Christina Tosi didn’t move to New York to make friends. The onetime Italian language and applied mathematics major made her way to the city with the sole goal of working her way up through the ranks of the restaurant industry.
And that she did. After kitchen stints at Bouley, Per Se, and wd~50, Tosi went on to start the pastry program for David Chang’s Momofuku empire. She helped Momofuko Ko earn two Michelin stars and Momofuku Ssäm secure a spot on Restaurant Magazine‘s Top 100 Restaurants in the World list.
Tosi busted her ass to get where she is, but when she opened her own bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar (251 East 13th Street; 855-333-MILK), she found herself in a tight-knit group of friends that would eventually become like family. Tosi explores these relationships and the philosophy of her growing business in her latest book, Milk Bar Life: Recipes & Stories.
“I had never really considered the concept, strangely enough, of friendship,” says Tosi. “So when I opened up Milk Bar, I very much opened it like, ‘This is really what I want to do and I feel really strongly about my vision.’ I was so lucky in the moment to find and have these lovely individuals that somehow got me and had a similar approach to food and really wanted to work for me and be a part of what Milk Bar was early on.”
Tosi’s vision was fueled by a lifetime of baking, years spent in the best pastry kitchens in NYC, a (somewhat) laissez-faire approach to life, and lots and lots of cookie dough. She’s best known for whimsical baked goods like compost cookies (made with pretzels and coffee grounds), cereal milk ice cream, and birthday cake truffles.
Even though she solidified her style as an adult, Tosi began experimenting with weird concoctions around the age of five. Too small to pull out the mixer, she’d crack eggs into a bowl with sugar and call it cookie dough. As she got older, her desire to experiment grew. When baking brownies, she’d disregard the timing on the recipe — she preferred them under-baked. Rather than make run-of-the-mill Rice Krispie treats, she’d microwave butter and marshmallows, then mix it with whatever cereal she had on hand.
She continued baking into college. Nearly burnt out from trying to be the perfect student in applied mathematics and Italian, she’d spend three or four hours baking in the evenings to relax. Never one to break the rules — outside of the kitchen, at least — Tosi did what she was expected to do at school, but she was over it. She was sick of going; she was tired of the stress. “As I neared graduation, I realized that Oh, man, I’m going to be required to be a grown-up and get a real job,” she says. “I just remembered thinking, I don’t want to get a real job. I don’t want to be a grown-up. I did everything I was asked to do. Why do I have to be a grown-up? Why do I have to get a real job?”
Tosi tried her hand at working in restaurants instead. For two consecutive summers, Tosi managed a bakery on an island off the coast of New Hampshire. She fell in love. Tosi knew she’d be happy making desserts for the rest of her life. She enrolled in culinary school in NYC soon after.
Her formal culinary-school education and time in the restaurant kitchens gave her the technical skills she needed to grow. She approached work the same way she did school, constantly working and doing — she’d use her days off to write hazard-analysis plans for Wylie Dufresne and David Chang. And while she found inspiration from other chefs, especially Sam Mason and Alex Stupak at wd~50, Tosi wanted to find her own voice in the kitchen. She’d come in an hour and a half prior to each shift to experiment with different desserts for family meal. It was during one of these sessions that she first stumbled onto Crack Pie.
On a Sunday, when there were no deliveries of fresh food to play around with, Tosi decided to sample a recipe she had recently discovered in a Southern cookbook. It was called Just Pie, and it was traditionally made when there were no apples for apple pie or rhubarb for rhubarb pie; it was basically just pie filling in crust. “I just loved the concept,” says Tosi. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to make my version of what Just Pie is.’ I made this really sugary, fudgy, buttery pie, and I was like, ‘I’ve definitely gone too far.’ Within minutes, savory line cooks were running around wd~50 going, ‘Oh my god, what is this? I can’t stop eating it.’ And it was named on the spot by one of the line cooks, who was like, ‘This pie is like crack. It’s crack pie.’ ”
It wasn’t necessarily the creation of Crack Pie that inspired Tosi to define her style, but it was during that period at wd~50 that she began to discover the types of desserts that really appealed to her. She started moving away from the elaborate pastries and toward the homey baked goods she always adored: old-school family recipes, the under-baked brownies, the cereal-scented treats.
With the opening and expansion of Milk Bar, she’s brought together a team that holds the same perspective; it’s similar to her close-knit, sugar-loving family. She says there’s no line between her blood family and Milk Bar family — if you’re part of one aspect, you’re in every piece of her life. Tosi and her team find inspiration from the everyday: holidays, breakfast, grocery stores, the lunch lady. Those are the recipes divulged and stories that are told in Milk Bar Life. Tosi invites readers into their world with their family meal recipes, her grandmother’s famous cookies (a cult classic in the bakery), and their overall way of life. Photos are just as quirky (Tosi prepping for cookie surgery) as the recipes (Ritz Cracker Ice Box Cake).
If the book doesn’t make you want to finagle your way into the Tosi team, you’re probably not fun enough to be on it anyway.
Click to the next page for Tosi’s Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies.[
My Grandma’s Oatmeal Cookies
Makes 1 1⁄2 dozen cookies
This cookie is the reason I learned to bake. There was always an ill-fitting lid on a beat-up plastic storage container in the fridge full of this dough, or a plate of oatmeal cookies wrapped in thrice-used aluminum foil on the table.
With great care, my grandma rolled every ball of dough in confectioners’ sugar for a perfectly crackled finish, but she could never figure out why these cookies inspired the crazy in people. When he was away at college, my Uncle Dan would lie to his roommates and tell them the white stuff on top was mold, just to hoard a few more for himself. That was my grandma’s favorite story to tell when she handed the recipe over to everyone who asked for it. Though she would never go for this (it would probably get stuck in her dentures), I like to sneak some shredded coconut into the dough when no one is looking.
14 tablespoons (1 3⁄4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut (optional)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1. Heat the oven to 375°F.
2. Combine the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on high and cream together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix until incorporated, about 1 minute. Add the flour, oats, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, and coconut, if using, and mix until just combined, about 30 seconds.
3. Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl. Scoop and roll the dough between your palms into golf-ball-sized balls. Toss in the bowl of confectioners’ sugar until completely covered and arrange the cookies 2 to 3 inches apart on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake the cookies for 9 to 10 minutes, until golden brown and crackled. Let cool completely on the pan. For storage instructions, see page 47.