expression of culture. I did not grow up watching Marcel Pagnol films and nibbling Meyer lemon eclairs, delightful though that sounds. Weekend mornings of yesteryear were passed in front of Schoolhouse Rock, hoovering up bowls of Honeycomb awash in cereal milk. I don’t eat like that anymore, and that’s a very good thing. But I’m certainly not embarrassed by the silly junk I loved as a kid, and I like to feel connected to who I was. Tosi’s desserts make that connection. She isn’t shilling for processed foods like Sandra Lee, she’s paying homage.
And you can rest assured, Alice Waters, that Tosi’s recipes are far too much work – and far too inconsistent – to ever present a danger to our health.
Pretzel Ice Cream
- 6 cups mini-pretzels
- 2 cups whole milk
- ¾ teaspoon gelatin
- 2 tablespoons water
- ½ cup glucose or ¼ cup corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, tightly packed
- 1½ ounces softened cream cheese
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ⅛ teaspoon baking soda
Heat the oven to 300°F. Spread the pretzels on a sheet pan and toast for 15 minutes. Cool and pour into a bowl.
Pour the milk over the pretzels and stir for 2 minutes.
Strain the milk through a sieve into a saucepan. Throw away the wet pretzels.
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over the water and stir to combine.
Warm the pretzel milk and whisk in the gelatin. Add the remaining ingredients and whisk until all the ingredients are fully incorporated. I found it impossible to completely incorporate the cream cheese; just do your best.
Freeze in an ice cream maker. Makes a little more than pint.