How Milk Bar’s Matriarch Built a Madcap Pastry Program from Scratch

The genius mash-up of high-low sensibilities is indicative of Tosi’s dessert philosophy.

milk bar life christina tosiNew York cleaned up big-time at the James Beard Awards last week, and one of the wins for which we cheered loudest was Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi, whose convention-smashing convections — like Compost Cookies, Crack Pie and Cereal Milk — brought home the “Outstanding Pastry Chef” gold.

At bottom, check out a recipe from Tosi’s brand-new book Milk Bar Life (leave it to Tosi to cover kale in burnt honeybutter). But first, here’s a look back at how she rose like a sugar-fueled rocket, excerpted from our longer feature by Jamie Feldmar.

Tosi takes her milk very, very seriously. Yes, her desserts are playful, ridiculously over-the-top creations like the cheekily named Crack Pie, filled with a cavity-inducing sugar goo; her (even more famous) Cereal Milk is designed to evoke Cap’n Crunch dregs. But behind the scenes, Tosi’s a perfectionist who won’t settle for anything less than a dairy demigod.

Before Milk Bar was born, the preternaturally sweet-toothed Tosi was tasked to help set up Momofuku’s sous-vide system (office work that she dismisses as “tit shit”) back before Momofuku made any desserts. Tosi had done time as a pastry chef under Sam Mason at wd~50, and had in fact been recommended to Chang by Wylie Dufrense for the job. Meanwhile, Tosi continued experimenting with desserts at home in an apartment she shares with three giant dogs in Williamsburg, often bringing in sweets so adored that one night, in 2007, Chang challenged her to come up with something for Ssam Bar. She thought he was joking, but he wasn’t. “Just make something,” he told her. “And make sure it’s fucking delicious.”

That night, Tosi made an impromptu strawberry shortcake. The customers loved it. Chang loved it. And that’s how Tosi became the first pastry chef of the Momofuku restaurants (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and Ko, all in the East Village), scrambling around to mix pie dough under the stairs near Ssam Bar’s basement walk-in freezer, desperately trying to find space in the pork belly-crammed refrigerators. Late nights and early mornings were punctuated only by the occasional L train ride home to sleep for a few hours in between shifts.

Tosi had picked up a French Culinary Institute extern, and the two set up a makeshift “pastry kitchen” on a prep table at Ko. In 2008, after months of making desserts like PB&J panna cotta and guava sorbet with liquid cheesecake for all the restaurants in her tiny borrowed corner, Chang gave Tosi her own space. The laundromat next to Ssam Bar was closing, and he bought the lease, providing Tosi her with her very own retail storefront. She called it, appropriately, Momofuku Milk Bar.

Tosi was struck with the idea for Cereal Milk in 2008, while she scrambled to come up with a plated dessert for Momofuku Ko, the empire’s most upscale restaurant. It was one of her first opportunities to unleash her madcap desserts on diners, but she was stuck. “I was trying to trace back the root of what makes a good dessert. I didn’t want to do comfort food per se, but I wanted to do something very personal and very relatable,” she says. She settled on panna cotta, a relatively fail-safe choice. “But I knew I wanted an exceptional flavor for the milk. I was looking to make my own idealized version of what dairy could taste like. That’s where I wanted to infuse my personality,” she explains. A late-night trip to her local bodega to grab every dry good that could possibly be steeped into milk eventually lead to the simplest of solutions: cornflakes. “It just made sense. The flavor hit on a certain coziness and familiarity without being too traditional. The proof was literally in the pudding,” Tosi laughs.

People loved it so much that Tosi began experimenting with other cereals, and Chang convinced her to start selling the steeped milk on its own: by the bottle, and in soft-serve form so everyone could enjoy it, Ko reservation or not.

It’s a genius mashup of highlow sensibilities — super-premium organic milk mixed with fun, if decidedly déclassé, processed cereals — that’s indicative of Tosi’s philosophy toward dessert as a whole.

Tosi’s tiny storefront was an instant success. Customers lined up, the press went wild, and a year and a half later the band of merry bakers set to work opening a second Milk Bar, in Midtown. But all this whisking and whipping meant that Tosi and her crew needed a dedicated pastry kitchen of their own, not a shared space within Ssam Bar’s basement. So they began to build out a spacious kitchen in a warehouse in central Williamsburg, where they could make every last Compost Cookie and Crack Pie and send it out to the satellite stores. But in the months that commissary was being built, Tosi and her team spent hour upon sticky hour baking in an un-air-conditioned rented kitchen in Spanish Harlem, schlepping 50-pound bags of flour up four flights of stairs and cabbing downtown to Noodle Bar with dozens of tubs of soft-serve ice cream.

The highest compliment you can receive as a Milk Bar employee is to be anointed a “hardbody”: someone who goes beyond the call of duty, who never complains, who finds a solution — even in the most extreme circumstances (like the time an industrial-size mixer broke and a staffer mixed 100 pounds of cookie dough by hand, or when the heat broke and they all cooked in coats and hats). It’s an attitude found only in certain settings, restaurant kitchens and farms chief among them.

Burnt-honeybutter kale with sesame seeds

From Milk Bar Life by Christina Tosi.

Serves 4-6

If you like crispy kale, or honey butter, or toasted sesame seeds, or all three, you will love this as your new healthy-unhealthy snack! It’s also a great garnish on something fancier than a snack.

1 bunch (about ¾ pound) kale
2½ tablespoons Burnt-Honey Butter, melted and cooled slightly (recipe below)
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds
½ teaspoon kosher salt

  1. Heat the oven to 200°F.
  2. Remove and discard the stems from the kale. Slice the greens into 1-inch-wide strips.
  3. Toss the kale with the melted honey butter, sesame seeds, and salt in a large bowl until evenly coated with the butter.
  4. Spread the kale out on a baking sheet and bake for about 40 minutes, until it is fully dehydrated and crisp, like a paper-thin chip. Cool completely.
  5. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.

Burnt-honey butter

Makes about ¾ cup

Burnt honey was an accidental discovery I made back when I was in charge of the desserts at Momofuku Ko: I left a pot of honey on the stove too long and burnt it. I tasted it just as I was about to wash the pan out and found that it had taken on some crazy umami notes — and I actually found it more interesting than plain old honey! I love making burnt-honey butter with it and using it on toast or in savory recipes such as burnt-honey-butter kale (above).

Make sure your gym membership is current so you can Jazzercise it off, because once you start eating it, you can’t really stop.

¼ cup honey (nothing fancy)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ teaspoon kosher salt

  1. Heat the honey in a medium saucepan over medium heat until a candy thermometer registers 325°F, about 10 minutes. Make sure you use a decent-sized pan, because it will quadruple in volume while cooking—er, burning! The honey should go bubbly and deep brown like no place you’ve ever taken a pot of honey before. Please be careful, because hot honey can burn the living daylights out of you. And when you’re checking the temperature of the honey, make sure the thermometer isn’t touching the bottom of the pan, or you will get an inaccurately high reading.
  1. Remove from the heat, add the butter and salt, and stir until the butter is completely melted. Cool completely, at room temperature or in the refrigerator, so the butter firms up.
  1. Transfer the butter to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and whip on high speed until it is lightened in color and completely smooth, with no chunks. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, crank the mixer back up to high speed, and whip for another 45 seconds, or until the butter is super-fluffy and light brown. Store in the refrigerator until ready to use or for up to 1 month.
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Gabrielle Langholtz is the former editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan.