I should be rebuilding car engines or landscaping my yard on the weekends, but the hobby I pursue is baking. I love the alchemy of ingredients and enjoy the results of well-executed sweets. That is until I met Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar fame. Her cookbook has proven to be a great challenge. I haven't regretted a minute of the experience and, thanks to my friends at the City Paper who heard of my travails making marshmallow cookies and crack pies, I got an opportunity to interview her via e-mail. Instead, I went off-script and shared my experiences (and frustrations) with her in a letter to see what she might have to say.
Hey Christina, I have had such a great time baking from your book. Sure, there have been times that I have grumbled your name or shaken my head in disbelief. In the end I marvel at your approach and the delicious results. The crack pie was how I got started, but the banana hazelnut cake was why I stayed. I'm the type of person who skims directions and often flips right to the end (which is how I found the crack pie). Your book quickly put me in my place.
The crack pie was not one of my better performances. I blame it on the corn powder, or lack thereof. Turns out good old Southern grits are not a fair substitution. I learned my lesson. From there on out, if I were doing a Milk Bar recipe, I needed to follow it to the letter.
For several mornings I would drool over the banana hazelnut layer cake. That was the mother of all cakes for me. I knew there was no way I could jump into that recipe cold, so I backed off and started some of the recipes in the front of the book. More misfires. I over-crunched the corn crunch. The marshmallow cookies dissolved into a burnt sugary mess. Even the cake crumb turned out a strange hue of green!?
Oh Christina, what have you gotten me into? My baking mojo was failing. I went back to the hazelnut cake for inspiration. I drew out plans for that thing. I listed all the ingredients for the cake and its two or three sub-recipes. I became obsessed. At one point I realized there were 26 ingredients (same number as letters in the alphabet!?), and I was sure you were sending me a message. I assigned a letter to each ingredient hoping I would read something like, "Feuilletine is really something I made up, it's not real." Alas, there was no such message, just a jumble of letters.
Finally, a month into Milk Bar baking I had a success: the corn cookie. I found dehydrated corn and corn flour and was able to pull off a delicious cookie. Now I had confidence to start on the banana cake. First I made the fudge sauce that would go into the ganache. It was delicious and took me right back to my grandma's kitchen. The next weekend I made hazelnut brittle and paste. I started to despair when I could not find hazelnut paste anywhere (or feuilletine for that matter, more on that in a second). Then on an internet search I found a recipe to make paste! It turned out well, if a little too crunchy.
Then there was the feuilletine. Spell check does not like this word. I have friends in my local baking community, and I asked for their help. One said: Feuilletine? Oh yeah, I have that for breakfast every morning. How much do you want? Alas, he was joking, no feuilletine. So, I thought, I'll make it. Surely you are smiling at this thought, perhaps even laughing out loud. I have to say, whatever I made (I think they were called crepe dentelles) were pretty good. They came out like wispy little crepes, paper thin. It was pure culinary magic. Unfortunately I lacked the patience to make enough for the recipe and began looking for (the horrors) a substitution. I think I'll keep my true substitution a secret lest you chide me.
The pieces were assembled, and I was ready to face the cake. Things were coming together. My father-in-law was visiting (the one who landscapes on the weekend), and he had a ringside seat to the event. When I began to build the tower he started laughing. I've never baked anything that requires a ruler, tape, and acetate. Layer after layer, the cake began to form. Into the freezer it went. After dinner my father-in-law insisted on a piece. I told him it needed to freeze overnight then thaw out for three hours. He was having none of that, so I unwrapped the creation. So far so good, it had frozen just enough to cut cleanly. The reviews were high; everyone loved it and left no trace behind. Thankfully no one said: I thought there was supposed to be feuilletine in this.
So you are probably wondering where the questions are in this "interview." The truth is your recipes have inspired me to approach things differently. I look forward to hearing from you.
P.S. This weekend I plan to revisit the crack pie, this time with a little experience and the proper ingredients.
P.P.S. Is passion fruit purée even a real thing?
I attached a pic of my finished cake, and a shot of my kitchen in process. I wasn't sure how she would respond. I was pleasantly surprised when she sent me this:
I loved your e-mail! I am also the kind of cookbook home cook that looks at pictures, skims over recipes, and gets going, which is what was so difficult and so fun about writing Momofuku Milk Bar (MMB). Like most things at Milk Bar, I figure if I'm going to do it, I better really, really, really do it. People were chanting for cookie recipes and, of course, the secrets to the crack pie before the book came out.
And as I started writing it, I realized the only way to really do it and make it 100 percent true to me and true to our kitchen — how we bake, the final cookie, cake, pie, croissant — is to give every bit of info, every step, every sub recipe. I figured if you really wanted to learn how to make the banana cake, I was really going to tell you how to make the banana cake, as if you were a brand new cook in our kitchen. The only shortcuts that exist are the ones that I preach in the book.
In my head, it makes sense, which is why I had no idea why some people would be so frustrated by baking with MMB at first. It never really hurt my feelings or made me regret writing the book the way I did. You want to know how to make the corn cookie? This is how we do it. I had no intention of altering the recipes we use in our kitchen or dumbing any recipe down to make it easier for home. It's a damn good cookie, cake, or pie because we put that much more effort into the steps to make it something special and not run-of- the-mill.
I believe cooking/baking (techniques, recipes, ingredients) are intellectual property for all. That is something I learned first and foremost from Wylie [Dufresne, of the restaurant wd~50]. We learn from past people in the industry, our mentors, the oldest croissant recipe, pastry cream recipe, genoise recipe, and we adjust and alter and evolve from there in our field. I disagree with chefs who conceal techniques, ingredients, ratios, etc., or just alter a recipe enough so it's not as good, etc. It's just not something I believe in.
So in writing the book, I knew my aim was clear and true. I'm a firm believer of the learning curve — most times you have to put yourself out there, be prepared to tear yourself down, then build yourself back up in a kitchen to really grow and flourish and own your work/final product.
Frustrated at first you may be, but you asked for the real thing, and MMB is it.
P.S. How did the crack pie turn out?!
P.P.S. Passion fruit purée is a real thing! If you're anything like me, you'll end up using it to stir into your yogurt, next smoothie, soda water, etc.!
P.P.P.S. I like your crunchy alternative. Rules are made to be broken, and it's your kitchen, after all. But for the real thing, never underestimate the searching/purchasing power of the internet.
P.P.P.P.S Your banana cake looks pretty damn good.
So it is with renewed confidence that I dig back into the Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook (and go searching for passion fruit purée). Christina is no bullshit. You say: Christina, can I have the recipe? She says: You want the recipe? Here it is, Momofuku. She's like the Samuel L. Jackson of baking and my new hero.