Arts restaurant review

Cereal milk, transformed

Milk Bar uses common flavors in a way you wouldn’t expect

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Cereal milk soft serve with cornflake crunch is one of Milk Bar's most popular desserts.
Courtesy of Matthew Glac

Milk Bar
Bakery, $
1-3 Brattle Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Sunday–Thursday 7–12 a.m.
Friday–Saturday 7–2 a.m.

Christina Tosi — well known for judging MasterChef and saying, “Life’s too short to worry about how many cookies you ate today” in a Chef’s Table episode about her — opened a Cambridge location of her bakery Feb. 2.

The original Milk Bar in New York City began Tosi’s rise to fame. Now, the bakery has a foothold in Harvard Square near the T station. Excited about the hype around its cereal milk ice cream and crack pie, I headed there with Sharon Chao ’21 and Rujul Gandhi ’22 to share the sugar rush.

Since I read two of her books and watched her Chef’s Table episode three entire times, I had high expectations for the desserts that have gained the attention of 500,000 Instagram followers.

I was not disappointed. The desserts there are different from what you would find at any other bakery. Part of the reason is the dehydrated milk powder that gives many of the treats a subtle flavor that’s hard to give a name to. If you have never had dry milk powder, it does not taste like regular milk. I can’t describe it easily, but I would say it is a little salty with a very mild milk-candy flavor. It’s interesting how this ingredient brings together so many items on the menu.

We ordered a sampler of Milk Bar’s “greatest hits.” First, I tried the cereal milk ice cream with cornflake crunch, a beautiful cup of soft-serve with its edges rolled in golden cereal. Upon first taste, the saltiness of the cornflake crunch surprised me. Buttery with the addicting taste of dry milk powder, the cornflakes delivered genuine crunch that was lacking from everything else we tried. The milk powder taste was present in the ice cream. It was hard to see why it was called cereal milk ice cream, since it tasted more like plain milk, but concentrating on it, I could pick up the faint taste of the cornflakes that were steeped in the milk making up the ice cream.

But, when I think of cereal milk, I don’t think of this flavor. I would have expected Froot Loops or Cap’n Crunch, but I guess this was inspired by more of an adult cereal. The taste was unexpected, much different from the vanilla ice cream it looks like and a lot less sweet. Overall, it was a bit plain and additional sugariness could have made it more interesting.

Somewhat more familiar to the senses, the “milkquakes” bring the sweetness you would expect from frozen desserts. These are cereal milk ice cream blended with cake or cake truffles. They come in B’day cake flavor or, what we tried since it’s unique to this location, Boston cream pie. Aesthetically, it is inspired by the cream-filled butter cake that Boston is famous for. Its components are yellow cake, cereal-milk ice cream, and hot fudge. It had the the taste of a vanilla milkshake with hot fudge, but it did not taste like Boston cream pie. As it melted a bit, the texture of the yellow cake bits stood out more and the flavor of it became more noticeable. The taste of dry milk powder from the cereal milk also came out over time, and overall, it was delicious.

The compost cookie tasted better than I expected it would, given it was named after decaying organic matter. The cookie was speckled with coffee and and butterscotch. There was also a good level of saltiness. However, the texture made the cookie not that enjoyable for me. I noticed the potato chips and pretzels in the cookie for their texture, but instead of adding crunch as I would expect, they added a stick-in-your-teeth kind of feeling that reminded me of stale crackers. This defined the texture of the entire cookie, since the add-ins were not in discrete chunks but were put in a food processor, so tiny bits were dispersed throughout.

B’day cake truffles ended up being my favorite. Cake truffles have the texture of a rich, fudgy chocolate truffle but taste like cake and frosting. They are made by crushing cake and buttercream together and forming them into balls. This truffle surprised me because the cake-to-frosting ratio was perfect. It had the right level of sweetness and a fudgy texture from the frosting, but it still tasted like a slice of cake, unlike many cake truffles I have had. The truffle was encased by a super-thin crunchy layer of milk powder crumble, pairing well with the dense interior. It had a faint taste that reminded me of funnel cake and summer carnivals. Enjoying these B’day cake truffles truly made me feel like I was celebrating something.

Last, I picked up the crack pie. The abundance of eggs in the filling gave it a gooey consistency, like a lemon bar. The eggs were not overpowering, and the taste was a concentrated form of the buttery caramel notes that cookies give off when baking in the oven. Though it was served a bit chilled, I suspect a couple of seconds in the microwave would have made the dessert as irresistible as the name implies. The oat cookie crust was the only disappointing part. The crumbly crust was softened by the filling, but it still stuck in your teeth a bit. The texture threw me off, and I would have found the pie better without it.

While some desserts could have been better, Tosi wins points for creativity. Enter her mind when she decided to make ice cream that tastes like cereal or cookies that combine coffee and potato chips. Think about the subtle flavor of dry milk powder, something usually reserved for busy families without the time to go to buy normal milk, that comes up in everything. Tosi brings flavors of her childhood into her desserts. Her identity is woven into the desserts through her choice of ingredients.