Momofuku Milk Bar at Stir
by Christina Tosi
On a dreary day last December, I grumbled my unseasonal way into the local Barnes and Noble for some distraction and solace. What I found was a petty deception: a table filled with intriguing new cookbooks – Adria’s Family Meal, an intriguing cocktail book, and Christina Tosi’s new Momofuku Milk Bar – with a big sign that read “30% Off Selected Titles!” I thought it was clever, if unusual, to discount good new books, perhaps as a way to hook early gift shoppers. I grabbed an armful. I waited in the long line. But it turns out that “selected titles” excluded most of the titles on the table. So, back the books went.
I finally got my copy of the book last night at a special demo meal at Stir, a small Barbara Lynch space that offers nightly demo dinners. Stephanie Cmar and Caitlin Hannegan worked out a nice solution to the problem of an evening demo based on a dessert cookbook.
- Steamed buns (shiitake, kimchi) ❧ NV Simonet-Fabvre Crémand de Bourgogne
- Roasted rice cakes, red dragon sauce ❧ 2009 Laurent Kraft Vouvray Sec
- Ramen (pork belly, pork shoulder, egg) ❧ Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace
- Birthday Cake ❧ 2010 Balletto Pino Noir
- Crack pie
I might have been tempted to add one more small dessert, either as a mignardise or maybe as an amuse, but there’s a lot of sugar in this meal: that red dragon sauce with the rice cakes is deliciously spicy and savory, but in essence it’s a spicy simple syrup.
Most of the other students, oddly enough, were not terrifically interested in food and cooking. One was a cook at another Barbara Lynch property; I fancy he didn’t ask questions because he can ask anytime. The others were very eager to talk about Boston and New York restaurants, and everyone spent a lot of time discussing Top Chef.
I’m really surprised by this. OK: I’ve been reading The Hunger Games, in which reality TV is evil incarnate, and my own television was stolen last summer. But still: if there were a Top Programmer, I can’t imagine wanting to follow it. Either the participants would be really good, which would be depressing, or I’d be constantly complaining that I can do that.
This was obviously a tasty meal, and Tosi’s desserts are filled with intriguing ideas. Two strike me offhand:
- Lots of effort goes into polishing the surface of contemporary desserts, to making them look great. We don’t do this with our food anymore; we don’t fold napkins into pheasants and we don’t bake our gamebirds into a pie shaped like a hawk, the way Escoffier and company used to. Let the rough edges show on the cake.
- Kids love dessert. In addition, dessert is for us forbidden food. Dessert is gooey and gloppy and colorful. All this makes it an opportunity to reflect on childhood and to exploit the memory of lost flavors, recherches du temps perdu and those forgotten madeleines. But we didn’t have madeleines, so for us it’s infusions of Fruit Loops. Which reminds me: I owe you all a discussion of Next:Childhood. Soon
Cmar did a nice job, considering her audience wanted to gossip about television and where they eat in the financial district and how one of the local bistros no longer serves their favorite tea. It’s not an easy job. Of course, when you’re twenty-something and a grizzled veteran line cook/sous chef who got into this work as an alternative to burn out (“And who wants to listen to a 24-year-old complain about burnout?” she muses), working an audience while demoing some other cook’s unfamiliar dishes has got to be a bit of a challenge. I managed to get a few question in without obviously alienating the rest of the gang.
From my notes:
- The mushrooms for the steamed buns had been quickly sauteed, then deep fried (90 sec) after having been dusted with tapioca flour. They were great; Caitlin was snacking on them after the course. It’s an interesting technique, almost a tempura batter that makes itself with the mushroom’s juices. I still don’t understand how you get the sauté pan oil off the mushrooms, or, if you don’t, what keeps the tapioca flour from turning into a pasty mess. Worth trying, though!
- If you want to make your own Kimchee, the right brand of Kimchee Mix is made by Noh.
- The ramen was based on a very nice broth. Not much was said about that, I suppose because this class didn’t look like anyone was going to rush off and make stock. But I think it’d be very interesting to know more. I often discard the braising liquid when I make picadillo or Carolina barbecue; would that be a starting point for the Ramen broth? Or would the Ramen broth be a better braising liquid?
- They make disposable pastry bags! Who knew?
- There’s baking powder in the birthday cake frosting. Why? (I raised my eyebrows, and Cmar took the hint and said she’d already checked McGee and still didn’t know. Not informative, but that made me feel salty as hell.)
- Pairing the pinot noir, which is not a sweet or even fruit-forward wine, with the desserts raised my eyebrows. It worked for me, but I'd like to know more about the thinking here. Are we simply avoiding tannins (in which case a Malbec or Grenache might work) or looking for acid, or what?
Throughout the meal, we watched the cooking and then Cmar plated off to the side. This was too bad. It happens that a bunch of the dishes don’t have very interesting technique for final prep; if you’re reheating a pork belly in broth, there’s not that much to see. And all the mise was done in advance – I don’t think Cmar touched a knife before slicing the cake – so we didn’t learn anything about knife skills. I have absolutely no idea how to plate, and it’s just not something anyone writes about; I’d like to see it. (This may be because people are squeamish about knowing that cooks touch their food, but let’s grow up.)
Stir does quite a few of these cookbook/dinner tie-ins. It’s a very interesting concept, a signing (though in this case the author wasn’t even present – I got Cmar to sign, though, which will be just as good someday) which nets more than $100 per person over the price of the book. They regularly blow out the doors on these, it seems, though Hannegan said that much depends on the skill of the publicist. As a business proposition, it sure beats conventional signings which can sometimes feature three tired passers-by who wandered in from the rain.
I’m looking forward to reading the book. I do wish that cookbooks were less cagy about their ghost writers. And I don’t know how much I’ll be able to cook: Linda’s on a diet, lots of my guests are avoiding carbs, and everybody avoids fat. But I’ve got to try some of this.