- Momofuku Milk Bar
Some time after the onset of the great global cupcake pandemic, but well before the twin "gourmet" doughnut and cake pop scourges and, god forbid, this summer's sudden-onset international Cronut hysteria, a young, junk food-obsessed pastry chef named Christina Tosi invented a gooey, crunchy, catastrophically insulin-jacking confection that she called Crack Pie.
Crack Pie was a sugar pie, effectively, but with a deep brown and satisfyingly chunky crust made from whole oats, dark sugar and more clabbered dairy fat than you really ought to know about.
The filling, too, was off the hook, as others in the pastry trade might call it – in addition to the heavy cream, the tractor-trailer loads of brown and granulated sugar, the sticks of butter and the quarter cup of corn powder, Ms. Tosi – who soon would ride the Crack Pie craze to the top ranks of the Momofuku restaurant empire – added eight golden egg yolks, which set the filling to roughly the consistency of fairground fudge.
At her five Momofuku Milk Bar sweets shops in New York (and as of two weeks ago, a sixth, in Toronto), Crack Pies soon sold for close to $50 each.
Among Ms. Tosi's other babies: deep-fried apple pies in the style of McDonald's, ice cream flavoured with cereal milk, panna cotta spiked with jam, saltines and peanut butter, Fruity Pebbles cereal cookies, and a concoction that's called "liquid cheesecake" and is pretty much exactly what you think. (That last one is not yet available for sale as a standalone. It is a component of other desserts.)
Her oeuvre is a pop tableau of chip, cereal and candy-aisle taste memory, of Age of Convenience nostalgia peppered with Funfetti sprinkles. "As a kid back in Virginia, I became obsessed with Jell-O cheesecake mix," Ms. Tosi has written, as if it wasn't clear already.
It is her good luck and the Momofuku empire's that sugar freaks are just as obsessed with what she does.
Ms. Tosi's newest store, a retail-only operation set in a refrigerated glass box on the second floor of the Momofuku complex on University Avenue, sold more than 1,000 cookies on its opening day last month – all of them flown in from Ms. Tosi's Brooklyn production kitchen. The hype brings to mind memories of Krispy Kreme.
So last Tuesday I spent more than $100 on pie and cookies. It's good every now and then to skip straight ahead to dessert.
Ms. Tosi's m.o. is to take what's good and familiar and then to crank the sweetness and salt and gooeyness until they're only partly recognizable. The more I tried, the more I realized: it can get tired extremely fast.
Ms. Tosi's kitchen dramatically underbakes its cookies, for instance, so that their texture, with few exceptions, is as fudgey and pliable as Play-doh, with only the slightest bit of crunch around the edges.
Milk Bar's corn cookie, made with corn and corn flour, was uniformly soft and dense, with a not entirely unpleasant echo of Corn Pops cereal. The sweetness very quickly hijacked every other flavour and sensation, however, and the texture become monochromatic. It wasn't the sort of cookie I wanted to eat a second of.
The corn flake chocolate chip marshmallow cookie was better on the first bite, thanks to the texture from the breakfast cereal.
Yet it, too, was too much of a good thing: By the second taste, the only impressions it made were of too sweet, too soft, too raw-tasting. It was a cookie of steeply diminishing returns.
The "Compost Cookie" (trademark, etc.), jammed with pretzels, potato chips, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, oats, graham crumbs, coffee grounds and a whack of artificial/quite possibly carcinogenic/in many cases nasty ingredients (there are 53 in total) was the most complex and tastiest of them.
You would never know there were pretzels or potato chips in it – they were chopped much too fine to matter as texture. The coffee stood out, though, with its thrumming, reverberating underscore, and there was a hit of salt for what could almost have passed as sophistication.
But as with so much else with Milk Bar, you couldn't eat a whole one without lunging for a glass of water, without dreaming of a bushel of celery and carrot sticks. Part of my reaction – and the reaction of the tasters I gathered to try Milk Bar's line – was doubtless cultural. Canadians aren't so different from Americans in most respects. As a rule, though, we're not anywhere as crazy about over-the-top sweet.
Milk Bar's B'Day Truffles are also among the company's greatest hits. They're cake scraps drenched in vanilla-scented milk and rolled with rainbow-coloured sprinkles into two-bite balls.
They taste like gas station snack cakes that have been soaked in benzene and glucose syrup, and cost $16 per dozen.
"If you grew up on Betty Crocker cake mix, Oh my God, this is the best thing ever!" one of my baker friends exclaimed. For the record, I grew up on Betty Crocker cake mix.
Another said, "Six-year-old me would be going nuts right now."
Between the four of us we ate half of a truffle. All I could do was dream about what you could get at Nadège, or Soma, or from the dessert menus at Patria or Cava or Bar Isabel or even at Momofuku Daisho, or Noodle Bar, downstairs. I even thought fondly about Timbits for a moment. I don't like it when dessert messes with my head.
What is oddest about Milk Bar's confections – about the ones that are stable enough, at least, to UPS to Toronto each morning – is how out of sync they are with the rest of what the Momofuku company does. Though Momofuku chef David Chang has built his company on salty, fatty foods – many of them amped well beyond what might once have been considered subtle – he has also done more than perhaps any other restaurateur to stretch North Americans' palates to sour, funky, spicy, deeply unconventional flavours. (Hello, kimchi.) There is balance to everything he does.
Milk Bar merely amps up white bread flavours that were amped to begin with. Nostalgia is nice and all, but Fruity Pebbles don't need remembering.
That crack pie is delicious, for what it's worth. It is also the sort of confection that drives otherwise level-headed citizens to week-long juice diets and colonic irrigation studios. You can't eat a slice without shaking for an hour afterward. And then you crash.