Sunday, November 6, 2011

It brought me right back

Momofuku Milk Bar Peanut Butter Cookies
Bakers don't get enough respect for what they do. I've heard it from people who don't cook at all. I've heard it from people who've worked in professional kitchens. It seems to be a pervasive attitude in some circles. You've heard them. They're disdainful of bakers and baking. They say things like: "Baking is what your grandmother does," or "Pastry chefs aren't hardcore enough." Well, try telling that to Christina Tosi. She's the amazing woman behind Momofuku Milk Bar, the outpost of all things good and sweet in the Momofuku empire. She's let loose such weird, wild, and delightful things on New York City as Crack Pie™, Cereal Milk™, and cake truffles. She is a one-woman force of nature, and she doesn't bake like your grandmother (which is not to say that you shouldn't love what grandmothers bake). In David Chang's words: "Don't let her nice demeanour and southern charm fool you; underneath she is a ruthless killer...just like her recipes [...] where simple flavours and ingredients combine in ways that make grown men whimper. Resistance to her sugar manifesto is futile." If anyone can take on that totally unwarranted disdain for bakers and baking, it's Christina Tosi. Let her at them.
Between the Milk Bars and the pastry programs at the other Momofukus, Tosi's reach has been limited mostly to those lucky enough to live or work in Manhattan. But as of last week, the game has changed. The Momofuku Milk Bar cookbook is out! Now we can all taste a bit of Tosi's sugary genius.
Peanut brittle
Peanut brittle shards
I got my copy about a week ago, and I've been giddy ever since. I've barely been able to put the book down. Chocolate-chip layer cake? Red-velvet ice cream? Cinnamon-bun pie?  Liquid cheesecake? It doesn't get any better than this. Christina Tosi taps into our childhood memories with her desserts and re-imagines the things we loved in strange and wonderful ways. Their flavours evoke the familiar and the comforting, the simple and sinful pleasures of childhood eating. (Tosi was one of those kids that snuck more than a spoonful of cookie dough when someone's back was turned.) In making and eating Tosi's desserts, you will be transported to simpler days--to the days in which you didn't pooh-pooh birthday cake from a box, in which it was okay to eat as much ice cream as you wanted, in which eating a handful of pretzels followed by a handful of chocolate chips was just the right thing to do. Tosi has no pretensions. She makes it okay for us to love these things again. She indulges us. She gives us her favourite birthday cake from a box, re-engineered by her and her team from scratch. What a woman.
Because Tosi's desserts are Momofuku-grade productions, most will be a bit of a project for us at home. The layer cakes, for example, typically involve five or six separate components to be made--but they totally look worth it (I have a feeling that birthdays this year are going to be especially fun). It helps that each of the recipes is derived from one of the Milk Bar's "mother" recipes. Once you're practiced at making Cereal Milk™, for example, a range of ice creams and pies calling for it or a variation on it will be at your fingertips. And you shouldn't worry about any leftovers you might end up with (though, I don't really see why you'd ever end up with leftovers). Tosi encourages the use of scraps and leftovers in subsequent baked goods. Cake truffles just are leftovers--scraps from layer cakes, whatever sort of leftover curd or cake filling there is lying around, and chocolate plus something crunchy to coat. How awesome is that?
Liquid glucose
Cookie dough!
For my first crack at the book, I opted for something far less elaborate--Milk Bar's peanut butter cookie. It only calls for two components, a peanut brittle and a cookie dough, and it's amazing. It might just be my favourite cookie ever. It has that perfect ratio of crisp edge to dense, chewy interior. And it's wonderfully balanced--when you make the recipe, it will strike you that you're adding what seems like an awful lot of salt for a cookie, but when you taste the dough (Tosi encourages it!) or take your first bite of cookie, you'll understand. The salt makes a difference--think salted-butter caramel and the difference the salt makes there. But best of all, maybe, is the peanut brittle. Tosi has you smash it up into little pieces and add it to the dough right at the end. In the cookie, these wind up as little toffee-like pockets of sweetness and chew. Beautiful, just beautiful.
Peanut butter cookies awaiting the oven
I'm not usually one for eating cookie dough. I was an obedient child and took salmonella very seriously. But I couldn't help but eat more than a little while making these. It's that good. My favourite part of making the cookies, though, was opening the jar of Skippy Peanut Butter and spooning it out for the dough. I hadn't had Skippy in years. I'd forgotten how good it smelled. It brought me right back. There were days when I didn't care what was in my peanut butter or how many cookies I'd eaten. It was nice to have a little of that again.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook
Note: About the brittle. I don't recommend grinding it down in the food processor. The team at Milk Bar does, but I found that (a) it's easier to control what size your brittle pieces end up being when you break them with a rolling pin and (b) the brittle, because it's just sugar peanuts, is very hard--the brittle flying around at high speeds in my food processor actually scratched up the bowl a fair bit. Bread flour. The Milk Bar team found that they liked using King Arthur Bread Flour best for their cookies, and I always have a few pounds of it on hand, so that's what I used. Just listen to the recipe and don't overwork your dough. Liquid glucose. The liquid glucose has a role in the texture of the cookie--remember those fudgy centers and crisp edges I was talking about? In a pinch, you can substitute 2 tablespoons (35 g) of light corn syrup for it, but the corn syrup will add more sweetness to the cookies than you really want. I bought my liquid glucose here for a reasonable price. About the cookie scoop. Milk Bar specifically recommends this 2 3/4-oz ice cream scoop specifically, and I can understand how it would be handy if you were making a lot of Milk Bar cookies, but for one batch, you can probably manage without. Baking times. It is crucial that you don't overbake this cookie. If you do, you won't get that perfect fudgy center, and you'll shrug the cookie off and wonder what the big deal is. That's what happened with the first few that I baked. Don't do it!

170 g / 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
300 g / 1 1/2 cups sugar
100 g / 1/4 cup glucose
260 g / 1 cup Skippy creamy peanut butter
2 eggs
0.5 g / 1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
225 g / 1 1/3 cups bread flour
2 g / 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 g / 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
9 g / 2 1/4 teaspoons sea salt
1/2 recipe Peanut Brittle (recipe below)

Place the brittle in a large zip-top bag and break it into small pieces with a meat pounder or a rolling pin. The pieces should be about the size of short-grain rice.
Combine the butter, sugar, and glucose in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium-high  for 2 to 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Paddle in the peanut butter, then add the eggs (one at a time, incorporating completely before adding the next) and vanilla and beat for 30 seconds on medium-high speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes. During this time the sugar granules will dissolve and the creamed mixture will double in size.
Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Mix just until the dough comes together, no longer than 1 minute. (Do not walk away from the machine during this step, or you will risk overmixing the dough.) Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Still on low speed, mix in the peanut brittle pieces until incorporated, no more than 30 seconds.
Using a 2 3/4-ounce ice-cream scoop (or a 1/3-cup measure), portion out the dough onto a parchment-lined sheet pan. Pat the tops of the cookie domes flat. Wrap the sheet pan tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or for up to 1 week. Do not bake your cookies from room temperature--they will not bake properly.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Arrange the chilled dough a minimum of 4 inches apart on parchment- or Silpat-lined sheet pans (seriously, these cookies sprrreeaad--you probably shouldn't bake more than 4-6 at a time on a standard-sized half-sheet). Bake for 17-18 minutes. The cookies will puff, crackle, and spread. After 17 or 18 minutes, they should be tan with auburn specks throughout. Give them an extra minute or so if that's not the case.
Cool the cookies completely on the sheet pans before transferring to a plate or an airtight container for storage. At room temp, cookies will keep fresh for 5 days; in the freezer, they will keep for a month.
Makes 15-20 cookies.

Peanut Brittle
From the Momofuku Milk Bar Cookbook
Note: I'm still terrified of making caramel on the stove, especially dry caramel, even though I've been making quite a bit recently. If you're new to the process, David Lebovitz has some very helpful tips  here--his photos are a good guide for the colour your caramel should be. If you have a tendency to panic and overstir the sugar like I do--creating annoying shards of sugar that refuse to melt--stop panicking, turn down the heat to low, and keep cooking the caramel. Break the shards up with your spatula, and they will melt. Continue as instructed.

1 cup / 6.8 oz sugar
1/2 cup / 2.95 oz blanched, unsalted peanuts

Line a sheet pan with a Silpat (parchment will not work here).
Make a dry caramel: Heat the sugar in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. As soon as the sugar starts to melt, use a heatproof spatula to move it constantly around the pan--you want it all to melt and caramelize evenly. Cook and stir, cook and stir, until the caramel is a deep, dark amber, 3 to 5 minutes.
Once the caramel has reached the target colour, remove the pan from the heat and, with the heatproof spatula, stir in the nuts. Make sure the nuts are coated in caramel, then dumb the contents of the pan out onto the prepared sheet pan. Spread out as thin and evenly as possible. The caramel will set into a hard-to-move-around brittle mass in less than a minute, so work quickly. Let the brittle cool completely.
Eat or cook with it at will. Store your brittle in an airtight container, and try to use it up within a month.


  1. The cookbook sounds really interesting, but I really should not buy another cookbook just now. Super Natural Every Day is on the way to me, and I just got the Mozza cookbook...
    This recipe sounds delicious. If I make I'll make them without the liquid glucose I think. I have no clue where to get it here.
    Is there something special about the Skippy peanut butter or can I just use any peanut butter I have on hand?
    There is a recipe for crack pie on Bon Appetit, and I think I have to give this a try too. I love baking healthier things, usually, but sometimes only the full dose of sugar will do.

  2. Lena, that's understandable, but you should keep Milk Bar in mind for whenever you feel like you can buy another cookbook. It's not what I would consider an everyday cookbook, but its desserts are really special!
    As for liquid glucose, the stuff that I bought is actually a French import from the Caullet company. I'm not sure how many French products make it to Switzerland, but at least you can be sure that glucose is available on your side of the world. You might be able to find it in a specialty baking shop. I think it's a pretty common ingredient in the pastry and molecular gastronomy worlds--it has a lot of useful properties. If you do decide to buy the Milk Bar cookbook, you might want to take the trouble to hunt down some because it's called for in a lot of recipes. As I said, it has a range of uses. But just for this recipe, you can probably do without. If you do bake them, let me know how they turn out without the glucose!
    Tosi specifies Skippy in the recipe and that might be for two reasons. First, it's the all-American peanut butter that everyone grew up eating, so it has that familiarity her baking tends to evoke. Second, unlike "fancier" peanut butters out there that are supposed to be more natural or whatever, Skippy isn't just peanuts and salt. There's added sugar and some hydrogenated vegetable oil to prevent the peanut oil and solids from separating. I'm not sure quite how much that matters. Whatever peanut butter you can find will probably do.
    Yeah, I remember seeing those Tosi recipes in Bon App├ętit. I admit that at the time they did look a little too sugary for me. I've been to one of the Milk Bars since then, though, and Crack Pie is really, really good. For the record, there are some less sugary things in the Milk Bar cookbook. There's a section devoted to root-vegetable ganaches that looks really cool. And there's even a bread section with some weird and wonderful -looking breads. Black pepper brioche. Bagel bombs. Enough said :)

  3. You know I was just looking at that book today. This afternoon, in fact. I'm afraid to buy it because I'll get fat and my pancreas will explode. Seriously, I have no self control for some things and if I start baking like this...well ...

  4. I looked through this cookbook while at the bookstore a couple days ago... so awesome! Everything seems over-the-top, but in the best way possible. You're right, a lot of the recipes seemed to me to have a lot of components and parts to them, but it sounds more than worth it for the results. And if anything at all it seems like a book I could read cover to cover just to get excited and inspired. I hope you keep cooking more from this book... I want to hear more experiences with it!

  5. Thanks for your long answer, I just found a Swiss online shop that sells liquid glucose, so if I ever buy the book, I'll know where to find it.
    The black pepper brioche sounds interesting, and bagel bombs too.
    I'll have to give these cookies or the crack pie a try, Tosi sounds like an amazing woman.

  6. Oana, I understand. My boyfriend and I have had a few weeks of enormous sugar rushes and subsequent crashes, what with the cake, now these cookies, and the leftover brittle. It's difficult to be disciplined with lots of dessert lying around. We might be all sugared-out for a little while. All I can recommend is that you reserve making Milk Bar goodies for when you're expecting guests, I guess. We've been giving away cookies to friends we run into.

    Amy, I've really been enjoying just reading through the book. I think I can learn quite a few new pastry techniques. There's been a lot of dessert going on here lately, but I'm hoping to make one of the cakes for Thanksgiving, so there's definitely more Milk Bar dessert to come.

    Lena, I hope you end up with the book at some point. If you try the cookies or the crack pie, I'd like to hear about it.

  7. I saw it again today at Les Touilleurs. I think I will buy it and make something crazy for a bazaar that is coming up ...