Go, Now, Bow Down at the Tosi Temple

In dessert, food on 02/06/2009 at 10:34 pm

As much as we were disappointed by our recent trip to the overrated Batch, we were just as much incredibly wowed by the quality and not underrated desserts we had tonight from Momofuku Milk Bar. Fronted by Pastry Chef Christina Tosi (who is only 27!), baking outside the box is her game. We cannot praise this woman enough. And the bandana theme worn by the staff really takes it to the next level. Go Team! Finally, a piece of cake really worth $5 (besides Cakeman’s red velvet). Fresh, innovative, totally unexpected in texture and taste!

Although she’s not strictly in the molecular gastronomy category of cooking, Tosi claims a good friend in Wylie Dufresne, whose WD-50 offers $140 tasting menus from a mad scientist’s food lab. According to the Milk Bar website: christina tosi and marian mar (sous chef) are both graduates of the french culinary institute. they are bouley alums who met at the tompkin’s square dog park. they are aspiring diabetic old ladies who wear matching sweat suits.

While we were browsing at the counter, I noticed Chef Tosi experimenting in her open kitchen. There was a Vitamix whizzing away something that looked like banana guacamole, but it was probably just sweet ingredients. Her staffer brought out a pan of pancakes, and she smeared some goop on a torn piece and sampled it. The genius at work…

The only critique I have of the place is not about the food, it’s about the ambience. It is too dark and trying to be hip and happenin’, except ‘cool’ people hang out in dark bars and drink liquids so they can’t get crumbs on their face. Even though they sold beer and had creepy spot lighting, the vibes were really off. We just wanted to buy our stuff and get out of there. I wonder why David Chang would make the kitchen open, but not invite you to stay awhile. There are no chairs and the tables are all bar height. Maybe people really go there just to wait for a table at the Ssam bar next door. I would go just to watch the chef at work, like a live Food Network.

From a Q&A with New York Magazine late last year (very revealing about someone’s approach to her craft, all gut instinct, some talent, goes a long way):

How did you become Momofuku’s pastry chef?
I was working at WD-50 as a pastry cook, and we’d gotten in trouble for using our Cryovac machine, and Wylie [Dufresne] said, “Hey, why don’t you help me figure out how to write a HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point] plan?” Dave Chang was getting in trouble for the same thing around that time and needed someone to help him.

So he hired you to work in an organizational capacity instead of as a pastry chef?
Yeah, a little bit. I never even had a job title; we always joked that it was “Etcetera.”

Who are your biggest influences?
Wylie really taught me how to think about food. He’s very big at making you come up with an opinion, and that’s something we try to do here. “Eat this. I know it’s good, but what do you think? Take it apart, tell me why you like it or why you don’t.” And then Sam Mason and Alex Stupak; I worked under both at WD, both huge influences.

When did you start making desserts?
I’ve always had a sweet tooth. It’s actually a very nasty habit. I rarely eat regular food. At an early age my mother stopped letting me eat cookie dough from the bowl because I wanted more. The beater wasn’t enough, the spatula wasn’t enough. So I ended up having to make my own.

How did you guys come up with the Milk Bar idea?
I don’t even remember. We were just eating a lot of soft serve at Noodle Bar and we decided that, you know, let’s open a milk bar. It was just a name, like Ssäm Bar, Noodle Bar— so little of it is about milk or cereal milk.

Cereal milk?
I never drank milk when I was a kid unless it was with really sweet cereal, and the only way that I’d actually drink the milk out of the bowl is if I’d had like three bowls of Lucky Charms.

How do you make it here?
We take corn flakes and toast them and steep them in milk, strain them, and then there’s a very small portion of sugar and salt just to balance it a little bit. The toasting of something and steeping it in milk is very much something I attribute to Sam and Wylie.

How did the Milk Bar menu evolve?
I make cakes and pies for family meal every day. I knew I had to serve pork buns. I like to make late-night food, and I started doing these soft-boiled eggs, then I would deep-fry them. We serve them on an English muffin or a large pork bun.

Your ice-cream toppings have names like crumbs, crisps, and solids. How do you make them?
We use the dehydrator, we use the oven. The peanut-butter halvah is just pulled sugar with fat, with peanut butter in it. The brown-butter solids are part brown butter and part white chocolate that we put in a pot and cook down. Sometimes it’s just playing with the makeup of something to create texture.

What’s the derivation of your Crack Pie?
It’s something that I made one day for family meal at WD-50—we used to call it Sunday Funday when the chef was away. They would always tease me for eating all this candy and sugar, so I thought it would be funny to make this sugar pie. It was so good that it got to the point that I had to put it on someone else’s station because I couldn’t have it near me. It’s brown sugar, regular sugar, butter, cream, salt, and a little corn flour to hold it together.

And what goes into a Compost Cookie?
Potato chips, pretzels, coffee grounds, chocolate chips, graham crumbs, butterscotch chips, and a little bit of flour.

What’s one ingredient you can’t live without?
Milk powder. We put it in a lot of the cookie recipes. I call it the MSG of baked goods. It adds this really interesting depth of flavor.

milk bar

We sampled the blueberry cream cookie and the pistachio cake tonight. Both outstanding and original in their own way. Some reviews have decried the excessive salt use. I found both desserts to be perfectly balanced. You can taste the ingredients separately; the high-quality sings. The blueberries were sweet and chewy; the dough was undercooked to emphasize the QQ of it. It was a substantial sugar cookie that made a statement.

One taste of the cake made me wonder, how could I ever go back to eating normal baked goods? It was the perfect balance of density, creaminess and bite of the filling and frosting. Never heard of pistachio cake? Think pistachio ice cream, using flour. There were major notes of almond, and in the filling, milk crumbles like you usually see in coffee cake, but on the inside! And these crunchy, rich morsels were enrobed in a white lemon curd. Tangy zip to cut the sweet? Brilliant! The frosting was pistachio buttercream, but the cake was just slightly outlined with frosting, not enough to take away any of its awesome power. It’s like when you meet a fantastic personality that just exudes charm and personality, nothing superficial, that’s this cake! Let’s get the resident baker’s perspective.

Q: From a baking standpoint, what are the highs and lows of the blueberry cream cookie and the pistachio cake?

A: Cookie: very QQ, moist, creamy, good flavor, not too sweet. I think it’s probably one of the best cookies I’ve ever had. It is right on the verge of almost being underdone. Cooking it one minute longer would make it too crisp, and just kind of boring. One minute less, and you have a raw cookie. It seems like a sugar cookie base, but it’s creamier. Cake: almost too rich for me, but the flavors were incredible. It was a really unique combination. I loved the crumbles in the filling.

Q: How hard is it to come up with a new way of baking?

A: It can be kind of difficult. Unlike cooking, baking is more precise, because the chemical reactions are very precise. Cooking is you add a bit here, you take away there, and it’ll still probably taste pretty good. Baking, however, is a complex chemical reaction and there’s only so much room to play with. Take too much away and it won’t rise, or bake too slow or too fast, and it might not be edible. I also really like how you can see the different components, it’s not all mixed together into a smooth paste.

Q: When do you want to go back and try other stuff?

A: Now.

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