Chef David Chang’s Momofuku empire is smoking hot. In the short span of a few years, he has morphed into a culinary phenomenon with a swath of insanely popular Manhattan restaurants, including Momofuku Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, Ko, Má Pêche and four Milk Bar bakeries, not to mention Sydney’s Momofuku Seiōbo and the upcoming Momofuku in Toronto.
The newest product to emerge from this sensation was penned by his pastry chef, Christina Tosi. Milk: Momofuku Milk Bar (Clarkson Potter; 2011) is as much of a fun read as Chang’s sassy volume. And, like “Momofuku,” “Milk Bar” tells us about the personal journey of a very young and talented chef who trained well, worked hard and then managed to surf the culinary zeitgeist with astonishing success.
Consider the sophisticated stoner
Unlike pretty much any other pastry cookbook out there, this is a cheeky distillation of sophisticated techniques combined with a stoner’s addled cravings for sugar-loaded munchies. As The New York Times noted, Milk Bar bakery is “a time capsule of arrested adolescence, an homage to American processed food.”
One of the signature products of Milk Bar, for example, is its Cereal Milk: boxed cereals like cornflakes and Cap’n Crunch are soaked in milk, then more sugar is tossed in after the flavored milk is squeezed out. These childhood taste memories are then transmogrified into things like panna cotta and ice cream pie. The final incarnation here is a drink I can picture seriously tempting that definitive slacker Jeff Lebowski: Tosi’s Cereal Milk White Ruskie, a combination of Cereal Milk ice cream base with Kahlùa and vodka.
Simple tastes made complicated
It’s an odd world that Tosi rules, one that merges slacker culture with refined techniques. A baseline of working for David Bouley’s pastry chef, Alex Grunert, as well as for Wylie Dufresne at wd~50, gave this graduate of the French Culinary Institute the chops that place her skills within the refined world of high-end restaurateurs. What she did after accepting Chang’s offer to run his pastry kitchen, though, is what makes her creations so unusual.
Take, for example, her Pistachio Layer Cake. Hard-to-find ingredients abound here, like pistachio paste, pistachio oil and glucose. Three round layers of pistachio-flavored cake are slathered with pistachio oil, coated with lemon curd and spangled with a signature ingredient called Milk Crumb (milk powder combined with some starch, butter and white chocolate) before being topped with Pistachio Frosting. But at three cups of sugar plus glucose and that chocolate, this is such a sugar bomb that it probably shouldn’t be served to children even under strict parental supervision.
As with all of her uniquely styled cakes, the sides are left unfrosted and ringed with acetate to show off the multiple layers. It’s a charming and quirky approach that gives these creations their undeniable allure. I particularly relished the ideas behind her reworking of that old chestnut, Carrot Layer Cake: three layers brushed with milk, topped with her Liquid Cheesecake, studded with more of that Milk Crumb and topped with a novel frosting that mixes a Graham cracker crust with yet more milk, butter, sugar and a dash of cinnamon.
I couldn’t wait to cook from Tosi’s book because the author is charming and entertaining, and I could almost smell the cookies in the photos. Her directions are clear, the book is well designed around 10 basic recipes like fudge sauce, nut brittle and mother dough, and both American and metric measurements given. The front part of the book is especially amusing and extremely readable, written like a hip friend channeling directions on how to succeed as a pastry chef (” … by no means does pear sorbet in a quenelle shape taste better … But it is a pretty cool hardbody technique to master.”)
Problems became apparent as soon as I started to bake from the book, as not one of the recipes worked that well. This made me wonder whether enormous quantities had been divvied down into manageable amounts using a calculator, and then no one tested these final directions. Or maybe some steps or ingredients were left out. Or maybe it’s because everything turned out so darned sweet or, in the case of a focaccia, impossibly salty. Honestly, even stoners might find it all just too much.
For example, the head note to Tosi’s Corn Cookies says “this was a recipe I didn’t let out of my kitchen,” which makes me think that this was a treat she made at home a lot and found so irresistible that she kept the formula under lock and key. However, the enormous discs looked nothing like the photo and ended up tasting like very sweet Kix ground into sugar cookie dough. But then again, perhaps that was the point of the exercise, and I am simply not what advertisers would call a target consumer.
The delicious-looking Cinnamon Bun Pies and Chinese Sausage Focaccia were also only so-so. I considered hunting down the ingredients to make some of her cakes and especially her Crack Pie (basically pecan pie without the nuts) if for nothing else than that inspired name, but was too discouraged by my steady lack of success to even try.
As the Dude would say, Bummer.
Zester Daily contributor Carolyn J. Phillips is a Chinese food wonk and illustrator who has a cookbook to be published by McSweeney’s in 2014. In addition to Zester Daily, you can find her on her blog and as @MadameHuang on Twitter; her food writing can be found in places as disparate as Lucky Peach and Pork Memoirs.
Top photo composite:
Book jacket courtesy of Random house
Christina Tosi. Credit: Gabriele Stabile