September 6, 2018
Out of the Milkshake and Into the Pie

Thanks to Whoppers and Carnation Instant Breakfasts, we tend to associate malted milk powder with chocolate. But the flavor is starting to show up in some surprising places.

Shedding its frothy, soda-shop image, malt and its memorably sweet, toasty, and hyper-milky flavor is finding its way into sandwich cookies, towering cakes, custard pies, and soft, silky ice creams thanks to bold and creative baristas, cooks, and pastry chefs. Moving beyond vanilla and chocolate sweets, malt—in syrup or powdered form—is matching up with a wide variety of unexpected flavors today, from lime and cardamom (as in a pie at Detroit’s Sister Pie’s new cookbook) to cold-brew coffee (in a drink at Portland, Maine’s Tandem Coffee Roasters).

A pantry staple from the 1900s that was originally used to feed babies and Arctic explorers, by the 1930s and ’40s, malted milk had landed in soda shops across the country, where it was added to milkshakes and egg creams. Malt was less like a hit of protein powder in one of today’s smoothies than a flavor booster. Malted milk—made by fermenting barley grains, combining them with milk, and then drying and powdering the resulting concoction—has a toasted-milk taste. Though it’s long been used in the bread-making industry to give breads a golden-brown crust, most Americans know the flavor of malt from the filling of Whoppers or the candy’s predecessor, Giants.

A tub of malted milk powder in the kitchen at Sister Pie, in Detroit

But malt is no longer a dietary staple nor a flavoring saved for milkshakes. Around a decade ago, Martha Stewart started making chocolate malted sandwich cookies, and New York City pastry chef Christina Tosi started putting malt powder in her naked layer cakes, which she then soaked in Ovaltine. Since then, malt powder has popped up on menus at casual cafés (like Trois Familia in Los Angeles, where it’s mixed into a drink with Nutella) and pastry shops (like Bang Bang Pie in Chicago, where it’s melted into a chocolate pie filling), poking at America’s taste memory for malt.

When Lisa Ludwinski opened Sister Pie in Detroit in 2012, the flavor seemed like a natural fit for her menu. Ludwinski studied under Tosi, whom she recalls “used malt a lot for various desserts…because it just tastes like nostalgia. Anything that you add it to, it’s kinda just gonna bring that milky kinda depth of flavor.”

That same year, Kathleen and Will Pratt opened Tandem Coffee Roasters in Portland, Maine, and decided to spike their cold brew with a hit of sweet, nutty malt syrup—a by-product of beer brewing that skips the milk and the dehydration. “We actually buy our syrup from a place that supplies beer brewers,” says Emily Simons, a retail manager at Tandem. “It’s a pretty popular combination. People think we’re using malted milk powder, but we explain that we’re using barley malt brewing syrup for this drink.” The shop blends their cold brew with the naturally sweet syrup and adds a touch of milk. “Malt just goes really well with the fatty flavors of milk,” Simons says.

That’s at least part of the reason chef and restaurateur Fabian von Hauske Valtierra decided to use malted milk powder in the sweets at his newest restaurant, Una Pizza Napoletana, on New York City’s Lower East Side. The tan-colored powder tastes a little like caramelized milk when it’s added to fresh milk, so von Hauske Valtierra adds it to unflavored ice cream—and even tops the churned sweet cream with a dusting of malted milk powder—because “malt is one of those flavors that I think everyone somewhat associates with their childhood, right?”

The malted lime pie from Sister Pie in Detroit

While working on her new cookbook, Sister Pie: The Recipes and Stories of a Big Hearted Bakery in Detroit, Ludwinski was experimenting with a scone recipe (which ultimately got cut from the book). “We made some salty, malty chocolate scones,” she explains. “It’s a really good scone that reminds me of the Carnation Instant Breakfast I had as kid. It’s just like that chocolate milk.”

But the Sister Pie founder didn’t stop there: “So then I was thinking, What if we didn’t pair the malted powder with chocolate?” She was wondering about ways to use the flavor that didn’t rely on dairy or chocolate or vanilla. “So we had this pretty tart lime pie, and I decided to make our own graham-cracker-style crust out of graham flour, and then added some malt powder to that,” Ludwinski recalls, as though it were initially an accident.

That playful, plucky lime and warm, spicy cardamom with the base note from a hit of malted milk powder makes people pause at the first bite of this lime pie—it isn’t a standard key lime. “So I thought the malt might work with the cardamom, and as it turns out, it really complements the lime so that it’s not just pure, like, puckery lime. I love tart pies, so this is still really tart, but the malted milk powder gives it kind of like a heft, a kind of dairy-inspired flavor, I would say,” she says. “And it’s a little bit toasty. It has this weird but really good toasted-milk flavor.”

Photos by E.E. Burger, Lisa Ludwinski, Daniela Galarza

Malted Lime Pie

Malted Lime Pie

1 9-inch pie


  • Graham Dust
  • 1 cup malted milk powder
  • ½ cup graham flour
  • 2 tablespoons tapioca starch
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • Filling
  • Grated zest of 2 limes
  • 5 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (preferably organic)
  • ¾ cups freshly squeezed lime juice (from 5 to 6 limes)
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons malted milk powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 9-inch crust made with All-Butter Pie Dough, cooled
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • Whipped cream, for serving
  • All-Butter Pie Dough
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup unsalted European-style butter, straight from the fridge
  • ½ cup ice-cold water-vinegar mixture, or more if needed

I’m a key lime pie fanatic. I love the creamy texture, the puckery-tart flavor, and the slightly savory graham crust. Our version is made with regular ol’ limes, but there’s nothing regular about it. We add malted milk powder and a pinch of cardamom to the filling, which we pour into a nontraditional all-butter crust. Don’t worry— we haven’t forgotten about the graham cracker element. Instead of store-bought graham crackers, we use actual graham flour to make a magical dust, lending that signature crunchy bite. If you can’t find graham flour, substitute whole wheat flour. This pie is best straight from the fridge, and it’s essential to serve it with freshly whipped cream.

    Pie Crust

  1. In a large stainless steel bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt and stir to mix well. Place the sticks of butter in the bowl and coat on all sides with the flour mixture. Using a bench scraper, cut the butter into 1⁄2-inch cubes. Work quickly to separate the cubes with your hands until they are all lightly coated in flour. Grab that bench scraper once again and cut each cube in half. I always tell my pie dough students that it’s unnecessary to actually cut each cube perfectly in half, but it’s a good idea to break up the butter enough so that you can be super-efficient when it’s pastry blender time.
  2. It’s pastry blender time! Switch to the pastry blender and begin to cut in the butter with one hand while turning the bowl with the other. It’s important not to aim for the same spot at the bottom of the bowl with each stroke of the pastry blender, but to actually slice through butter every time to maximize efficiency. When the pastry blender clogs up, carefully clean it out with your fingers (watch out, it bites!) or a butter knife and use your hands to toss the ingredients a bit. Continue to blend and turn until the largest pieces are the size and shape of peas and the rest of the mixture feels and looks freakishly similar to canned Parmesan cheese.
  3. At this point, add the water-vinegar mixture all at once, and switch back to the bench scraper. Scrape as much of the mixture as you can from one side of the bowl to the other, until you can’t see visible pools of liquid anymore. Now it’s hand time. Scoop up as much of the mixture as you can, and use the tips of your fingers (and a whole lot of pressure) to press it back down onto the rest of the ingredients. Rotate the bowl a quarter-turn and repeat. Scoop, press, and turn. With each fold, your intention is to be quickly forming the mixture into one cohesive mass. Remember to incorporate any dry, floury bits that have congregated at the bottom of the bowl, and once those are completely gone and the dough is formed, it’s time to stop.
  4. Remove the dough from the bowl, place it on a lightly floured counter, and use your bench scraper to divide it into two equal pieces. Gently pat each into a 2-inch-thick disc, working quickly to seal any broken edges before wrapping them tightly in a double layer of plastic wrap. If you’re portioning for a lattice-topped pie, shape one half into a 2-inch-thick disc and the other half into a 6 by 3-inch rectangle. Refrigerate the dough for at least 2 hours or, ideally, overnight. When you go to roll out the crust, you want the discs to feel as hard and cold as the butter did when you removed it from the fridge to make the dough. This will make the roll-out way easier.
  5. You can keep the pie dough in the fridge for a few days or in the freezer for up to 1 year. If frozen, remove the dough and place it in the refrigerator to thaw one full day before you intend to use it. If you’re planning to make only one single-crust pie, wrap the discs separately and place one in the freezer.


  1. Make the Graham Dust: Preheat your oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine 1⁄2 cup of the malted milk powder and the graham flour, tapioca starch, sugar, and salt. Toss with your hands to mix. Add the melted butter and toss, using a silicone spatula, until the mixture starts to come together and form small clusters.
  2. Spread the clusters onto the parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place it on a wire rack to fully cool. The mixture will have baked into one solid mass. Break into 1-inch pieces and place them back in the bowl. Combine with the remaining 1⁄2 cup malted milk powder, then transfer, 1 cup at a time, to a food processor and process until you have a fine graham crumb. Set aside while you make the filling. You can make the graham dust up to 3 days in advance and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
  3. When you’re ready to assemble the pie, preheat your oven to 300°F. Line the baking sheet with new parchment paper.
  4. Make the filling: In a large bowl, whisk the lime zest, egg yolks, condensed milk, lime juice, salt, malted milk powder, and cardamom together until smooth.
  5. Place the blind-baked shell on the parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the crimped edge with the beaten egg. Pour the lime filling into the pie shell until it reaches the bottom of the crimps. Transfer the baking sheet with the pie on it to the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the pie begins to look set around the edges and tiny bubbles rise to the surface. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and place the pie on a cooling rack. Once the pie tin is cool enough to touch, transfer the pie to the refrigerator until fully set, about 1 hour.
  6. Once the pie cooled and set, remove it from the fridge and cover the top with the Graham Dust. Slice the pie into 6 to 8 pieces, and serve with whipped cream.
  7. Store leftover pie, well wrapped in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Daniela Galarza

Daniela Galarza is a writer and reporter who covers food, restaurants, cooking, and culture. She used to be a pastry chef. These days she puts her culinary degree to use by making birthday cakes for friends. She lives in New York with her dog Frito.

[email_signup id="3"]
[email_signup id="3"]