"Eating a Volcano is an invariably messy affair. Like a cream puff or an overstuffed sandwich, there is no dainty way to eat a Volcano."
When Momofuku Milk Bar opened late last year, one of the unexpected items on the menu was "the Volcano," a savory potato dish encased in bread. Even though the Volcano has gone through further refinement since then, the original version took several months of development from the point of conception.
Momofuku Milk Bar's Christina Tosi tells of an early morning walk in the the Normandy town of Deauville back in early 2008. She and David Chang were there attending the annual Omnivore Food Festival but ironically the two hungry, jet-lagged Americans could not find anything open. After walking through the picturesque town—Deauville is called the "queen of the Norman beaches"—without luck, they finally stumbled upon a neon sign illuminating the entrance to a bakery.
Once inside, the two marveled at the variety of baked goods for sale and Tosi recalls Chang furiously pointing at ten different items that they soon found themselves leaving with. One of these, what Tosi describes simply as "an amazing thing," was a potato dish stuffed with cheese and lardons and wrapped in bread.
When the duo returned to the States, they set out to recreate the wonderful and unexpected breakfast treat they had so enjoyed on those distant shores. Even though the completion of Milk Bar was many months away, the Volcano, as the dish would become known, was conceptualized well in advance as a menu item. To this end James Mark, who would eventually become the baker at Milk Bar, was tasked with reverse-engineering the dish based solely on the memories of Chang and Tosi.
Mark recalls working in the kitchens of Momofuku Ko and Noodle Bar for many months, producing all kinds of Volcano permutations.
Here is the dish that inspired it all. While markedly different, it includes chunks of potato, lardon, and a simple farmhouse cheese and is far larger. You can see the similarities: the split in the crust, the caramelized shredded cheese, and the golden color.
Unfortunately for Mark, neither Chang or Tosi had a picture of the original dish on-hand. This one was taken a year later and perhaps not surprisingly, quite different from the final Milk Bar version. The Volcano has evolved to the point of being an incredibly complicated and labor intensive process. In the tradition of artisan baking, Mark literally makes everything by hand, from peeling and slicing the potatoes to making the gratin, Mornay, and dough from scratch. Some may balk at the $9 price tag, after witnessing what is required to bring the volcano to table and indeed tasting it I think that the cost is entirely justified.
The base for the volcano is baguette dough comprised of 100 parts flour, 65 parts water and two parts salt with 1.5 percent yeast. The flour is hydrated by hand, after a brief kneading it under goes a six-hour fermentation. After being folded twice the dough is formed into four ounce balls, which are then hand formed in to flat disks.
A shredded imported Gruyère is strewn on the dough.
Next, caramelized onions and bacon bits sourced from Benton's Hams in Madisonville,Tennessee, are added on top of the cheese. The onions—cooked in grapeseed oil for six hours—are what Mark describes as "more of an onion marmalade."
The potato component undergoes extensive modification during the development of the volcano. An early version contained raw slivers of potato that cooked in the dough but eventually Chang decided to incorporate a potato gratin in the dish.
This meant teaching Mark, a baker by trade, how to make the classic French dish. He now makes a hotel-sized pan's worth twice a week, peeling half a case of potatoes and then slicing them by hand on a mandolin before baking them in milk and cream infused with garlic and thyme. At one time Benton's bacon was used in the potato but its smoky flavor was so strong, permeating the whole dish, that it was replaced with the milder, but still toothsome pancetta. The potato is baked for just under thirty minutes then cools completely before being apportioned into two-inch wide squares.
The dough is pulled up and around the potato filling in four points that are then pinched together to join them.
The dough is rolled in to a ball and so the cheese, onion, and bacon end up on top.
After the Volcano is molded into a more or less spherical shape, it's brushed in egg wash for that shiny golden hue while baking, and an "X" is sliced in to the crust to stop the thing exploding in the oven.
The volcanoes are baked for 25 minutes in a 350°F oven. When they emerge it's clear they're named what they are—molten cheese, rendered pork fat, and the caramelized milk and cream from the gratin stream from the opening leaving dark streaks down the side of the bread.
When a fresh-baked tray of Volcanoes are removed from the oven they perfume the air in Milk Bar with an intoxicating savory blend of smokiness from the bacon and tang from the molten Gruyere.
Once the Volcanoes are removed from the oven they get a generous helping of Mornay sauce piped into them. The Mornay, spiked with thyme and infused with Gruyere, punches up the cheese flavor in the dish but also lightens the potato.
Biting into a volcano elicits a remarkable combination of flavors and textural contrasts. A smokiness from the Benton's permeates the whole thing, but it's never obtrusive and remains perfectly balanced with the sweetness of the onions and the creaminess from the Mornay and gratin—the savory Gruyere adds just the right amount of tang.
The exterior shell, with its scorched sauce and caramelized cheese covering the polished golden dome, is crisp while the bread's inner core is airy and pillow soft, like the best pretzel you've ever eaten. The fork tender potato slivers have a buttery feel contrasted nicely with the crunchy bacon. Any dryness in the bread is compensated by the oozing, molten lava of cream, cheese, onion, and pork fat.
Eating a Volcano is an invariably messy affair. Like a cream puff or an overstuffed sandwich, there is no dainty way to eat a Volcano. "That's sort of the point," said Mark, one of Chang's directives in the design was that it "end up all over your face." The volcano is made in limited quantities to insure consistency. Mark bakes them off each morning around 9 a.m., except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. I guess even bakers deserve a day or two off each week.