Milk Bar Owner Christina Tosi Is All Business And Cookies This Holiday Season
Need a quick sugar break? Milk Bar has had you covered since 2008. The New York City-based brand was founded by Christina Tosi, and since then, the baker has never looked back. The Milk Bar CEO has created a chain of desserts and bakeries that push basic sweets to their flavor limits — and with nationwide delivery options, it's the perfect time for the company to drop new holiday offerings for friends and family.
In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Tosi dug deep into her inspiration for Milk Bar's new Fruit of the Loom collaboration and even disclosed some of her favorite last-minute holiday dessert recipes. The new partnership offers a peppermint bark tie-dye pie and raspberry starburst cookie cake, along with some comfy sweatshirts to match the limited edition desserts. Tosi also told us about her recently published cookbook, "All About Cookies," featuring baking hacks and uniquely delicious recipes, including dulce de leche cookies.
Let's talk about your Fruit of the Loom collab, which looks awesome. How did you go about creating a recipe for a raspberry starburst cookie cake and a peppermint bark tie-dye pie?
As a baker and as a creator, having a point of inspiration is the most necessary jumping-off point when we create in the Milk Bar kitchen. It's true in the home kitchen too. When you open your cupboards and you can make anything, you almost go into decision fatigue. Having an exciting place to start from to dream and innovate is really important. We were super excited to come up with these two desserts in ways that both felt like what we know it feels like when we put on in the summertime a great white cotton Fruit of the Loom tee — or in this case, in the cozy, cuddly wintertime, when you put on a great crew-neck sweatshirt or hoodie.
We are big fans of tie-dye — always have been. We definitely live on the craftier side of the spectrum at Milk Bar. We got super deep into tie-dye over the last few years, and when we were dreaming up what our dream merch would be, it was very clear that one of the things in our minds had to be tie-dye. Thinking about what spirit tie-dye conveys through the lens of food is a little trickier. We knew that this was going to be a holiday collab drop, so we wanted to lean into the coziness of flavors that we know and love during the holiday times.
The idea of bringing chocolate and caramel and peppermint was really important. I had this idea that visually ... I love to play with crushed candy canes this time of year and always think about what I could do new — one, because whenever you get a box of those darn things, there's always one that's broken or that falls off the tree or what have you. The tricky part about working with crushed candy canes is depending on how you use them, they bleed and streak a little bit.
As I was thinking through the highs and lows of crushed candy canes, I was like, "Oh my God, this is actually perfect, because if we fold them into a nougat — like an egg white, almost marshmallowy-based topping — at the right temperature, I bet we could get those red and white streaks to pull in a way that would mimic tie-dye." What you have is this great peppermint bark tie-dye pie.
Christina Tosi (continued): For the starburst cookie, a lot of the little ways in which we call something out or brand something is with a little starburst. Rather than going the chocolate peppermint route, we wanted to do something that wasn't a pie. We wanted it to be more of a centerpiece, a big "wow" moment. I don't think a starburst is small; it has energy to it. We dove deep into the nostalgia, but also the excitement of that holiday cookie tin.
We thought about the Linzer cookie — whether it's almond flour-based or hazelnut flour-based, that cookie that usually has a jammy center. I call it Jammy Sammy, like a jammy center. As we were doing that, we were like, "What if the starburst is actually a little round that's cut out? What if the cutout is a starburst?" Then [we wanted] to give it even more freshness, newness, [and] life. That's always our tension point of the clean, classic nostalgia with something new; I feel like we should have a pop of texture somewhere. There's this great crunchy moment that almost tastes a little doughnut-y on the bottom.
Very much what makes this partnership so great is that we share these same values, and we're both these businesses that people go to for these same feelings. [Given] food and apparel, and figuring out how to bridge those two, I'm excited with what we've come up with.
You offer quality and comfort, and the collaboration is definitely on-brand for you. It's not something that I've seen on the market.
It's really fun ... Those are the best partnerships, the ones that are a little bit like mind twists in ways that are surprising and not obvious, but when you take a step back, you're like, "The emotion is exactly the same. I just never thought about it that way." Overall, that point of inspiration is the most motivating part, the most fun part about getting into the kitchen and dreaming and baking.
Tell me what the holidays normally look like for you. Are there any desserts that are in the family tradition?
In the Milk Bar family tradition, we always do a giant cookie swap. We started it in the first year of Milk Bar. I didn't know that it would be a tradition, but 14 years ago, we were busting our booties trying to figure out how to run a bakery, let alone how to run a bakery during the holiday season. We were about a month old when the first December holidays hit. What I realized quickly was that we were all these people that were caring and hardworking and giving, and I was like, "None of us have any time to shop for gifts for our loved ones."
I had this idea: "If everyone could take 10, 15, 20 minutes to bake a batch of their favorite cookies, I'll buy a bunch of tins online and get them in. Then at the very least, wherever you go to spend the holidays, you'll have an awesome assortment of cookies to bring in the form of a tin." Also, as a baker, everyone expects you in the holidays to show up big. What I found was I thought I was solving the purpose of what to bring to the host — the host gift. We were so energized and engaged by one another baking and the story behind it. The creativity through that lens was astounding. We have our annual holiday cookie swap coming up in two weeks, and I'm already like, "What am I going to make?"
Do you know yet?
I always make two of my family's holiday cookies. One is called the Greta, which is a very humble, under-baked sugar cookie bar that is legendary in the Milk Bar universe and our little suite of cookbooks. It packs a punch every time. Then I always make cut-out cookies, because that's my favorite childhood memory during this time of year — playing cards, hanging out with family, and going to get one of those cookie tins.
One of my grandmas would always make cut-out cookies, frost them, and decorate them. I still uphold that tradition; whether it's having friends over or my own daughter or my nieces, it's a fun way to spend time together, to get cheesy, put on the holiday tunes, and spend time creating something together. This is our Super Bowl season right now.
What's one holiday dessert recipe that you can throw together at the last minute? What comes to your head?
I have two. My savory one is called corn bake. It's also one of my family traditions. It's somewhere between a cornbread and a corn pudding. If you're assigned to bring something to a potluck or otherwise, it always slays. It will be the most requested dish, and it's super easy to put together.
The other one is ... We just published our newest cookbook called "All About Cookies," and my favorite recipe that's thrown together in a jiffy is called milk flake crisp. It sounds a little kooky, but it's marshmallows, butter, milk powder, and you add in Ritz crackers. The recipe that I put into the book is dried cranberries and black sesame seeds, but you could use any sort of dried fruit that you have. You could use any cracker; you could use any seed or seasoning.
It sounds like a kooky combination, but you don't have to put it in the oven. It comes together as quick as your microwave can melt the marshmallows and the butter. It looks like a snow-fallen stack of beautiful things. It's irresistible when you feed it to someone. It doesn't make any sense. People are like, "What in the world is that?" But that is the go-to gift from a dessert standpoint that's easy to execute.
Is that in your recipe book, or is that online? Both?
It's in the newest cookbook, "All About Cookies," but you can also get the recipe on christinatosi.com. I did a Bake Club around it — the weekly baking session that I hold — if you want to see it come together. You can find the recipe on Instagram too.
You mentioned your newest book, "All About Cookies." I saw that you have everything from a jelly doughnut cookie sandwich to dulce de leche cookies. What was the process behind coming up with baking and sampling and a hundred different cookie recipes?
It's funny. It's like, "How you do anything is how you do everything." At Milk Bar, we have the tried and true classics — the corn cookie, the compost cookie, the cornflake chocolate. It's never coming off the menu. But still, you love to bake, and you love to create, and you love cookies. This cookie cookbook has been a long time coming. It's a collection of the cookies that I've been baking off the clock and that the team has been baking off the clock. There's some cookie-swap cookie recipes in there as well.
More than anything, I'm always thinking about cookies. It's the most humble entry point into the dessert world, both from a baker and from a consumer of desserts. I wanted to stretch out what a cookie is, what it can be, what it should be, and celebrate how diverse it is. The possibilities are endless when you think about flavor combinations and textures and formats.
There's low-bakes and no-bakes. To your point, there's Sammies and Sandies. There's giant cookies that we call cookies that know how to party. There's the tried-and-true dense-and-fudgies; there's stuffed cookies. There's layered cookies that we call snaps. The world needs more cookies, and cookies are our entry into the dessert scene and the power of a great dessert.
But the idea of it, the cookies, they were a long time coming. You have a notebook that is full of ideas and things that have sticky pages, because every time you have a great idea, you run home or you put it on a Post-It and you stick it in there. But it takes about a year and a half to write a cookbook, truly, to take all these great ideas and to recipe test and tell the stories behind them, et cetera.
Did you need a break from eating cookies after it was all done, after doing it for a year and a half?
That's always the joke of my team. They're like, "When are you going to be sick of them?" Maybe at the end of the day, you're like, "I need a big mug of ginger tea." But the next day, you wake up and you're like, "I'm ready to go again." That's the life of the pastry chef, that's for sure.
In your opinion, what is the most outlandish cookie recipe you included in the book?
The snap chapter probably pushes the boundaries of what a cookie can be. It's like translating how we think about a layer cake in cookie form, where there's a wafer, there's a spreadable filling, there's a crunchy filling, everything gets dunked in some sort of chocolate, and then there's some sort of decor on top. It's the cookie that has the most opportunity for visual "wow" and creativity. But it definitely pushes the boundaries of the classic scoop-and-bake or roll-out-and-cut cookie that we think of.
Say someone was approaching that chapter for the first time. What would your tips be for them?
You have to set yourself up for success. Whenever you're cooking [or] baking a new recipe, read the recipe first. It's very similar [in that] you need to execute a few steps before you can actually bring it all together. I always think about it as: Do I have all of my items in place already? Do I have my cookie bottoms ready? Do I have my spreadable filling ready? Do I have my crunchy layer ready? Do I have my chocolate moment ready?
From there, it lets you disappear into what is the most fun about time in the kitchen, letting yourself go and flow in that creative state. A lot of people think baking is a stressful thing, but it's not stressful if you set yourself up and you acknowledge, "There are these stepping stones to get to the part of the recipe where I'm creating something, and I can see the effort of my work come to life."
In your book, you also mentioned that baking soda mixed with an acid like buttermilk or lemon juice can help your cookies spread out. In what recipe or context would you recommend using that trick?
That's probably more for troubleshooting. If you have a cookie — let's go back to the classic chocolate chip cookie. If your chocolate chip cookie is super tight and isn't spreading the way that you want it to, checking the recipe and adding a little bit of baking soda will help give your cookie more spread than lift. [You're] bringing the flour down a little bit, but a little bit of that baking soda usually acts when it hits the oven, but it also really likes acid. A little cocoa powder has acid in it. To your point, a little lemon zest or lemon juice or citric acid will give it that same double activity so that you get a nice, thin spread.
Why do you advise using clear vanilla extract in baking versus the grocery store kind?
It depends on what flavor you want. There's a purpose for both ... If you have light brown sugar in a cookie recipe — light brown sugar, dark brown sugar molasses — you want your dark vanilla extract. It's those dark, warming, almost chocolate chip cookie caramelized vibes. But if you're looking for more of that light, dreamy, creamy vanilla, it's a totally different vanilla. That's when you choose the route of clear vanilla extract, which you can find in the grocery store more often than not. That is the secret flavor weapon of the Milk Bar birthday cake or the Milk Bar confetti cookie or birthday truffles.
What is the most popular selling item at Milk Bar?
It's always a race between cereal milk soft serve with cornflake crunch, the birthday cake and truffles, Milk Bar pie, and the compost cookie.
All good choices.
They're always battling it out for first place.
What do you think will be the best next big baking trend in 2023?
That's a really good question. I think we're going to continue to use nostalgic vehicles like cookies, cake, pie, [and] ice cream, and continue to push the boundaries of flavors that we know, but combining them in an interesting way or bringing new flavors into the kitchen. Black sesame has always been one of my favorite flavors. It's fun to see it brought in. It gives very much the flavor of peanut butter — which we all love; we love peanut butter and jelly — but it's in a new, deeper, more exotic way, though it still has a delicious nostalgic point of reference.
You can purchase from the Milk Bar x Fruit of the Loom collab on the Milk Bar website. Check out Christina Tosi's Instagram page to keep up with her latest baking projects.
This interview has been edited for clarity.Let's talk about your Fruit of the Loom collab, which looks awesome. How did you go about creating a recipe for a raspberry starburst cookie cake and a peppermint bark tie-dye pie? Christina Tosi (continued): You offer quality and comfort, and the collaboration is definitely on-brand for you. It's not something that I've seen on the market. Tell me what the holidays normally look like for you. Are there any desserts that are in the family tradition? Do you know yet? What's one holiday dessert recipe that you can throw together at the last minute? What comes to your head? Is that in your recipe book, or is that online? Both? You mentioned your newest book, "All About Cookies." I saw that you have everything from a jelly doughnut cookie sandwich to dulce de leche cookies. What was the process behind coming up with baking and sampling and a hundred different cookie recipes? Did you need a break from eating cookies after it was all done, after doing it for a year and a half? In your opinion, what is the most outlandish cookie recipe you included in the book? Say someone was approaching that chapter for the first time. What would your tips be for them? In your book, you also mentioned that baking soda mixed with an acid like buttermilk or lemon juice can help your cookies spread out. In what recipe or context would you recommend using that trick? Why do you advise using clear vanilla extract in baking versus the grocery store kind? What is the most popular selling item at Milk Bar? All good choices. What do you think will be the best next big baking trend in 2023?