Christina Tosi's Secret For Delicious Cheetos Cake - Exclusive Interview

Christina Tosi, the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and founder/CEO of Milk Bar, is known for many signature desserts. She unlocked the magic of cereal milk, and her gooey Milk Bar pie is extremely craveable. Perhaps her most iconic sweet creation is her birthday cake, a riff on a classic Funfetti cake that is left unfrosted on the sides to reveal all of the beautiful layers. 

Who else could Cheetos ask to bake a special Cheetos-flavored cake for the brand's 75th birthday? The pairing makes even more sense when you consider that Tosi is a master of sweet-salty creations — for example, her recipe for Milk Bar's compost cookies includes salted pretzels and potato chips.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Tosi discussed her undying love for Cheetos and how she made an incredible cake using Cheeto seasoning dust (AKA Cheetle). While the combination of sweet birthday cake and a salty cheese snack might seem off the wall, the more Tosi explained it, the more it made sense. The pastry chef also shared some helpful tips from home bakers.

Christina Tosi's longtime Cheeto obsession

What was your strategy for making the Cheetos cake?

Very simply, I fell in love with food in the aisles of the grocery store. I learned how to bake at home, but I fell in love with flavors and I learned to tap into my culinary creative spirit by pushing the cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store on the weekly errand with my mom to go get groceries. You see that in my work. You see the fingerprints and the truth of that when you look at the menu of Milk Bar. You've got the compost cookie with pretzels, potato chips, ground coffee, graham crackers, chocolate chips, butterscotch chips — things that you have at home that you know you've never really seen put together before.

One of my ... I call it my dirty dessert secret. It's like the snack that you make for yourself when no one is looking, that has some sort of sweet dessert element to it. One of my dirty dessert secrets for years has been taking a tub of creamy, dreamy vanilla frosting and dipping Cheetos in it.

It's the beautiful moment of capturing lightning in a bottle, when the two tensions really crash into each other and create a spark. How could these two things work together? For me, it's a crunchy Cheeto into a tub of creamy, dreamy vanilla frosting. You get the crunch and you get the velvety smoothness, etc.

I have been a very big fan of Cheetos, just as a savory snacker, but also, a fun fact: With my first daughter, one of my only pregnancy cravings was I'd eat one of those little snack packs of Cheetos every single day. That was always the joke. My only pregnancy photo is me with a bunch of Cheetos bags surrounding me with a pregnant belly. That's how much I love Cheetos.

How the Cheetos cake came together

I've been a longtime fan forever, and I had my own relationship with Cheetos, both in snacking and in this beautiful, very true dirty dessert secret. When Cheetos was like, "Hey, our 75th birthday is coming up," I was like, "How do we bring this spirit of birthday — which we love and do so well at Milk Bar — how do we bring that together with Cheetos and bring them to life?" Conceptually, I was like, "What works about this Cheeto dipped in a tub of frosting?" That was the starting point. When we're creating anything at Milk Bar, it's always, what is our point of inspiration? What is our starting point? We went super duper deep.

We did this crazy deep dive as a culinary team at Milk Bar around why it works and how it works. We went through so many different versions of what a Cheetos Milk Bar cake could be to really commemorate this super special 75th birthday party. What we landed on was that classic Milk Bar vanilla rainbow, speckled birthday cake sponge. There's a layer of this brilliant Cheetos frosting. It's like a Cheetos cheddar frosting. It is why you love a Cheeto, whether you're a puff or a crunchy or a flaming hot person. It is deep in that Cheetos cheddar flavor, the Cheetos cheddar frosting.

There are some Cheetos crumbs hidden in the middle, a little bit of birthday frosting, and then we repeat those layers again. The whole thing is decorated with birthday crumbs and Cheeto crumbs. The real secret ingredient to it is imagination and creativity, and two brands that believe in playfulness and that spirit of making a little trouble — that mischievous element to making life happen. Literally, the secret weapon is Cheetle, which is the secret ingredient of all things Cheeto. When the Cheetos team was like, "We'll get you some Cheetle," then that's when we had the version that we were like, "This is the one."

The magic of Cheetle

Is that the magic dust that's on the outside?

Magic dust, my friend. It's what's left on your fingers after you have a few little snacks.

That's what's mixed into the frosting?

That's it. We also toss the Cheetos crumbs in it. It's part of the Cheetos crumb base that we bake, and then also, we toss the Cheetos crumb in the Cheetle. It's like a baked good version of the actual Cheetos snack itself too. It's a moment that marks a professional milestone to be able to say that I got my hands on some pure Cheetle.

Did you eat a spoonful of pure Cheetle when you got it? Just to see what it was like?

I got a spoonful of Cheetle. I was like, "Guys, what are we doing here? We should be making Cheetos cheddar frosting by the tub. Let's cut out the whole dipping thing." A little spoonful of that and it transports you to everywhere you need to go.

Why cheddar works surprisingly well in desserts

You make a ton of savory, salt-inflected desserts. Is there something different about doing it when the snack you're working with is cheese-flavored?

That's a really good question. I was thinking about that this morning as I was walking around. I love working with salty-sweet, personally, because it keeps your taste buds guessing. A great dessert is something that is always moving the target on you — when you're done with it, you're still trying to wrap your head around it and you want more. It's a little bit of this dance, which I love. With Cheetos, this Cheetle, because it's dairy ... it's so close to sweetness.

As a teenager, I was always trying to figure out how to make a cheddar cheese cookie. There's something about cheese. Dairy in its purest form naturally has a little bit of sugar in it, and cheese and dessert are walking in parallel, even though they don't seem like they would go together. They play really nicely with one another because they help accentuate one another's strengths and they each give space for the other one to do its thing. Cheetos cheddar — that flavor is so dairy-forward, and that is the spirit of most of what we do at Milk Bar. Hence the name.

The trick for making beautiful cakes with naked sides

You've flouted the traditional rules for cake decorating in your career, but your cakes look really pretty. When people are making birthday cakes for their loved ones at home, what are easy ways that they can make them look special?

Living by the laws that we've created at Milk Bar, I love frosting as evidenced by this entire conversation, but I don't believe that you always have to cover a cake entirely in frosting. We eat with our eyes first. Creating a cake that leaves some of those sides unfrosted is a great way to let people in on what it is that they're about to dig into. It gives you credit for the different elements of the cake, and that is a really important piece of why you're baking.

When you bake a cake, the easiest way to get it to look great is to build it in a spring-form pan that is wrapped in a little bit of Saran wrap, or we use something called acetate, and it creates this flawless plastic collar of sorts, and you can reuse it over and over again to build cakes.

If you have frosting that's firm enough, you can do the same thing without it. That is the secret to making any cake look great, never having to pull out piping bags or frosting tips or deal with any of that sort of thing. There's something to be said about marching to the beat of your own drum, leaning into that playfully mischievous approach to making a great cake, and making it look just so.

Slices of the Cheetos 75th birthday cake will be available for purchase starting on September 7th from the Milk Bar Store while supplies last.

This interview has been edited for clarity.