NEW YORK, Nov 29 — Christina Tosi is staring down a batch of sample cookies in her Brooklyn, New York, test kitchen. She picks up one, inspects it, and then bites into the red-and-white-flecked disc.
“Did you play around with the salt?” she asks Tess Mahoney, Milk Bar’s head of R&D. “We upped it 3 per cent over the control,” comes Mahoney’s clinical reply. “We had fun playing around within that 2.5 per cent space, and then we went a bit further and said, ‘That’s it.’ ”
“I worry about the bleeding of the candy canes,” Tosi says thoughtfully, delivering her responses to the tasting experiment. "And with too much peppermint, they start breaking apart and you have to put them in the broken cookie bin.” Then she laughs, a deep, unapologetic laugh. “We do love the broken cookie bin.”
The holiday-themed treat, a cornflake-chocolate-chip-peppermint cookie (that’s the official name), made its debut in 2008. Around that time, Tosi’s mother, Greta, would send care packages to her daughter, worried she was too busy to eat. One package arrived filled with dozens of candy canes—mostly broken. “I wasn’t going to hand out broken candy canes,” Tosi says. “So we decided to fold them into the cornflake-chocolate-chip cookies.” Milk Bar now produces more than 5,000 of these during the holiday season, part of the pantheon of whimsical goodies the 34-year-old pastry chef stocks in the nine Milk Bar dessert shops across North America.
Tosi, an efficient, cheerleader-peppy blonde, presides over a team of 60 people that helps create retro-inspired delights such as crack pie, cereal-milk soft serve, and compost cookies. Most of Milk Bar’s employees are in Brooklyn, where the more than three-dozen offerings are baked and sent out to every store daily. Milk Bar also ships to buyers around the US and Canada and to a few international destinations such as London. The most popular item is the sprinkle-laced cake truffle: Last year the company sold more than 600,000 of them at US$16 (RM64) per dozen. Celebrities like Seth Rogan and Dakota Fanning have taken Tosi’s baking classes and Kendall Jenner comes in for cereal milk soft serve when she’s in New York.
“But our kitchen really lost it when Karlie Kloss gifted Taylor Swift a giant birthday cake and we saw a picture of it on Instagram with her, Jay Z, and Beyonce,” says Tosi.
The chain made its debut in 2008 as a single bakery in the East Village of Manhattan, right around the corner from Momofuku Ssäm Bar, where Tosi had served as pastry chef for two years. The Washington, DC, native grew up baking with her grandmother and cut her teeth making desserts at Wylie Dufresne’s experimental WD-50, the place she credits for her intellectually rigorous attitude toward food quality. She met Momofuku’s David Chang during her second year in New York and joined the team at his popular hangout, where she developed a fan base who clamoured for her unorthodox desserts. Chang, Tosi’s partner in Milk Bar, explains, “After the cereal-milk soft serve broke out, I knew she had to do something. We had an option on a space, and she’d spoken about opening a bakery.”
They launched Milk Bar with Chang as the first investor. (The bakery won’t share revenue numbers, except to say that it generates millions annually.) Tosi describes Chang as “a great adviser and shareholder.” He says it was an easy call. “She’s the most talented person I’ve ever met.”
The profit margin for baked goods is notoriously low. A Milk Bar best-seller is the compost cookie, a ridiculous dorm-room mix of pretzels, potato chips, ground coffee, chocolate, and butterscotch chips. Like all of Milk Bar’s cookies, it sells for US$2.25 (12 for US$22.25). That’s a lot of stuff packed into one treat that costs less than any other destination cookie in New York; the Levain chocolate-chip cookie goes for more than US$6. “We see how others price coffee, cookies, wedding cakes, etc., then push ourselves to be the brand that’s fun, full of quality, and still a great deal,” Tosi says. Milk Bar’s volumes offset the cost of ingredients. The company sold 300,000 compost cookies in 2015.
“Starting a small business in New York requires a suspension of any inkling that the business might not work,” says Danny Meyer, the Union Square Hospitality Group chief executive officer and a friend of Tosi’s. “You have to be so passionate about your product — and so convinced that it will bring joy to others — that you are virtually blind to any real challenges.” Tosi is such a person, he says. “The whimsy, quality, and smiles she sells all make normal business hurdles melt away.”
This year has been filled with major events, including a wedding, expansion for Milk Bar (including a location in the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas), and new product line development. Tosi is in Los Angeles for four months a year, filming the Fox reality competition show MasterChef, commuting between there and Manhattan, where she lives with her new husband, Will Guidara, co-owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Despite the unrelenting pace, Tosi spends 24 hours or more a week honing recipes.
She comes up with at least one new product for the annual holiday run. Her latest is the grasshopper cake, an ode to the peppermint-flavoured cream pie that will be unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t attending dinner parties in the 1950s. The whole thing is pebbled with dense, sweet chocolate cookies and crumbs of chocolate, and it has a creamy mint filling. “This cake is a celebration of what makes mint cookies and ice cream so delicious,” she says. Milk Bar will turn out more than 500 of them for just two weeks of sales.
Tosi has been working recently on a healthier side of the business — also a booming growth market in the food world. A product line called Life includes juices and creative breakfast foods. “I’ve got to drink my vegetables so I can eat that cookie,” she says. The inaugural juices will come in three flavours: the green-vegetable Real Talk, the green-vegetable-with-apple Hard Body, and the carrot-ginger High Kick.
She’s following them up with a line of healthy parfaits that have non-fat Greek yogurt and mix-ins such as grapefruit, yuzu, and lemon-tea jelly. And for good measure, she’s making a topping of compost cookie crumbles, pretzels, ground coffee, and graham cracker crumbs. “It’s what I want to eat in the morning, something fun and bright. I don’t want some boring strawberries in store-bought granola.” She adds: “It also makes it easier to eat a slice of grasshopper cake for dinner.”
Christina’s Salt & Pepper Cookies
A savoury holiday treat to make at home
Combine 2 cups flour, 1 tbsp. salt, 2 tsp. ground pepper, ½ tsp. baking powder, and ¼ tsp. baking soda in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat 2 sticks softened unsalted butter with 1½ cups sugar until fluffy. Beat in 1 large egg and then the flour mix until just combined. Scoop 1½-inch balls of dough and space well on a buttered baking dish. Bake at 375°F until golden at the edges, about 11 minutes. Let cool, then spread with jam or eat plain. — Bloomberg