The Milk Bar phenomenon began at David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan, where Christina Tosi started out writing a food safety plan and ended up a pastry chef; she opened the wildly popular Momofuku Milk Bar in 2009. Since then, Tosi’s star has rapidly risen (much as her mentor’s did), and Milk Bar now has six storefronts in New York, one in Toronto and one coming to Washington. There are Milk Bar baking classes and a bustling online business.
Tosi’s first cookbook, published in 2011 and named for the bakery, revealed the secrets behind such trademarked store favorites as Cereal Milk, Compost Cookies and Crack Pie. It was a hard-core baking book, dense with text, full of sub-recipes. The recipes were expressed in weights as well as volume and dared you to hunt down freeze-dried corn powder and glucose.
Tosi’s second book, the newly released “Milk Bar Life: Recipes and Stories” (Clarkson Potter, $35) is a very different creature. For one, there are savory recipes (many derived from “family meals” at Momofuku-related restaurants). There are lots of pictures and volume-only measurements. Once again, some items may be a challenge to source, but only if it’s been years since you bought tubes of crescent roll dough, boxes of cake mix or “Italian” seasoned bread crumbs.
Defiantly lowbrow pleasures like those figure throughout the book, as much so in the entrees as in the desserts. Chicken puffs are nothing but cooked chicken mashed up with cream cheese and baked inside crescent roll dough rolled in seasoned bread crumbs. It’s not innovative fare, but it’s just the thing for those who like their carbs coated in more carbs.
It’s hard to resist a hot dog that comes baked into its own bun, like Tosi’s Haute Dogs. The dough was temperamental; it took me an extra
“Sauce with penne” is no misnomer: The yield is nearly a quart and a half of sauce, served with 2 pounds of pasta (serving “4 to 6,” according to Tosi. Four to six sumo wrestlers? Marine battalions? That’s a lot of pasta). It’s one of those sauces that has to go all day — well, at least three hours — but the prep is so quick, and the meat so fall-apart tender at the end, that it’s worth having to get started around lunchtime.
Fans of the original Momofuku will recognize the famous bo ssam formula from David Chang’s restaurant. It’s a dry rub of sugar and salt applied to any kind of protein, which is then slow-cooked in the oven. A bo-ssam’ed slab of brisket boasted impressive flavor, though it remained rather tough. Cubed, the meat went into Brisket Stroganoff — a traditionally homely retro favorite you may recall was once made with concentrated cream of mushroom soup. This version was not so downmarket (you make the Wondra-thickened gravy yourself, at least), but it is just as homely as any stroganoff Don Draper ever ate, and as much of a guilty pleasure.
It’s worth making Burnt Honey Butter just for the sake of getting beyond the point where you usually panic when working with honey, which is cooked down here to a caramel consistency and blended with butter. You feel sure it won’t possibly work, and then it does. Massaged into kale with sesame seeds, it makes for an over-the-top kale chip that’s more like junk food than any vegetable you’ve ever had.
The lure of her Kimcheez-Its , a kimchi-spiked take on the popular snack cracker, is hard to resist, and the result is as tangy-sharp and tasty as you would expect. But the recipe directions are not as helpful to the home cook as they should be, and they call for a pastry chef’s patience in cutting hundreds of 1-inch squares of a very thin dough. Yet again, more flour was needed, and oven times and temperature seemed off.
When it comes to desserts, Tosi’s tastes remain idiosyncratic and crowd-pleasing and, in this book at least, easy. Ritz crackers — enigmatically addictive on their own — turn into an equally jonesworthy cookie when broken up and just held together in a standard cookie dough. (They spread like anything, though, so don’t skimp on space on the baking sheet.) They taste like the emptiest of calories, but that won’t stop you from having another.
I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten a more macho cookie than Tosi’s Molasses-Rye Cookies. There’s not actually any rye in them, but the spirit of rye bread is convincingly summoned with a liberal dose of caraway (both ground and as whole seeds). They demanded a bit longer in the oven than expected, but the results were well worth the wait.
You’ll need cake mix, of all things, for Tosi’s take on lemon bars. (Be sure to weigh. The recipe calls for a 15-ounce box, but all I could find was an 18.5-ounce box that actually weighed in at 17 ounces.) The mix goes into both the crust and the filling, and it’s certainly one of the easiest lemon bar recipes I’ve ever attempted. It took 10 minutes longer in the oven than forecast for the curd to set, and its industrial potency — like lemon Tang, or lemon Jell-O powder — was more than I could handle.
It’s hard not to be captivated by Tosi’s lack of pretense. There’s something intellectually provocative about “Milk Bar Life,” with its mad juxtapositions of Fruity Pebbles and slow-simmered sauces. The book’s voice is disarming, and no one could accuse Tosi of not being an original. Yet nostalgia for an era when processed foods had the gleam of true invention can take you only so far. After the sugar high ends, and after the chemical party in your mouth subsides, you might just find yourself longing for a poached pear — comparatively pretentious, but perfect as is, and thoroughly knowable.