The holidays are a time when families gather joyfully in the kitchen, surrounding a warm oven, making the season all the sweeter with baked goods. No one personifies the joy of holiday baking better than chef Christina Tosi, founder/owner of Milk Bar bakeries and author of new dessert book Milk Bar All About Cake. She talked with Francis Lam about baking recipes both simple and superfluous, how to take advantage of winter’s frigid outdoor temperatures, and how a handmade present brightens the gift-giving experience. You’ll definitely want to try her family recipe for Cut-Out Cookies and the playfully group-friendly Cake Truffles.
Francis Lam: I know that you grew up baking a lot with your family. In the book you write about baking sheet cakes for the neighborhood and for the PTA. Do you have special things that you and your family would make around the holidays?
Christina Tosi: Yes, we have a lot of family traditions in the kitchen. The standard in the household, no matter where you are – in my sister's kitchen, my kitchen, my mom's kitchen, my aunt's kitchen – is a very simple cut-out cookie, like the buttery, snappy cut-out cookie. Our family recipe is four ingredients: butter, light brown sugar, flour and salt. No leaveners, no this, no that. It's super shortbread-y and it's super snappy. You have to roll it out thin. Because my family loves sugar, this is place where they’ve become very fine-tuned in the technique of rolling it to the right thinness. Sometimes the cookies get frosted, sometimes they don't.
Christina Tosi Photo: Gabriele Stabile
FL: The idea is it's thin. Because if you don't have leavener, then it'll be kind of hard and tough if you're not really rolling it thin. So, the cookies are nice and snappy.
CT: Exactly. There's no leavener, but there's also no water content – no egg, no milk, there's even no vanilla extract – so what you also get is a tender cookie. If we're going to go into dorky baking mode, the second you add water content to flour, flour wants to start developing gluten. But because there is very little water content in this recipe – there’s none, from anything other than the butter – you get an impossibly buttery, impossibly tender cut-out cookie. This is the holiday staple in my family.
FL: Where did the recipe come from?
CT: My dad's mom. My father is Italian. My dad's mom was Slovakian. Honestly, the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, is where it came from, because that's where she was born and raised. But that whole spirit of my family recipe, where you get super proud about the one recipe that your family nails, is this one for us, especially during the holidays.
FL: That's awesome. I also have to admit, I would not have thought that for you. It's so simple.
CT: Like it should be so much more elaborate?
FL: Yeah, I mean the typical Tosi cake with 14 layers, three fillings, two jams, four garnishes. [laughs]
CT: I have my own crazy things that I whip up over the holidays, but this cut-out cookie is my family tradition. For me, it screams holidays. I crave it. I request it. We make it in crazy amounts.
The other pro-tip is that you eat them directly out of the freezer or out of a cookie tin that sits outside. It's so cold in Virginia and in Ohio, where my family is all located, that you have to run outside to the garage, side yard, or deck to get the cookies because our family is so serious about holiday cooking and baking that we use your outdoors as our refrigerator and freezer. That is the holidays in a nutshell. I need nothing other than that to make my heart feel like it's at home this time of year.
Christina's family loves these super simple Cut-Out Cookies. Yours will too! Photo: Gabriele Stabile
FL: You mentioned you have other things that you make for the holidays now.
CT: I'm always split during the holidays because I never show up anywhere empty-handed. It's the thing that my mom and my grandma instilled in me at an early age. The other reality is that people expect me to bring something from Milk Bar because it's my bakery and not a hard thing to deliver on – and I do so happily. They want the crack pie, pumpkin dulce de leche or my peppermint bark layer cake, so I always bring stuff from the bakery.
But then, for me, the spirit of the holidays is me spending all my free time in the home kitchen. So, whether I'm invading someone's home kitchen or I'm having people over, in the morning I always make cinnamon buns. Like the morning of Thanksgiving, the morning of Christmas, I always make cinnamon buns, which means I stay up the night before getting the dough and all the fixings ready.
And then for the main event, I'm not going to lie, I go a little crazy. I will either ship ingredients to wherever I will be, or go crazy grocery shopping, which is also part of the fun. But I will do everything from, I have a triple layer cheesecake that I've been making since I was a teenager. I also have this pie that I've been making since I was a teenager that is a chocolate cookie crust and then I take a tub of Cool Whip and I fold in melted Hershey's Kisses and then I chop up a whole bag of Reese's peanut butter cups and put them as a layer in between. It's basically a chocolate peanut butter pie, but it was the thing that I would make before I truly knew how to bake. These are two items that are often requested by my family. But then, I just go crazy. If there is an extra stick of butter, I'm making cookies. I'm free associating this butter into another baked good because it's the time of year where I feel most like myself.
For a fun holiday party project, check out Christina Tosi's recipe for Birthday Crumbs and Cake Truffles. Photo: Gabriele Stabile
FL: It is the holidays and I'm thinking about gifts. I know Milk Bar has all these things like fun mixes and little tasty things; I think of them almost like dessert condiments. I thought it'd be so rad to make jars of these things as gifts that I can hand out.
CT: I'm a big believer that the best gifts are the most thoughtful and most human, and I think nothing trumps something to eat that is made in your kitchen and that is thoughtfully put together. It doesn't cost a lot, but I think it says so much more than money can put a price tag on. A jar of cookies or a tin of small cookies, doesn't have to be a big batch, but scooping them out small and making them into this thoughtful, purposeful nibble of a gift that I think is powerful. I'm a big fan of rosemary nuts. This is something that my sister used to make as a teenager. They're a sweet and salty mix of nuts with some chopped up rosemary. That in a fun container is really sweet.
Sometimes I will give the finished product, sometimes I'll give the mix itself, whether it's a confetti cookie mix or something that encourages a community within the recipient's kitchen. It's even more fun when you pair it with what the recipe needs, whether it's two sticks of butter and an egg, or something that most people wouldn't go the extra mile to give.
I'm also a really big fan of giving a cookbook and two or three, I don't want to say hard to source ingredients, but ingredients that you wouldn't normally stock in your own cupboard. A lot of our secret weapon ingredients at Milk Bar are super simple. It's either really nice European-style butter or corn powder, which is freeze-dried corn that's just ground up into a flour. Something that helps get them to the next stage of the book or the recipe. But, nothing beats a batch of birthday crumbs that you put in a sweet little container that just lets the recipient know that these are your favorite snack and that you hope they like them, too. It’s that sort of gift that, again, money can't buy that, and there's a connection where you're sharing a little bit of yourself.
Cake truffles is a great one, too. It is the nibble of cake that we make at Milk Bar with what is essentially cake scraps. We make so many of them that, at this point, we bake cake just to mush them into cake truffles. It is the most fun activity that you could get into with your family. You take cake – whether it's fresh cake or store-bought cake or what-have-you – and mix it with some moisture-added flavorful ingredient – whether it's strawberry milk, coffee, beer, or raspberry jam – until it's moist enough to form its own ball. Then you dunk it in a super-thin layer of chocolate. Then you roll it in something crunchy or sandy that has its own edge of flavor that makes sense with the overall cake truffle. One of my favorite moves is taking a standard angel food or vanilla cake, mixing it with an orange or tangerine jam until it's moist enough, dunking it in a little white chocolate, and then rolling it in some toasted coconut. It's the most perfect magical sort of snow-dipped bite of cake that is perfect if you're hosting or perfect to give as a gift.
I'm getting very excited, I'm going to literally sprint out of here and into my kitchen.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.