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Why Milk Bar Life Belongs on Our Shelves, If Not in Our Kitchens

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We spend more time talking about cooking from cookbooks than we spend cooking from cookbooks, and it’s time to change that. Once a month, we’ll have Cookbook Club—a meal planned entirely from one cookbook, new or old, big or small—and we’ll ask our community members to do the same. 

This month, we cook from Christina Tosi's new book, Milk Bar Life.

Tang Toast is made from white bread, margarine, and Tang drink mix.

I’m staring at the cover of Milk Bar Life, trying to figure out what to say about Christina Tosi’s newest cookbook, when I look up and see her face.  

My friend is watching the fourth episode of Vice Munchies’ “Fuck That’s Delicious”—a web show starring the chef-turned-rapper Action Bronson—and, like any New York food personality worth his salt, Bronson is making a pilgrimage to the Milk Bar kitchen in Williamsburg. He’s brought his aunt’s famous baklava, and together, he and Tosi toss it into a blender, add a spoonful of Benton’s bacon fat and plenty of Cereal Milk™—here, the camera lingers—and spin it into a milkshake. 

Tosi is everywhere: I see her on bus shelters when I pass the Corcoran Group’s Live Who You Are advertisements; I’ve watched her on “Mind of a Chef” and, soon, I’ll watch her on “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior,” too; I hear about her from my boyfriend’s kid sister in Baltimore, who wants to know if I’ve met her. 

As the story goes, Tosi was initially hired by David Chang (founder of the Momofuku restaurant group and a poster child for culinary bad asses) to write his food safety plan. Dessert wunderkind that she is, Tosi ended up building the restaurants’ dessert service from scratch and earned a place as the pastry chef and an owner of Milk Bar (and the winner of the 2012 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year and a finalist in the 2014 title of Outstanding Pastry Chef). The bakery, which first opened in 2008 in the East Village, now has six locations in New York, one in Toronto, and soon, another in D.C. They also ship worldwide. 

It’s not that surprising then, that despite the number of cookbooks we bow to one day then allow to accumulate dust the next, the editors at Food52 chose Milk Bar Life for our inaugural cookbook club. It’s the same reason it’s not surprising that I reach for the Cheerios instead of Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal and M&Ms instead of Milk Chocolate Gems. The choice is practically instinctual. 

Inspired by Shopsin's—the source of the original recipe—we topped our Mac and Cheese Pancakes with hot sauce and maple syrup.

Milk Bar Life is as appealing as the sprinkle-topped sugar cookies that cover the end papers. When I first got the book, I flipped through its pages with childhood glee, reaching for the food in the saturated photos as I would for packages of Ritz crackers and Fruity Pebbles in the grocery store—and happily, I'd have an excuse to do so: These nostalgia-rich foods are the ingredients in Tosi’s recipes.  

Any jitters I had in reading the ingredient lists were soothed by my faith that if anyone could take unusual combinations of often-shunned ingredients—white bread, margarine (“not butter,” Tosi specifies), and Tang drink mix in Tang Toast; a reduction of cranberry sauce and Heinz chili sauce for the coating on Cocktail Meatballs—it was Tosi, the brainchild of Crack Pie and B-Day Truffles, a modern-day alchemist. Here was my female, New-York-City-food-world role model telling me it was okay to eat junk food and it was smart and creative to cook with it. And where her first book—the 2011 Momofuku Milk Bar—frequently called for scary equipment (acetate cake collars) and freeze-dried ingredients, this one, Tosi writes in the introduction, takes a “more down-home, lowbrow approach.”   

I was wrong, first off, that this book would leave freeze-dried ingredients behind: The Mac and Cheese pancakes, adopted from Shopsin’s, call for 2 tablespoons of freeze-dried corn powder (“find it at,” you’re told; you'll also need 1 cup of it to make the Cornbread Ice Cream). One 6-dollar bottle of yellow dust and some slightly cheesy, slightly chewy pancakes later, and it was hard to taste the pulverized dehydrated kernels at all. 

Another recipe—the Grilled Ham and Cheese Corn Cookie—calls not for corn powder but rather for its offspring, Milk Bar Corn Cookies (these serve as the sandwich’s “bread”). In the headnote, Tosi urges us to “take a chance and make” this recipe that “seems like it may be weird”; it’s especially good at 11 P.M., she says, when “you really don’t have time for a two-course meal.” 

And that’s where Tosi’s self-proclaimed “lowbrow approach” to food reveals itself to be just that—an approach. This is a glimpse into how they do things at Milk Bar—and that brand is so powerful, its allure so magnetic, and Tosi so personable and so cool, that we’ll buy the book to find out—but it’s probably not going to be of direct service in our kitchens. 

The Pickled-Juice Poached Fish had a milder flavor and a more powerful odor than we expected. 

Some of the recipes we made, like the aforementioned pancakes and the Ritz Cracker Ice Box Cake, tasted like food we would’ve had to be drunk, high, or otherwise intoxicated to enjoy; yet these recipes stood at odds with others—Kimcheez-its and Burnt-Honey-Butter Kale with Sesame Seeds, for example—which, had we been drunk, high, or otherwise intoxicated, we would not have been able to pull off. The kale chips never dried out at the instructed 200° F—after 40 minutes, we had to increase the temperature to 300° F—and the Kimcheez-its, which had to bake for much longer than expected—came out tough and leathery.

Some of our community participants met success. Before making Tosi’s chocolate chip cookies, drbabs “wondered to [herself] if the world really need[ed] another recipe for chocolate chip cookies.” Her conclusion after tasting them? “It turns out that we do.” QueenSashy made the Lime, Yogurt, and Olive Oil Cake, which produced a cake that was “picture perfect” with a “sweet blast of lime.” 

Yet before getting around to reviewing the actual recipes, both testers mused on Tosi: “Christina is my kind of girl,” says one. “She wears cute dresses. She studied mathematics. She pulls turkey meat with her fingers. She makes blue cheese covered pretzels. She is not afraid to say that she likes supermarket food.” The other starts with the statement: “Christina Tosi is my soul sister.” And I want Christina Tosi to be my soul sister, too.  

But if this book came from another person—one who had not already written a wildly successful cookbook, one who was not affiliated with one of the most praised restaurant groups in New York City, one who had not built a brand on accessibility and quirkiness—we probably wouldn’t extol a successful recipe for cookies or a loaf cake; these reliable recipes would be our baseline, and then we’d demand something better. The elements that set this book apart from other anticipated titles—that it shuns conventional "high-quality” ingredients, that it ostensibly asks little in terms of technique—is actually not so different than books on convenience food-centered, semi-homemade-style cooking.

Kimcheez-its with Blue Cheese Dip and Salt-and-Pepper Cookies.

And that’s because what is different about this book is the story behind it. Food52 user sexyLAMBCHOPx puts it well when she writes that the people who will most enjoy this book are “diehard followers of Momofuku Milk Bar, a collector of women breaking out in the highly competitive world of cooking, bakers, and pastry chefs looking to cook outside of the box.” The book might not hold up in the kitchen, and it might not hold up without the strength of Tosi, Milk Bar, and Momofuku behind it, but that doesn't mean we don't learn from it. 

In an interview with Hillary Dixler, Tosi expresses her hope that this book “can be a cookbook, it can be a picture book, it can be a storybook.” Where it fails as a cookbook, it succeeds as a storybook; in a few years from now, when Christina Tosi is even more famous than she is today, we'll look back at the book and tell tales of the creative, smart, and resourceful minds behind Milk Bar, and in fifty years from now, we'll study the book and treasure it as a cultural artifact. It will be a textbook in a food culture course in which a professor lectures about the toast trend, the anti-toast trend, and the upper-class reappropriation of junk food culture in the second decade of the millennium. There will be slides from Hot Girls Eating Pizza enjoyed over a tasting of Tang Toast.

What book should we cook from for our next Cookbook Club (and would you like to join)? Share with us in the comments! 

Tags: Cookbooks, Cookbook Club