News

How Christina Tosi Created Our Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake

It’s salty, sweet, nostalgic, and AI-influenced.

10 min read
12/5/2022
ChristinaTosi portrait feature

If Milk Bar founder and CEO Christina Tosi has a superpower, it’s identifying the best flavors of the past and drawing them deliciously into the present, reinventing each one without losing the aura of nostalgia. Her surprising dessert combinations have led to Milk Bar’s runaway success. The colorful empire that started in New York and now has locations in seven cities (including D.C. and Los Angeles) and a thriving retail business, all born out of her buttery, sweet, and gleeful creations like Cereal Milk™ ice cream, confetti-adorned cakes, and, of course, genre-busting cookies. The salty-sweet Compost Cookie, for example, is packed with pretzels, potato chips, coffee, and butterscotch — a combo that perhaps shouldn’t work but definitely does. 

So it follows that when Caviar reached out to the uber-successful pastry chef, “MasterChef” host, and“Chef’s Table”subject to collaborate on a futuristic holiday cookie — created by inputting her favorite Christmas flavors as keywords into AI image generator Midjourney — she was enthusiastic. 

“My mom was an accountant, and we would always get those big popcorn tins at Christmas. That was the big prize,” recalls Tosi. If you’re not familiar with them, holiday popcorn tins are giant canisters adorned with holiday patterns, subdivided into thirds by a cardboard divider, and overflowing with three distinct flavors of popcorn: cheddar, caramel, and butter. 

ChristinaTosi cookie article

“I loved the spirit of exploration, discovering the cheddar popcorn, then finding magnificence in how toffee caramel can blanket a piece of popcorn that’s still soft and fluffy inside, and, of course, the classic smell of melted butter on popcorn. Combining those flavors in different ways unlocked something for me. The tins felt both opulent and endless in a way that was in the magic of the holidays, and it was never really the holidays without receiving that gift,” says Tosi.

Once Tosi had identified those core flavors, we created our own digital Caviar holiday workshop, inputting words like “snow,” “popcorn tin,” “cookie,” and “holidays” into Midjourney, an AI that creates images based on text. The result was a seemingly endless array of fantastical, otherworldly, and infinitely compelling pictures, from which our Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake was born. 

After agreeing on the final inspiration image, Tosi took it and her nostalgia for popcorn tins back to the Milk Bar test kitchen to create an edible version of our AI-generated dream cookie. And if you think that tech-first process sounds like something a baker rooted in classic Americana flavors might not be into, then you don’t know Christina Tosi. 

“More than anything I think about what’s in the now, what are people really engaged in, and how are we curating creativity and innovation,” she says. “Embracing this burgeoning technology is  an opportunity — and we’re always searching for opportunities to speak to the soul, through nostalgia or otherwise. Having another tool that inspires us to think about how we’re going to create that emotional connection through food is very cool.” 

With the bold and festive design of the cookie cake decided — divided into three flavor segments to echo that popcorn tin interior, ringed with a crown of kernels, and dusted with a bit of sparkle — Tosi and her team were free to focus solely on flavor. 

Tosi grew up in the Midwest, where she says “dairy and corn reign supreme.” For her, part of the magic of the popcorn tin is how it combines those elements to create something totally new:  heat-popped corn dressed in three distinct dairy outcomes (addictively umami cheddar cheese powder, toffee-like caramel, and salty-smooth butter). It’s an innovative combo that’s a clear bedfellow to Milk Bar’s addictive combinations of sometimes unlikely ingredients. “We accept it as a given now, but it’s actually pretty risky to pair these three flavors — it’s not just salty butter and sweet caramel; it has this edgy addition of cheddar as well. I like that spirit of rule breaking,” says Tosi.

For her, it’s the potential flavor combinations and sharing possibilities of cheddar, caramel, and butter that represent the magic of the holidays, so creating a giant cookie cake with three distinct sections was key. “That’s the best part of it — it’s a conversation piece in and of itself, when you’re trying to hunt for your perfect bite, like Elaine in ‘Seinfeld.’” That perfect bite is also highly personal and subject to change — and it’s always fun to see what your friends and loved ones come up with. 

Back in the test kitchen, through trial and error, the cookie R&D team landed on a tender dough infused with pulverized popcorn for an added dose of texture and flavor, divided into the iconic trio of flavors; the cheddar is added both in shredded and powder form. “We tried a few different options where the cheddar and caramel were combined, but it was never greater than the sum of its parts. The large size was essential, because the beauty of popcorn tin is that it's communal. It’s a conversation piece, and it’s there for snacking throughout the day. And, visually, looking down on the cookie cake is like looking down into the popcorn tin from above,” explains Tosi. 

The result is the sliceable, shareable, perfectly sentimental, and slightly wacky Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake, a playful and utterly irresistible rendition of the genius Tosi sees in the popcorn tin. It’s exclusively available on Caviar, ready to be delivered in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles

ChristinaTosi cookie2 article

When it comes to Tosi’s own holiday plans, Thanksgiving meant polling her guests for their favorite dishes and waking up early to do all the cooking before hosting dinner at home with her husband, Will Guidara, and their young daughter. While that much work may stress some of us out, Tosi says: “I find peace and happiness in the kitchen with a stack of sheet pans, cooking for 10, or 12, or 20 people.” 

She has been fielding a Christmas chorus of demands for the Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake, which she sees as one more step in her mission to push the boundaries of what dessert can be. Since so much of the holiday season is about hewing to sacred memories of familiar flavors like cranberry, pumpkin, gingerbread, and peppermint, it can be a tricky time of year to try something new. It’s a challenge Tosi is up for. “How do we honor nostalgia and tradition while creating something new?” she poses. “It’s a beautiful tension.” 

If you’re still in need of holiday baking inspo, look to Tosi’s latest cookbook, “All About Cookies,” which includes classic Milk Bar formulas alongside new recipes that stretch the bounds of what cookies can be. For hands-on holiday baking, you can join her on Instagram every Friday at 2 p.m. EST for Bake Club, where she makes a new recipe in real time. 

Plus, you can now order Milk Bar goods nationwide through Doordash to send a little sweetness through the mail — cake truffles and cookies make perfect stocking stuffers. And of course, the Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake is available exclusively through Caviar in New York, D.C., and Los Angeles

It’s a hyperpersonal creation that also manages to be universally exciting, a result that was “entirely a team effort," according to Tosi. "We’re thrilled this creation has a reason to exist and to have the opportunity not just to feed people with Caviar, but also the opportunity to create it together.” 

All that’s left to do now is surprise your loved ones with a Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake. Just be prepared to defend your favorite flavor combos when you unveil it at your holiday parties and family gatherings. 

Watch Christina make the cookie:

PHOTO CREDITS:

Photos by Virginie Gosselin. First photo: The Milk Bar Holiday Popcorn Cookie Cake. Second photo: The AI image.

Topics

Author

M. Elizabeth Sheldon

Use the code SPOTLIGHT10 for $10 off your first order of $30 or more.