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Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi: Genius Baker, Funfetti Cake Lover
Christina Tosi visits the Test Kitchen and talks nostalgic flavors, being a picky eater, and learning from failure.
11-10-2014
Terrence Doyle

Momofuku Milk Bar’s Christina Tosi—the mind behind crack pie, compost cookies, and cereal milk—is one of the most recognizable bakers in the American food landscape. She cut her teeth under the tutelage of Wylie Dufresne at his venerable WD~50, and then went on to help David Chang launch a dessert menu for his famed Momofuku Ssäm Bar. From there, she opened the first Momofuku Milk Bar in Manhattan’s East Village, an idea she says started out as a sort of production kitchen to test new desserts for Chang’s Momofuku restaurants. That test kitchen has since grown into a mini-empire and now consists of five additional brick and mortar stores in New York City and another in Toronto.

Despite all the success Tosi has experienced, she’s managed to retain a down-to-earth, everyman’s approach to food.

“The thing I hate most about food is going to a restaurant and getting a meal that feels smarter than you,” says Tosi. She says that being able to understand a meal, something she calls “getability,” is of paramount importance.

Of equal value to Tosi is the concept of memory. She says that one of her favorite parts about baking is finding flavors that she “already has a relationship with, some basic point of inspiration,” but admits that there are certain recipes she’ll never attempt because to do so would be to corrupt the original. For example, she’ll never bake a batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies. “My grandmother’s are the best I’ve ever had,” she contests. Why mess with that?

Late Bloomer

Though she’s become an adventurous eater over the years, Tosi claims she was about as picky as they came growing up.

“I had my first raw tomato when I was eighteen,” she says. “When I would be out with friends at a restaurant I would eat bread and butter until it was time for dessert.”

She counted among her favorite foods store-bought funfetti cake and its counterpart, funfetti tub frosting. “I became obsessed with it as a kid,” she says, even admitting that while in college she’d rehydrate dry mix from the funfetti box with club soda to create a makeshift cake batter, which she’d proceed to eat raw. “I just thought I was some weird kid who liked boxed cake batter.” Weird kid or not, Milk Bar surely owes its own take on funfetti—a recipe Tosi says took two years and relentless testing to develop—to its maestro’s obsession.

Tosi suspects that the lack of a refined palate, and therefore of any preconceived notions of what food should and shouldn’t be, actually helped her in the long run. “If it tastes good at the end of the day and it’s personal, people are going to receive it well.”

On Failing

When she was a kid, Tosi says she used to love “making concoctions and not following the recipe,” ignoring the exactitudes implicit in the science of baking and instead learning from throwing things together and finding out whether or not they were good through testing and tasting. Much of the time, Tosi’s creations were on the not-so-good side of things, but she learned from these failures. For Tosi, it’s often more beneficial to fail and try again than it is to succeed on the first go.

“Success is like, ‘Great, I did it.’ But there’s such a wave of emotion that comes with failure—there’s so much more to be learned from it.”

When asked about some of her more memorable failures at the Milk Bar, Tosi deadpanned.

“Barbecue sauce-flavored soft serve.”

She also cited stuffing-flavored soft serve (as part of a Thanksgiving series) as another dud, but said that Heston Blumenthal once tried it and called it one of the best ice creams he’d ever tasted.

And while the Momofuku Milk Bar has come to be known as a bastion of confectionary innovation, Tosi doesn’t deny the value of recipes that are “right up the middle,” or, for the crowd that doesn’t always want to try something too wild or too new. “You have to sell a lot of cookies to pay the rent,” she joked, still noting however that it’s important to continue to try to innovate. “There will always be an audience who craves that, too.”

Christina Tosi released the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook in 2011 and her latest book, Milk Bar Life, was released in April 2015.

A photo posted by christinatosi (@christinatosi) on

More Test Kitchen Visitors

Want to read more about other food friends who have visited us in the test kitchen? Check out our visits from bread guru Peter Reinhart and the legendary Dorie Greenspan.

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