“Mokofuku Milk Bar” by Christina Tosi (or, a rant about American food)

It seems a little strange to me that when, a few months ago, I had a desperate craving to buy a new cookbook, it was “Mokofuku Milk Bar” by Christina Tosi that I picked up. There is a particular genre of particularly American desserts that I don’t find particularly appealing – the inclusion of sugary breakfast cereal (the whole first chapter is devoted to ‘cereal milk’ – a dessert based on the flavour of the milk that remains after a bowl of Cap’n Crunch), candy bars and pretzels; cookie dough; marshmallows; and even peanut butter. (I mean, I don’t mind the occasional dessert or sweet with peanut butter in it, but I wouldn’t usually choose it). In fact, on reflection, this is one of the most American cookbooks I have come across. So maybe it wasn’t entirely for me. But there are some things that I do like here – I have been won over entirely by cheesecake, and the use of cream cheese in desserts (if you haven’t tried cream cheese icing yet, you are really missing out).

Cornflake crunch and ‘fruity pebble’ crunch (both made from cereal, milk power, salt and butter). Image from Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi.

One might think that my resistance to including cereal and marshmallows in your desserts is just prejudice, but let me try to defend myself a little. One of the things I don’t like is the idea of using highly processed sweets full of artificial flavourings and colourings in a dessert. This feeling is due to a number of factors – the first is just that I don’t really like marshmallows on the whole (though I certainly wouldn’t turn down the odd one charred and gooey from an open fire), I don’t particularly like most of the candy that one regularly finds in the States, and I do not like brightly coloured, sugar coated, or highly artificially flavoured breakfast cereals. At all. So, questions of whether there could be such a thing as a refined palette (and whether I qualify as having one) aside, it could be, cliched as it is, just down to a difference in taste. But I think not – here is the second reason I do not like such things:

When making food I appreciate being able to do a lot of the work from scratch. I am not saying that this is always the case – of course the vast majority of the ingredients I use are processed in some way before I use them, whether it is flour, or soy sauce, or butter. Is it that I somehow think that using things from packets is cheating? Is it that I fall into the category of people who present the popular, but fallacious view that, not only can you easily divide food into categories of ‘natural’ and ‘non-natural’, but that ‘natural’ things are always better? I would hope not, but I guess I do like to know where my ingredients come from, and I do tend to like the idea of food being organic, and locally sourced, and free from artificial flavours and colours. I think my problem here might be partly that I think that I believe that such food, everything being equal, tastes better, and that it is better for you. (Ok – I also think that, for example, locally sourced food is better for the environment, but this is a slightly different topic). And such beliefs actually affect my enjoyment of a food – if I believe it is good and should taste better, it will probably taste better to me. If you have similar beliefs about ‘natural’ ingredients in food, you should probably have the same intuitions about food made out of sugary cereal and marshmallows.

But there is another reason that I reject this food trend of sweets that are made for children being popular with trendy adults epitomised by Momofuku Milk Bar: The whole thing just seems unsophisticated. And maybe that is the whole point – this is unashamedly inspired by the kind of food American children like (and that their more health-conscious parents deny them). I mean, come on – if I wanted sophisticated, then why on earth would I buy such a book? Ok – that is probably right. And for the person who wants dessert to take them back to the forbidden foods of their childhood, then this is probably a perfect choice. But this trend in desserts does seem to be represented increasingly in the world of respected culinary arts.

Sometimes I wonder why, if what you like so much are the highly processed American sugary foods, you wouldn’t just go out for a bag of mini marshmallows, or have a bowl of fruitloops, rather than putting so much effort into making a full dessert out of them? Then again, you could also make a brownie pie with mint cheesecake filling, covered in mini marshmallows, and topped off with warm mint glaze. After all, who wants to settle for a candy bar, when they could have a cake made out of candy bars?  I guess it must be a cultural thing.

Grasshopper Pie. 

Image from Momofuku Milk Bar by Christina Tosi.

Here are a few of my other thoughts about the book: It is beautifully made (very clearly this was one of the things that led me to buy it in the first place) – the design is clean and uncrowded, and the photography is good. There are also photographs of the end product of most recipes, which is something I find myself not just wanting in a recipe book (pictures are a great guide to how you wished your food looked), but that is one of the great reasons I would want to own a recipe book in the first place – to look through and salivate over all the pictures of food that I have not yet gotten around to making. On top of that, for some of the more complicated recipes there are photos that show the cooking or construction process, which can be extremely helpful when you are working on a recipe that is not like anything you have made before.

Other reviewers (and Milk Bar customers) have complained about the fact that much of the food is just too sweet, and that most of the pie and cake recipes have you essentially making and then combining three or more completely separate recipes. My biggest gripe, however, was the fact that a very significant number of the recipes call for gelatine. I don’t eat red meat, and would really prefer to avoid using gelatine where I can – there are so many desserts that can be made without it and I wonder here if it is really so necessary. There is gelatine in everything from guava sorbet to the lemon curd used between layers in the pistachio layer cake (the main recipe that drew me to this book in the first place) – and while there are instructions for substituting gelatine powder for leaf gelatine, there are no instructions for substituting any kind of vegetarian alternative.

Overall this does not seem to be so much a book designed for home cooks as a description of exactly how the food at Momofuku Milk Bar is made. If you want to replicate it exactly, then I’m sure this is the way to go. Or you could just go to one of its five New York locations, and buy a slice of pistachio cake over the counter.

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One thought on ““Mokofuku Milk Bar” by Christina Tosi (or, a rant about American food)

  1. What a coincidence, i am literally making a few things out of that book today in preparation for Easter! I love the book, but maybe because my exposure to the type of recipes it includes is rather limited. But i do agree a lot of the recipes would be challenging for home cooks.

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