Milk Bar's Christina Tosi on How to Build a Better Bowl of Cereal
"I go a little too deep in taking cereal seriously."
For Christina Tosi, figuring out what to put in a bowl of cereal is like a crossword puzzle. “Like, it doesn’t fit. I’m one letter over. I wonder if—No, it’s just not the answer. And you go back to it,” she explains to me over—what else—a bowl of cereal that she insists I eat before it gets soggy. "Not to force feed you, but I’m playing the game of, 'Oh, I don’t want everything to be too mushy for you,'” she jokes.
I met Tosi, who is probably best known as the founder of Milk Bar or as a judge on both MasterChef and MasterChef Junior, at Kellogg’s NYC, an all-day cereal cafe which opened in Manhattan’s Time Square in July 2016. Tosi consulted on the cafe's menu, and with her guidance, the cafe switches up its offerings every season. Starting in February, there will be three new seasonal bowls on the menu, designed by the two-time James Beard award-winning pastry chef.
And if Tosi’s beloved Milk Bar is about elevating grocery story favorites like straight-out-of-the-box Funfetti into unfussy yet gorgeous multi-tiered cakes, these newest cereal bowls are about taking inspiration from high-end pastry chefs and her own formal training, and translating it to a bowl of breakfast cereal.
First on the menu is the Pucker Up, a bowl of Frosted Shredded Mini Wheats topped with grapefruit marmalade, tarragon, raw sugar, and kosher salt, "a play on the fancy combo of grapefruit and tarragon that you find more in fine dining, palate cleansing instances." As she explained, "my parents used to always eat grapefruit halves with salt and a little grapefruit spoon. That was a very retro thing from my childhood, so I was like, we should make a fun cereal bowl that celebrates both of those things." It’s a surprisingly bright bowl that steers clear of savory or bitter, despite the addition of tarragon and sea salt. The grapefruit marmalade is definitely the star of the show, which came complete with little bits of zest.
Next up is the Do The Twist: a bowl of Crispix topped with a combination of instant coffee, dark chocolate chips, passionfruit jam, and mini pretzels. That first trio of flavors—coffee, chocolate, and passionfruit—was inspired by one of the first pastry chefs that Tosi ever worked for, and it's a combo that's appeared on the Milk Bar menu before. "It’s a very European combination," she added. "You find it a lot in French pastries." But the mini pretzels make the bowl of cereal feel less fussy, while also adding an extra kick of flavor.
"I love the pretzels in it because there’s something about the salty, malty nature of them that kind of helps the three flavors play together, as well." She notes that the milk should be poured directly over the pretzels because the salt will wash off into the liquid and further enhance the now-rehydrated coffee milk. Tosi admits that this bowl isn’t for the faint of heart, with its mix of salty yet chocolatey, along with the resulting coffee milk. “It’s hearty. Like, this is what you get as your afternoon snack, you know?” And it makes for a satisfying bowl, especially over some soft-serve ice cream.
The third bowl on the new menu is the Baklava. Tosi was inspired by the Frosted Mini Wheats, which, she explained, when you're eating raw, kind of mimic the texture of phyllo or kataifi dough, used to make the traditional Turkish dessert. There are toasted walnuts and pistachios, a drizzle of raw honey, and a sprinkle of sea salt. "What I love about it, it’s simple, it’s totally gettable, it’s super accessible, you can keep all of the ingredients," said Tosi. "I always think about, if I’m stuck at my desk and not in the kitchen and I’m starving, what’s a semi-responsible thing to go to."
Part of the beauty of all of these bowls at Kellogg's NYC is the way they combine simple ingredients into a dish that tastes so complex. They're made with readily available ingredients, some even straight from a cardboard box. "All of these things are things that you probably have at home or that are at your bodega or grocery store," said Tosi. "If you have walnuts and pistachios at your house, you can do twenty different things with them, and this is one cool thing that you can do with them so you can excuse yourself from buying a one-pound bag of walnuts or whatever it is."
But the trick is figuring out which ingredients can be combined successfully, so that the bowl of cereal is greater than its apparently simple parts. Tosi approaches the menu like a puzzle, aided by her seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of what cereals are good for what purposes. "I go a little too deep in taking cereal seriously because in order to give it back in a really fun, easy, gettable way, you kind of have to go that deep to pull yourself back out of it," she explained. Special K, for instance, is "bright, it’s flaky, it holds on to whatever flavors you give it," while Frosted Flakes are a little less delicate, "because they’re corn flakes that have a little sugar on them."
There are also some ingredients that just won't work out in any bowl of cereal. "You can’t do a fresh citrus because that will curdle the dairy, and it’s not a good look," explained Tosi. It can be easy to take it too far with dried spices, too, and overwhelm the bowl. Flavored milks, like the cereal milk for which she's known at Milk Bar, are also a challenge in this cafe setting. Tosi pushed for a pumpkin-flavored milk for the autumn menu but figured out logistics wouldn't really work. (There is, however, a banana milk on offer for a limited time as part of Kellogg's NYC's collaboration with Bocuse d'Or Team USA, as part of Chef Harrison Turrone's so-called Nebraska Fields. "I was like, 'I can’t believe you made them banana milk!'" joked Tosi.)
Being forced to work within the limitations of a cereal bowl isn't a burden, though. Instead, it forces Tosi to get creative. "I try to wedge myself in the corner of creativity, where it’s like, giving yourself as many limitations as possible to try and pull the utmost creativity out of you," said Tosi. "My greatest moments of creativity are when I’m backed into a corner. It’s harder to create when you can create anything you want. You get creative when you’re up against it."
And that forced creativity is part of the appeal of this ongoing collaboration with Kellogg's, even as Tosi is judging MasterChef and MasterChef Junior and running the nine-year-old Milk Bar, which just opened a new location in Las Vegas. "When I have many different things that I’m working on or working through, I’m actually more focused and more creative in each of those iterations," Tosi explained. "Sometimes, knowing and loving Milk Bar for so long, if I don’t give myself enough creative opportunities in other spaces off the Milk Bar menu, I get a little too comfortable in the world of Milk Bar. In cookies, cakes, pies, ice cream, savory breads. If it doesn’t fit into one of these buckets, where does it go?"
Kellogg's NYC, it turns out, which has become one new venue for these ideas and inspirations. Tosi adds, "inevitably, it starts to come back into another one of my creative spheres. Because none of them are competing with anything else. They’re just creating and innovating around flavors, and they give me that opportunity to go back to the aisles of the very basic grocery and be like, alright. Create enthusiasm, create drive, put flavors together, what does that look like." There's even a possibility that this new menu at Kellogg's NYC will have an impact at Milk Bar. "Maybe we’ll make a baklava-inspired cake at Milk Bar," she shrugged. "I don’t know that I would’ve thought about that if I wasn’t innovating with Kellogg’s around the endless possibility of a bowl of cereal."
And breakfast is one of the best places to kickstart that creative momentum. "There should be something silly and funny and hilarious about every day, the smaller iterations of life," according to Tosi. "And I think breakfast is the best place to start that moment, so it should be something that starts the creative juices and your taste buds and the way you’re approaching and thinking about things. If you have something fun for breakfast, and you’re creative for just a moment in the morning, it informs your approach for the rest of the day."