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New lowbrow treats hark back to childhood

Homemade Oreo-style cookies from Leah's bakery in Toronto.

Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Leah Kalish, owner of Leah's bakery in Toronto, experimented with adding different ingredients to a standard chocolate chip cookie dough until she found the ultimate combination of chewy, crunchy, salty and sweet. Her resulting kitchen sink cookies, a mish-mash of fixings you might find at a convenience store - butterscotch chips, M&M's, pretzels and potato chips - are about as far from frou-frou as you can get.

"I didn't want them to be fancy things," says Ms. Kalish, whose bakery opened this year. At her midtown shop, Ms. Kalish explains, "I don't do any French baking. … I like the simple … comforty stuff."

Petits fours can be too fussy and cupcakes too common. Instead, some bakers are mixing pedestrian ingredients with premium products, while others are revamping kitschy, outdated recipes to create elevated lowbrow desserts.

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In addition to her kitchen sink cookies, Ms. Kalish's peanut butter-chocolate Rice Krispies squares and giant pretzels dipped in caramel, chocolate and crushed Skor bars are also hot sellers. Vancouver's Butter Baked Goods carries peanut butter and jelly bars and hello dolly bars, a graham cracker and condensed milk throwback to from the sixties. And at Toronto's Delica Kitchen, homemade Oreo-style cookies are such a hit with customers, the eatery often makes two or three batches a day to keep up with demand.This new breed of desserts is anything but complicated. As Ms. Kalish says, "You don't need to be a baker or a pastry person to 'get it.' "

Most credit New York dessert master Christina Tosi with starting the trend at the famous Momofuku Milk Bar in Manhattan. A food industry darling who transforms plebian ingredients into desserts even haute cuisine chefs envy, she's been called the "Andy Warhol of pastry chefs." Her legendary Crack Pie has inspired legions of home bakers to try to replicate the gooey mess of rolled oats and powered milk. And Toronto's Ms. Kalish admits her cookies are a spinoff of Ms. Tosi's Compost Cookies, made of coffee grounds, pretzels, potato chips, oats, butterscotch and chocolate chips.

As Ms. Tosi told Bon Appétit magazine in its September issue, her odd creations are the result of a childhood spent eating lima beans with ranch dressing, Doritos sandwiches with Miracle Whip and Kraft macaroni and cheese combined with SpaghettiOs.

"I had a different perspective on food," she said. "I knew my combinations, and I knew what I liked."

Down-market desserts are, by their very nature, nostalgic, as bakers draw upon their childhood memories. And that sentimentality resonates with customers, too, who recall their guilt-free glee of eating packaged treats.

New York bakers Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito, co-authors of the new dessert book Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented, say they were raised on treats such as Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, malted sweets and caramels. But instead of whipping those ingredients together like Ms. Tosi, their hunger for ordinary flavours led them to scour vintage cookbooks and reinvent the forgotten -and sometimes less-than-appetizing - recipes.Their recipe for grasshopper bars, for instance, is a more polished interpretation of the fifties old-school pies.In place of what Mr. Lewis describes as "medicinal" tasting Jell-O, the duo make a crème de menthe buttercream, layered between a brownie base and chocolate topping. And their rendition of Almond Joy candy bars consists of a coconut cream filling made with "good-quality white chocolate," sandwiched between a toasted almond dough and chocolate glaze.

Their sweets have won them acclaim from the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart, and the two say their goal is to ensure that down-home desserts, beyond the ubiquitous cupcake, receive the care and attention they feel they deserve.

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They're tired of how most North American baking fits into one of two categories.

"You'll either find a dessert where you know there wasn't a lot of care put into it or thought behind it," Mr. Poliafito says. "Or you'll find something that's a little too stuffy, a little too, dare I say, French, where it's just beautiful …"

"But the payoff in taste isn't there," Mr. Lewis interjects, adding: "Baking can be kind of a little more fun. It doesn't have to be so precious."

For Jennifer Hamilton of Toronto, who writes the food blog the Domestic Goddess, the fun of lowbrow treats is the ability to get creative with whatever she finds in her pantry. Her desserts include items such as banana Krispies pies, made with packaged cereal gussied up with quality chocolate and homemade marshmallows.

"It's kind of like making lasagna. You take everything out of the fridge that you have, you put it all together and you say, 'Okay, this is what my lasagna's going to be like today,' " Ms. Hamilton says. "It's the same with some desserts: You can just sort of say 'I want chocolate in this one, I want to put marshmallows in it, I don't want to put this in it, I'm going to put in Skor bits.' "

Even though such items may not seem to fit with the current trend toward local, wholesome foods, Ms. Hamilton says that bakers are striking a balance.

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"You have the convenience," she says. "But you're also making the effort not to use a prepackaged cake mix."

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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