Cereal milk is my homage to steeped milk.
When I worked at wd~50, we played around infusing milk with all kinds of ingredients–grains, spices, just about anything. Some combinations worked better than others. Some were good, like sesame ice cream. Some were epic, like toast ice cream. (Imagine a perfect piece of diner toast–golden brown, crisp but not so crisp it scrapes the roof of your mouth, saturated in lightly salted butter–and now imagine that as an ice-cream flavor.)
Cereal milk, by comparison, seems almost dumb. Anyone who’s ever spent a lazy Saturday morning, drowning in holey sweatpants, watching hour after hour of USA reruns knows the flavor: It’s that dense, tasty, slightly sweet, kind of starchy, corny milk from the bottom of the cereal bowl.
The seed for it was planted when we were preparing for our spring-to-summer menu changeover, and the then-chef had cornbread ice cream on the mind. I probably made 10 different versions of homemade cornbread, but we couldn’t get the corny flavor and guilty pleasure of piping-hot-out-of-the-oven-Jiffy-corn bread just right with my homemade versions. What we got instead were a lot of infused milk tests that all tasted like lame versions of cereal: one tasted like Kix, one like Corn Pops, one like Rice Krispies, one like Special K. They weren’t what we were looking for. But, for whatever reason, I felt like I’d learned a secret: milk infusions could hit as close to home as the bottom of my cereal bowl and I happily gulped each failed corn bread milk turned cereal-flavored milk. I filed the idea away deep in the vault and got back to work.
The idea resurfaced when we were opening Ko and our dessert menu had nothing on it. And the new freezer that was supposed to hold the ice cream for that nonexistent dessert menu was on the fritz. The hype was unbearable, and I was screwed. I needed a dessert, period. A backup dessert would be nice too. And if I was smart about it, it would be one that didn’t need to be frozen to be good: panna cotta fit that bill perfectly. Now, making a good panna cotta–creamy, set just enough to hold its shape but melt in your mouth–is pretty easy. But making an interesting panna cotta–that’s the hard part.
I knew what I had to do. I had been training for this moment for years: do a milk infusion. I gave the cereal milk idea a shot. Bull’s-eye. Everybody loved it. The funny part is that we worked backward from there. My intention was only to make a cereal milk panna cotta. But owner David Chang, pushy, pushy man that he is, forcefully reminded me on many occasions that I should, at the very least, make cereal milk into ice cream. We simplified it even further, too, to create a line of flavored cereal milk to sell at Milk Bar. We make our cereal milk with classy old Corn Flakes, but we’ve also been known to steep Fruity Pebbles, Cap’n Crunch, and Lucky Charms. (See “Cereal Milk Variations” following the recipe.)
Regardless of whether cereal milk is the beverage for you, the technique–steeping and seasoning milk, then using that milk to make desserts–is a versatile one that exists in pastry and savory kitchens all over the world. It’s a technique that’s simple and totally accessible in your own home kitchen as well.
This was by no means the first recipe that came out of our kitchens, but it is far and away the most popular and what we are known best for. Drink it straight, pour it over more cereal, add it to your coffee in the morning, or turn it into panna cotta or ice cream. Cereal milk. It’s a way of life.–Christina Tosi
LC Oh, The Places You'll Go! Note
Yes, cereal milk. So simple. So unabashedly retro. So sinfully indulgent. And so brilliant as to belie the childlike genius of the pastry chef who conceived it. Although cereal milk may sound mundanely like what you’d pour down the drain from your seven-year-old’s breakfast bowl, this incarnation is actually quite a lot more inspired than that, with a rich, sweet complexity that we’d never dreamed could be derived from a box of Corn Flakes. Or Fruity Pebbles. Or Cap’n Crunch. Or just about any cereal you crave. The sweetly steeped milk is seriously stunning just sipped on its own, though don’t doubt its transformative abilities when shaken into a White Russian, whirled into ice cream, transformed into panna cotta, or in just about any other thing calling for plain old milk. And should you find yourself contemplating boxed breakfasts of yore as you sip your cereal milk, we urge you to take a twirl through The Great American Cereal Book, from which the above photo is taken. Its quirky look at iconic cereals from the past century and all manner of related factoids and ingredients, from bran flakes imbued with vitamin B1 to pastel marshmallows, make for some truly scintillating cocktail party chitchat.
Cereal Milk Recipe
- Quick Glance
- 15 M
- 30 M
- Makes about 2 1/2 cups, serves 4
- 2 3/4 cups Corn Flakes
- 3 3/4 cups cold milk, preferably whole milk
- 2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1. Heat the oven to 300°F (149°C).
- 2. Spread the Corn Flakes on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake for 15 minutes, until lightly toasted. Let cool completely. (Toasting the Corn Flakes before steeping them deepens the flavor of the milk.)
- 3. Transfer the cooled Corn Flakes to a large pitcher. Pour the milk into the pitcher and stir vigorously. Let steep at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- 4. Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, collecting the milk in a medium bowl. The milk will drain off quickly at first, then become thicker and starchy toward the end of the straining process. Using the back of a ladle or your hand, wring the milk out of the Corn Flakes but do not force the mushy cereal through the sieve. (We compost the mushy remains or take them home to our dogs.)
- 5. Whisk the sugar and salt into the milk until fully dissolved. Taste your cereal milk after you make it. If you want it a little sweeter, don’t be shy; add a little more sugar. If you want a more mellow cereal milk, add a splash of fresh milk and a pinch of salt. Store the cereal milk in a clean pitcher or glass milk jug and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
Cereal Milk Variations
- Fruity Cereal Milk
- It’s got an endearing pinky-peach color and it makes killer milkshakes. Follow the recipe for Cereal Milk, substituting 2 cups Fruity Pebbles for the cornflakes; do not toast the Fruity Pebbles. After measuring the cereal, crush it with your hands to be the texture of coarse sand or gravel, then steep in the milk as above.
- Sweet Corn Cereal Milk
- This mellow-yellow milk is good straight or over cereal, and it’s great poured over toasted cornbread. We use it mainly in a filling for an ice-cream pie. Follow the recipe for Cereal Milk, substituting 2 1/2 cups Cap’n Crunch for the cornflakes; do not toast the Cap’n Crunch. After measuring the cereal, crush it with your hands to be the texture of coarse sand or gravel, then steep in the milk as above.
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Cereal Milk Recipe © 2011 Christina Tosi. Photo © 2011 Geoff Spear. All rights reserved.