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Milk Bar's Christina Tosi Reimagines The Boston Cream Pie In A Changing Harvard Square

Christina Tosi, the chef, founder and CEO of Milk Bar, in her bakery's new location in Harvard Square. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Christina Tosi, the chef, founder and CEO of Milk Bar, in her bakery's new location in Harvard Square. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Compost Cookies, Crack Pie, Cereal Milk soft serve that tastes like the sugary dregs in the bottom of your breakfast bowl — these are the treats chef Christina Tosi dreams up. Now for her 16th Milk Bar bakery, which just opened in Harvard Square, she's decided to take on a classic Boston dessert.

A Boston Cream Milkquake. (Courtesy Milk Bar)
A Boston Cream Milkquake. (Courtesy Milk Bar)

"Whenever we open a new Milk Bar, it's an opportunity to dive deep into that city, that town, that area's favorite foods," she said. "What do they do great? What do they love most?"

Her answer is a Boston Cream Milkquake. It starts with Cereal Milk soft serve. Yellow cake bits and mini chocolate chips are blended in. Then comes Tosi's secret weapon: liquid cheesecake. She's made this dessert specifically as a way to connect to a new community.

Her play on the Boston Cream Pie isn't layered or served in slices — it's frozen and meant to be gobbled down with a spoon. When you eat it, she wants you to feel like you're eating a Boston Cream Pie for the very first time.

Deconstructing the familiar is right on brand for Tosi. One of the chef's super powers is her ability to internalize, analyze, explode and then recombine classic desserts. She turns ingredients upside down, sideways and inside out before building them back up into eye-popping homages to the sweets we loved as children.

Tosi’s built a mini-empire — with shops from New York City to Los Angeles — on her Cornflake Crunch and Popcorn Cake. The chef, cookbook author, MasterChef judge and entrepreneur is kind of like a real-life, 30-something Willy Wonka — but she trains her imagination on playful pastries instead of candies.

The reason people line up for her creations, Tosi says, is "because everyone has a secret little love affair with dessert, with a baked good, with a fond memory at its core. We all have to eat to stay alive — but when we remember those times, those places, the flavor, the texture — we feel a little bit lighter. It usually happens when we are kids because that's the first time we're having a fix of sugar. It's like coming home.”

Cookies for sale in Milk Bar. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
Cookies for sale in Milk Bar. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Tosi, originally from Ohio and raised in Virginia, started her career in New York City's culinary scene with encouragement — and eventually seed money — from another food-loving mad scientist, David Chang of Momofuku. She created desserts for his restaurant before opening her first Milk Bar alongside it about a decade ago.

Since then, Tosi's been celebrated as a fresh, new voice. In person, she exudes positivity — a spritely spirit with boundless energy. She says she started the bakery on the idea that her team would never create something that already existed in the world.

Christina Tosi's famous birthday cake at Milk Bar in Harvard Square. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)
Christina Tosi's famous birthday cake at Milk Bar in Harvard Square. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

"For me it's about inspiring celebration with a sense of innovation, time and place,” she said.

Tosi's memories of being a kid are sprinkled with strong matriarchs and time in the kitchen — "food was our love language," she remembers. Now she strives to use "food as a conduit to connect with your heart," and to connect with a community.

She's aware that Milk Bar is arriving in a rapidly changing Harvard Square. Iconic indie shops and beloved neighborhood spots are being pushed out and more corporate chains are moving in. Her new space is the Crimson Corner Newsstand’s former home of more than 50 years. (Now that institution is a few doors down, on a less-trafficked footpath.)

Tosi says Cambridge's community board asked tough questions before letting Milk Bar and its partnering company, &pizza, move in. “We're not a flash in the pan, we've been around long enough,” she says.

The menu at Milk Bar in Harvard Square. (Hadley Green for WBUR)
The menu at Milk Bar in Harvard Square. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

The bakery's hours are long — from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. — a time set after Tosi heard from the community board that it wanted to keep the square feeling lively and safe.

“Your light should almost always be on and that you have a place that's welcoming whether someone just needs a place to sit or someone needs a cup of water or someone wants a Compost Cookie.”

Now the challenge, Tosi says, is to figure out how to make relationships with students, faculty and staff at the surrounding colleges and with the people of Cambridge.

“We're nothing without the community that welcomes us in,” Tosi said. “I was raised in a family where cookies were the conduit — and that's the intention we have here. We just hope to be a part of people's lives, whatever way that looks. Maybe we create a childhood memory, or maybe we're just a pit stop when you need an ice cream on a hot summer's day — we'll be here.”

Related:

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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