Books

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

April  7, 2015

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 milkbarstore.com,” 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! 

46 Comments

AntoniaJames April 17, 2015
I disagree that this is one for the ages. The over-the-top narcissism in the photos and the "me, me, me" focussed text - an unfortunate trend which sadly is becoming much too prevalent -- puts this squarely in the category of books I might check out of the library, but would never buy. If there are any recipes that look at all good, I'll try them (and then copy/scan what I like - "fair use" under the copyright laws). I could not disagree more with whoever calls this the "golden age" of cookbooks. ;o)
 
Lindsay-Jean H. April 13, 2015
For those of you who are interested in participating in our Cookbook Club, thanks for your interest! Every month we'll be asking 5 community members to participate along with us. <br /><br />We're currently making our way through the list of people who expressed an interested in participating (we're assuming you're interested if you suggested a book or specifically said you were interested), so if you don't hear from us this time, please try again next month!
 
Erin L. April 10, 2015
Oooooo! Bryant Terry has a new cookbook, Afro-Vegan! Let's!
 
rmcgrudiva April 13, 2015
I LOVE him!
 
witloof April 9, 2015
I don't get Cristina Tosi's food. I had dessert at the Milk Bar a couple of times when it was in the East Village and it was all too much. Everything was too big, way too sweet, and much too rich. Then a friend who lives in DC came for a visit and wanted to try Milk Bar cookies, so after a stellar dinner at Momofuku, we stopped in to the take away shop and got one of each. They were absolutely disgusting, with a nasty texture and an over the top sweetness, and we threw them all away after a bite apiece.
 
ChefJune April 9, 2015
Well, I guess I'm glad you didn't choose me to be one of the first members of the book club, because the more I read of this book the more I'm sure I neither want to own it nor cook/bake from it. That Tang Toast recipe is absolutely nauseating. (I know, why don't I tell you how I really feel? ;) )<br />I would like to participate if you're going to choose great books [like] Sean Brock's "Heritage," or Sandra Gutierrez' "Empanadas." Seems like there are so many really deserving books out there...
 
rengahan April 9, 2015
All of this is way too mental and so at the top of the food chain that it is toppling over.
 
Woofgang April 9, 2015
This cookbook and the followers of remind me so much of "The Emperor's New Clothes" - almost laughable. And I'm sure Ms. Tosi IS laughing....all the way to the bank.
 
AntoniaJames April 9, 2015
Nicely put. ;o)
 
cookeatread April 9, 2015
I would love to join this cookbook club!
 
domestik8 April 9, 2015
I love the idea of a cookbook club and of course I am forever growing my collection of cookbooks! I would love to join the cookbook club! How do I sign up? <br /><br />Great review of this cookbook. I definitely agree with the idea of wanting to like the recipes. I have the first momofuku milk bar book and I love it. However living in France the recipes have not gone over so well with friends and family, they believe in general anyway that american recipes tend to be too heavy and too sweet. Sorry milkbar, but it is kind of true. I do love those compost cookies. I would be interested in seeing what Tosi's recipe for chocolate cookies included in the ingredients.<br />
 
drbabs April 9, 2015
The cookies have 2 sticks of butter, 3/4 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, 1 3/4 cup of flour and 2 tablespoons of nonfat milk powder. What I liked about the recipe was that you melt the butter--meaning you can make the cookies in a bowl. (I'm always looking for easy recipes for our family beach vacation where I bake for 18 people.) It also has a 12 ounce bag of chocolate chips, and I actually found the cookies to be too sweet. But I can manage that--I can use a higher cocoa fat chocolate, I can add nuts (or pretzels and potato chips to take a page out of her compost cookie recipe), and I might even cut down the sugar a little. What I liked about the cookies, besides how easy they are, is that the result is crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside. And they turn out well and consistent whether you bake them straight out of the bowl or after chilling the batter in the refrigerator--making them a good cookie to make with kids and anyone else who needs immediate gratification.
 
domestik8 April 9, 2015
Thank you so much! I definitely appreciate immediate gratification recipes!
 
Pookie R. April 9, 2015
Genius? REALLY? I guess every second one of us that were poor in college are culinary geniuses. Leave it to the snobby "upper crust" of the culinary world to find genius in the "poor mans cupboard". Next she will be telling us it is "hip to be homeless". Smh. I suppose when you are that out of touch with reality processed,chemical laden foods become a novelty.
 
Amanda M. April 9, 2015
I love cookbook clubs! I started one of my own in NYC and the dinners we share are the most delicious, and fun, meals I enjoy all year. How can I join Food52's club?!
 
Stephanie April 9, 2015
How does one snag an invite to this exclusive Cookbook Club? Are there rules? The ability to opt out for a specific book if you don't have/can't get it? <br /><br />And, perhaps most importantly, is there a secret handshake?
 
mary April 9, 2015
Having grown up in a time when processed food was widely used but my mother chose to feed us what would now be called whole foods, I am thoroughly disgusted by the whole milk bar craze. Nothing about these 'recipes' brings back childhood memories. If you want to eat Tang, just pour it in your mouth. Why does anyone need a cookbook to make such outrageous combinations of 'food'?
 
Aliwaks April 9, 2015
I am a conceptual fan- I love that she does what she does, but I was so underwhelmed by the Milk Bar cookies, too sweet too sticky, but I am someone who never saw the allure of raw cookie dough, cake batter, kraft mac & cheese (even as a kid i preferred the deluxe with cheez wiz) - though I do love me some cap'n crunch cereal milk.<br />
 
AntoniaJames April 17, 2015
Sometimes I wonder if people who bake and cook with a lot of sugar develop a certain tolerance to it in their taste buds, causing them not to mind over-the-top quantities of it. So many of Tosi's recipes have a lot more sugar in them than necessary to make the food taste good, having in fact the opposite effect, as you experienced. More doesn't necessarily mean, "better." ;o)
 
anne G. April 9, 2015
This reminds me of, "French cooking in 10 minutes". Same gimmicky advertisement and cheap supermarket ingredients. However, it makes a great little conversation piece and a giggle.
 
Heather T. April 9, 2015
I'd like to join...but not for cookbooks like this one, honestly. It feels like more gimmick than substance. More reviews for books like Sean Brock's Heritage is what I'm looking for!
 
Nothing I. April 8, 2015
Tosi seems to be embodying the "norm-core" of food. She has all the pastry chef knowledge, technique, and skills, but is *choosing* to sprinkle some Tang on toast. It's certainly a statement, but unattainable (and mostly undesirable) for those of us who don't have the privilege of the same status, training, etc.
 
victoria S. April 8, 2015
The recipes are ridiculous not new and honestly gross.How she has gained any attention and press is a mystery.
 
Emily L. April 8, 2015
lovely review! extremely interested in the kimcheez-its...
 
amysarah April 8, 2015
Well done review and sounds like there are some good recipes in this book. But the idea of 'low brow' approach, not so convincing for me. Chili sauce mixed with cranberry sauce on cocktail meatballs is hardly a clever new concoction - in fact, it was very popular in the 60's/70's. I recall that same combo, plus sour cream, saucing mini-weiners. No ironic posture involved. Tang on toast is precisely the type of snack we'd have MacGyvered during summer camp sleepovers, with whatever was on hand - only appealing eaten in a dank pup tent (yes, probably while high.) I guess i just bristle at the notion of common 'low brow' ingredients becoming innovative and hip when served in Brooklyn, instead of a Des Moines suburb. Ditto cool points for 'admitting' to liking supermarket food. I just detect an unfortunate whiff of patronization in the approach (what a lark! Margarine instead of imported French butter!)
 
henandchicks April 10, 2015
Amysarah, you summed up my thoughts exactly! This kind of hipster nonsense will, hopefully, pass, and talented smart chefs will be appreciated for actual innovation and skill, not just reproducing stoner snacks from college days. A giggle and a wink over powdered drink mix and boxed cake does not make a good cookbook. Where is the Tosi who impressed everyone with her meticulous English muffin recipe?