Tuesday, October 25, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook by Christina Tosi

 Christina Tosi has brought out the pastry chef in me.
There, I said it.

   Not since Albert Adria’s Natura cookbook have I been so inspired by the sweet side of the kitchen.. She’s reached deep into my soul and dragged up that neglected part of my culinary psyche, slapped it around and said “Come on, you can be so much better than this!”

   I admit, shamefully, that I had doubts about how good this book would be. I remember distinctly saying “Come on, [David] Chang is a great chef, but this dessert book is going to be a big book of different ways to make cereal milk.” To Ms. Tosi’s credit, she does devote an entire chapter to cereal milk (perhaps the iconic dessert of the Momofuku name... or is it the Crack Pie…?) but she make sure to keep it engaging, interesting and entertaining at the same time.

  This brings me to my next point; like the Momofuku Cookbook before it, the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook focuses on developing that quirky, ADD-like personality that made the former such a great read, even if one wasn’t planning on cooking from it (for the record, I have cooked many, many things from the Momofuku Cookbook). Because of Christina Tosi, the words “hardbody” and “real talk” have new meaning and frequent usage in my everyday vocabulary. The story of how Tosi became the pastry chef at Momofuku is as wild and inspiring as the recipes she creates.

  One of the first things you’ll notice in this book is that the recipes are divided differently than your average pastry cookbook. Tosi explains in her introduction that she built her entire Momofuku pastry empire upon a select roster of “mother recipes” that can be varied to different results. Similar to a mother sauce such as Bechamel laying the groundwork for a Mornay (add cheese), Soubise (add pureed caramelized or sweated onions) or Nantua (add crayfish shells), Tosi’s mother recipes such as Cereal Milk and Mother Dough yield incredibly creative dishes such as Cereal Milk Panna Cotta and Bacon and Scallion Bagel Bombs.

  Excitedly, Christina Tosi’s literary voice accompanies every recipe, often with a short story about how such a creative and wildly out-of-left-field dish came into existence. Throughout the book she remains humble to her roots; making sure to give credit where it’s due to the cooks, family or friends who inspire her every day. Her philosophy is infectious, and it’s easy to understand how she and David Chang co-exist under the same roof; they both share that weird “quirkiness” that defines the way they cook, think and see the world. It’s always refreshing to read a book with such beefy, personable text.

  The day this book fell into my hands, I raced home and cranked my oven, anxious to take a recipe for a spin (see: Alpha Male buys new car). Upon flipping the pages, one realizes that the measurements are in volume and weight. Grams, people, grams! Tosi addresses her decision to use both units of measurement throughout the book, citing and stressing that weight will always result in a consistent product, while those who use cups, tablespoons and teaspoons leave themselves vulnerable to the occasional mis-bake (seriously people, buy a scale!). 

  When I pulled the first tray of Roasted Cornflake-Chocolate Chip-Marshmallow Cookies out of the oven, it was like rediscovering cookies all over again. It’s like the guns-blazing, gung-ho attitude that birthed such Momofuku classics as Frozen Foie Gras Snow and the iconic Pork Belly Bun was injected into classic American dessert for the benefit of oh, say, the whole wide world.  I guarantee after eating your first Milk Bar cookie, you’ll never cream your butter, eggs and sugar for less than 7-8 minutes ever again.

  So what is it about Momofuku that enchants thousands of eaters around the world? I believe you’ll find an understanding of the philosophy within the pages of this book. It’s not in the text, the recipes, or the photographs; but as a whole, in reading everything you embrace the Momofuku way of life. Food no longer has boundaries; the cornflakes on the counter are no longer for the cereal bowl, nor the Ovaltine destined for the mug of warm milk. It’s a different kind of inspiration than that of an Albert Adria, Alex Stupak or Johnny Iuzzini. It’s neither better nor worse, just… different. The approach is that of childhood; of drawing on memories and the warm feelings of the past to create something new, yet familiar at the same time. It’s a rare occasion when a force re-innovates food in ways radical and exquisite, but I feel that what Christina Tosi has done stands as good a chance as any to inspire sweet teeth the world over.

Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook by Christine Tosi       
Hardcover, 256pp, $40 
Reviewed by Kevin Jeung

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