Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Candy Bar Pie

Several months ago, I introduced you to Christina Tosi, Milk Bar, and Crack Pie. I told you that I was disappointed in my first Milk Bar recipe, but that my faith in Tosi was not shaken. I would move on to the next recipe, and the next, bound to find a dessert that tasted just as mind-blowing as it looked. What I haven't yet told you is, I have since been disappointed not once, but twice more.

First it was the corn cookies. These beautiful, grainy golden cookies that look like they came fresh from a farmhouse kitchen. Everyone else devoured them, but for me, the salty corn taste was all too reminiscent of that aggressive Crack Pie. Then there were the confetti cookies. They probably would have kicked ass, but I was convinced the milk powder I used had gone a little sour - so I once again hung back and let the co-workers take care of them (and they did, gladly).

So what was going on? So far I'd had an aversion to every Milk Bar recipe I'd tried.

Then a few things happened:

1. I quit my full-time job with the plan to be - temporarily - a freelance writer and author.
2. Josh turned 25 while I was in San Francisco. I wasn't with him on his birthday, and I made no cake.
3. After battling his way through a seemingly endless language requirement, Josh finished his undergrad degree.

With the intersection of these life events, I found myself with 3) a major cause for celebration, 2) an obligation to make up for Josh's cakeless birthday, and 1) plenty of time to tackle the most finicky, madcap, steps-within-steps complex recipe I've ever encountered.

Candy Bar Pie is Tosi's riff on the Take 5 candy bar. And as it turns out, this isn't just a matter of layering chocolate, caramel, peanut butter, peanuts, and pretzels in a pie tin. It's not like that wouldn't work - that actually sounds amazing - but it would lack Tosi's flair for ingenious complication of that which is familiar. 

Case in point? The recipe for Candy Bar Pie takes up eight pages of the Milk Bar cookbook. That includes the chocolate crumb + chocolate crust; the salted caramel; the peanut brittle + peanut butter nougat; and the chocolate glaze over whole toasted pretzels. The first couple times I glanced through this recipe/short novel, I'd end up shutting the book in defeat. I figured I lacked the proper equipment, and more importantly, I doubted my ability to maintain the grit and composure required for the nougat stage.

But the above interplay of life events kept poking me between the shoulder blades, reminding me of this circumstantial rarity. Or maybe that was Josh, asking me when I was going to make his pie. 

And so, despite my misgivings, I resolved to follow this recipe born of Tosi's deranged whim. 

Making stuff to make more stuff: that's the theme of Tosi's recipes. Cocoa powder, sugar, and butter bake up into these little chocolate crumbs only to be processed back into a powder.
Add some more melted butter, and you've got a chocolate crust.
You're looking at nothing more than shelled peanuts and melted sugar. A dry caramel, as it's called,  cooks up faster but burns easier than a wet caramel (sugar + water). I did what Tosi said and let it reach a deep amber. The resulting brittle was a little bitter, IMHO.
Petrified peanuts!

Bitter brittle shards!
Again, we build up to break down.
I make caramel again, this time with some corn syrup. Then I add it to this decadent pool of cream, vanilla, butter, and SALT.
What do you get? Salted caramel!

I should note that, up to this point, it's been pretty smooth sailing. Plenty of steps and a good dose of tedium, yes, but thus far nothing that demands a fight or flight response. Then came the nougat - that sweet, fluffy mystery junk that you love in candy bars but have likely not thought much about outside of that context. And let me say this: there's no reason to! I encourage you to disregard everything I say about making the stuff and continue on with the vague notion that nougat is an elemental substance harvested for use in our Snickers bars. Great.

Those of you who want the dirty truth, read on.

Tosi prefaced the nougat recipe with a slightly arrogant assurance that if there were an easier way to do this, she would have discovered it by now. But within the constraints of modern science, nougat can only be made by heating two different sugar + water solutions to two different temperatures. While that's happening, she tells me, I am to whip an egg white in my KitchenAid stand mixer. But I don't have a stand mixer. I could have borrowed one and saved myself a lot of sweat, but I often get defensive and stubborn when cookbooks imply that I need a more expensive version of what I already have.

So there I am, electric mixer in my right hand, candy thermometer in my left. If the first solution is nearing its target temperature, I am to turn up the speed of my hand mixer until the white reaches medium soft peaks (honestly...I'm familiar with standard egg beating terminology, but "medium soft peaks"? what does that MEAN?!). Conversely, if my egg white is nearing medium soft peaks, I am to turn DOWN the speed of the mixer and turn UP the heat under my first solution. When everything is where it ought to be, syrup #1 is whipped into the egg white. Then syrup #2 is brought up to target temperature and also added to the egg white.

How'd that go in real time? I'll try to be brief.

Attempt One: Syrup #1 hardens upon contact with the egg white. I trash it and start over, fully expecting at least one setback.

Attempt Two: Syrup #1 burns up and desiccates before it even reaches the target temperature. I am not expecting this affront to what I thought was reliable science. While Josh runs to the store for some fresh eggs, I clean all the pots and bowls and wonder if I am obligated to finish what I started.

Attempt Three: The egg white whips up properly. The first syrup does not dry up. I add it to the white in a slow stream to avoid hardened chunks. Meanwhile, Josh helps to bring the second solution to temperature. He drops the thermometer into the scalding syrup. I try to fish it out. We both raise our voices and burn our fingers. We sweat, and our patience runs thin. Finally the syrup reaches target temperature, and I add it to the egg white. Somewhere along the way, this mixture whips up into a toffee-hued cloud that I don't quite understand. But it's there! I MADE it! I resent it. I love it!

There it is - the product of sugar, water, egg white, some tricky heating, and lots of air. Work it into that pebbly bed of peanut butter + powdered peanut brittle and you can finally get on with your life.

The chocolate shell is a combination of dark and white chocolate, plus a little bit of oil. This is Tosi's clever way of avoiding tempering - a "fussy" method that sets the chocolate up for a shiny coat and clean break.

When Josh got home from his last day of Italian class, I warmed up some coffee and sliced into the pie with a dough scraper. The layers gave way to the blade with a satisfying resistance that reflected all the work that had gone into this 10-inch tin. Salted caramel oozed out on cue. This pie was showing off.

If you've managed to stick with me through this entire production, then the verdict on Milk Bar recipe #4 should come as no surprise to you. Candy Bar Pie has got to be the most complex tasting dessert I've ever made. Take a single bite with every layer intact, and you're in for a long, labyrinthine taste trip. Like, all expenses paid, airfare, lodging, rental car, and 3-course meals included. Like every other Milk Bar recipe I've made, it's salty. But it's also sweet, and crumbly, and smooth, and bitter, and crunchy. Our tastebuds were deeply moved.

We gave a couple pieces away and kept the majority of the pie for ourselves. In all, I think I only polished off about 1.5 pieces - but for a different reason than before. This pie had left a good taste in my mouth, and I wanted to keep it that way. Also, Josh kept asking if I was going to eat my pie. I probably would have eventually, but, admiring his stamina, I gave them up.

As philosophy mandates, the person who stands to gain the most happiness from the last piece deserves the last piece.