altMake the Bread, Buy the Butter:  What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch—Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese (Free Press, 2011)

In 2008, like many people, Jennifer Reese lost her job.  I don't know what that job was, but if it didn't involve writing, losing it was not a tragedy, but a blessing.  She's a wonderful writer:  clear, informative, and funny.  Definitely funny.

Faced with the opportunity to reconsider her life, Reese decided to focus on food, and the modern tension between do-it-yourself and buy-it-off-the-shelf:

Where is that sweet spot between buying and making?  What does the market do cheaper and better?  And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?  Could I answer this question once and for all?  I didn't want an answer rooted in ideology, or politics, or tradition, or received wisdom.  I wanted to see the question answered empirically, taking into account the competing demands—time and meaning, quality and conscience, budget and health—of everyday American family life.

And so, over the next months and years, I got some chickens, which I loved; and some ducks, which I loathed; and some turkeys, which we slaughtered.  I learned to make cheese and keep bees and worried that the neighbors were going to call Animal Control.  I cured bacon and salmon, canned ketchup, baked croissants, and made vanilla extract and graham crackers.  I planted tomatillos and potatoes and melons and squash.  My son, Owen, joined 4-H and practically moved into the yard, while my teenage daughter, Isabel, refused to step outside the back door at all, especially after the goats turned up.  My husband, Mark, rolled his eyes at all of it except the homemade yogurt.  That, he ate by the quart.  At the height—or maybe it was the depths—of my homemaking experiment, I had pickles lacto-fermenting on the counter and seven varieties of jam, ranging from banana-chocolate to plum, arrayed in the pantry, and absinthe and Taleggio cheese mellowing in the crawl space behind my closet.  I was overwhelmed and a bit of a mess, but I had my answers.

Turkeys?  Homemade bacon?  This was no simple save-money-by-making-my-child's-school-lunch project.  But the results make for marvellous reading.  It's a treasure trove of recipes, too, and I would be tempted to add a copy to my collection, if I weren't busy trying to get rid of a vast collection of cookbooks gathering dust on the shelves because when I need a recipe and it's not handy, I immediately turn to Chef Google.

The answer to the question that drove me to reading the book, Why not make the butter? is a simple matter of economy.  Making butter is easy, and the result delicious, but cream is expensive.  Store butter is good enough that the author can't justify the extra expense of homemade.  "Unless," she adds, "you have a cow."

Reese might have chosen a different title:  Make the Bun, Buy the Hot Dog.  What she went through to make hot dogs leaves me all the more glad that Oscar Mayer now has a nitrate/nitrite-free hot dog that is delicious.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is much more than a recipe book.  For each entry, you get a story (often funny), a recipe, a difficulty rating, a cost comparison, and a "make it or buy it" recommendation.  Sometimes the answer is "both."  There's nothing like homemade mayonnaise, for example, but "Hellmann's has its place."

Maybe my favorite quote:

"Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself," Michael Pollan writes in Food Rules. ... "Chances are good it won't be every day."

Oh Michael Pollan, you underestimate me.

Finally, a longish quote from the Afterward, which sums things up well:

It's empowering to know I can cure bacon, brew vanilla, age Camembert, extract honey from a hive, and behead a chicken, even if I have no desire to do at least one of those things ever again.  Even if, in the end, I spent more money than I saved.  (A few costly projects like the chickens and the bees ate up all the savings of from scratch cooking.)  Big food companies flatter us by telling us how busy we are and they simultaneously convince us that we are helpless.  I am moderately busy, but not all that helpless.  Neither are you.  Everything I did in the course of my scratch-cooking era—with the possible exceptions of eviscerating poultry and stuffing hot dogs—was very, very easy.  [She must have blocked out the experience of making croissants:  "unbelievable hassle," though she still recommends making them, unless you live near a good French bakery.]

But the more helpless we feel, the lower those food companies move the bar of our expectations, and the bar is now very low at your local supermarket.  Trust me.  I have eaten my way through mine.  It makes me quite furious when I think about the sicketating powdered hollandaise sauce, the extortionate price of the vanilla extracts, the pathetic bread, the soups sweetened with corn syrup, the abomination of Pillsbury "creamy vanilla" canned frosting that contains neither cream nor vanilla.  It upsets me that we pay as much for these foods as we do.

Almost everything is better when it's homemade.  While this may have started out as opinion (though I'm not sure it did), I would now state it confidently as fact.  Almost everything.  But not everything.  Which makes me inordinately happy.  Because I think it's reassuring that you can walk into a supermarket and buy a bag of potato chips and a tub of rice pudding that are better than anything you can make at home.  I wish there were more foods like that.  I really don't want to spend my life standing over a stove, muttering about the evils of ConAgra and trans fats.  It seems a tragic waste to shape one's life around doctrinaire rejection of industrial food.  Which means, I suppose, both insisting on high standards most of the time and then, sometimes, relaxing them.

Jennifer Reese has a blog, The Tipsy Baker.  I haven't read much yet, but I'm sure I'll find it clear, informative, and funny.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 8:10 am | Edit
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Speculoos à Tartiner, in its American incarnation as Biscoff Spread, is now available at many stores here and around the country.  Trader Joe's even has its own version, which I will be able to sample and compare because we are finally getting our own Trader Joe's!  You can even buy Speculoos in tiny Hillsborough, New Hampshire—which also needs a Trader Joe's, but we'll take one step at a time.

The exploding popularity of this heavenly spread was featured in the Orlando Sentinel yesterday.  I don't know what goes into the decisions involving placement of articles and advertisements on the page, but surely this could be no coincidence:

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On the bright side, all this publicity may dampen the TSA's suspicious attitude, although there is now less reason to transport it in my luggage.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 8:24 am | Edit
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For the läckerli-lovers in the family, and anyone hungry for a reminder of Basel:

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 5, 2013 at 6:53 am | Edit
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It's no secret that I like Michael Pollan's food books, and I'm fifth in line for his latest, Cooked, at our library.  In the meantime, here's a chance to hear Pollan speak on the nutritional value of home cooking.  (H/T DSTB)  I'm sorry I can't embed the interview; you'll have to click on the link to hear it.  Here are some quick excerpts:

Why don't people cook at home anymore?  Skills have been lost over the last two generations, and people are intimidated by culture of cooking they see on television.

Time is not a valid issue:  "people make time for things they've decided are important."

Neither is demographics:  "poor women who cook have better diets than wealthy women who don't."

"Built into the very nature of cooking at home is a curb on consuming the worst possible food."

The best diet for an American today?  Pollan, quoting a marketing researcher in the food industry itself:  "Eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself."

Pollan's final recommendation leaves me scratching my head, however:  Cook at home, and get soda out of your house, and obesity is taken care of.

It sounds great, but reminds me of the facile advice I heard years ago that an easy way to gain more time is to cut down on television viewing, or that you can save a lot of money by quitting the smoking habit.  What if you don't smoke and don't watch TV and still find yourself short of time and money?  What if you already cook at home and don't drink soda?


If that depresses you, take a moment to enjoy the story of Rowan Jacobson's (author of Fruitless Fall and and Chocolate Unwrapped) attempt to break all of Michael Pollan's Food Rules in one day.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at 7:33 am | Edit
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Having watched the documentary on GMO foods, which reveals that those in charge of food safety in this country have treated with scorn the simple request that products made with genetically modified organisms be labelled as such, I have little faith that the Food and Drug Administration will not grant the request of the dairy industry to to alter the definition of "milk" to include chemical sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose without putting "Low Calorie" or "Reduced Calorie" on the label.  The artificial sweeteners would still be included in the ingredient list on the packaging, but the main label, that which most people read, would give no hint that the product was artificially sweetened.

I say that even "low calorie" is disingenuous.  "Artificially Sweetened" or "Contains Sucralose" (Aspartame, whatever) ought to be in large, bold print on the package.  Once upon a time, "no sugar added" was synonymous with "unsweetened." Now we must drill down to the small-print ingredient list to find out this important information, and more than once I've been caught and ended up at home with a useless product.  It is as if the surgeon general's warnings were printed on the inside of cigarette packages.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 7:21 am | Edit
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In the spirit of Fruitless Fall, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food, Inc., Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and similar stories about problems in our food supply, I present Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of our Lives (H/T DSTB).

I'm always a bit skeptical of one-sided documentaries, especially of the scary and countercultural kind.  But this look at the unforeseen consequences of the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms into our diet, environment, and social structure is well-done and contains much food for thought, including the rise of herbicide resistance, decreasing yield, suppression of academic freedom, and the devastation visited on third-world farmers.  I had to watch in bits and snatches because the film is an hour and 25 minutes long, but I found it well worth the time invested.

Here's hoping my nephew will accede to the suggestion that he take on, as a school project, a balanced investigation of both sides of these claims.   If he does, and gives his permission, I'll report the results here.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 7:31 am | Edit
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I've written about Biscoff Spread, aka Speculoos à Tartiner before.  Thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, yesterday I made Biscoff fudge.  I tried the recipe from this site almost verbatim the first time, using the creamy version of the spread and substituting butter for margarine.  The second time I tried the crunchy, and used half the vanilla called for.  Both results were very good, but I prefer the smooth Speculoos and the smaller amount of vanilla.  I'd love to research other fudge recipes to use as a base, but that's a future project.  The recipe from the bakerella.com site, with my alterations, follows:

Biscoff Fudge

1 1/2 cups sugar
6 Tablespoons butter
1/3 cup evaporated milk
1/4 tsp vanilla (or 1/8 tsp Penzey's double-strength vanilla, which is what I used)
1/2 cup Biscoff spread (creamy or crunchy)
3.5 oz. or half a jar of Marshmallow Creme

  1. Combine sugar, butter, and evaporated milk in a medium pot.
  2. Bring to full rolling boil, stirring constantly.
  3. Reduce heat to medium and continue boiling for 4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent scorching.  (Actually, with my stove I started at Medium and came to a full rolling boil from there.)
  4. Remove from heat and stir in Biscoff spread until melted.
  5. Add marshmallow creme and vanilla. Use a mixer to beat in the pot until well blended.
  6. Pour into greased 8 X 8 pan.
  7. Let cool and cut into small squares.

This makes a delicious fudge.  It's a bit drier than I prefer (not as smooth and creamy as most fudges), but that might be solved with some tweaking of the cooking time.  It's also very sweet, so make the pieces quite small when you cut it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 8:05 am | Edit
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Don't you love what you can do with statistics and charts?  This chart is from a great article in the New England Journal of Medicine Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates.  For a less scholarly report on the data, see this Reuters article.

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The article begins like this.

Dietary flavonoids, abundant in plant-based foods, have been shown to improve cognitive function. Specifically, a reduction in the risk of dementia, enhanced performance on some cognitive tests, and improved cognitive function in elderly patients with mild impairment have been associated with a regular intake of flavonoids. A subclass of flavonoids called flavanols, which are widely present in cocoa, green tea, red wine, and some fruits, seems to be effective in slowing down or even reversing the reductions in cognitive performance that occur with aging.

One day, while apparently bored in a Kathmandu hotel room—I'm guessing it was night, or cloudy—the author, Franz H. Messerli, began to think.

Since chocolate consumption could hypothetically improve cognitive function not only in individuals but also in whole populations, I wondered whether there would be a correlation between a country's level of chocolate consumption and its population's cognitive function. To my knowledge, no data on overall national cognitive function are publicly available. Conceivably, however, the total number of Nobel laureates per capita could serve as a surrogate end point reflecting the proportion with superior cognitive function and thereby give us some measure of the overall cognitive function of a given country.

The results astonished him, though perhaps he should not be surprised:  he is Swiss.

There was a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, P<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries.  When recalculated with the exclusion of Sweden, the correlation coefficient increased to 0.862. Switzerland was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption.  [emphasis mine]

The only possible outlier ... seems to be Sweden. Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.

Which perhaps explains why I need to eat more chocolate than Porter does, he being 1/4 Swedish.

Dr. Messerli reports regular daily chocolate consumption, mostly but not exclusively in the form of Lindt's dark varieties.

The above quotations were all from the NEJM article; the final ones from Reuters.

Messerli ... said that despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, he does believe chocolate has real health effects—although people should stay away from the sweeter kinds.

"[D]ark chocolate is the way to go. It's one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, ok, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate."

In case you were wondering, the date on Messerli's article is October 10, 2012.  I guess they couldn't wait six more months.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, October 13, 2012 at 10:04 am | Edit
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Thanks to my sister, I have three Trader Joe's reusable grocery bags that would just love to be used at an actual Trader Joe's.  And now, at last, Florida has a Trader Joe's store!

But it's in Naples.  Granted, we really enjoyed our visit to that part of the state back in Novemeber, but I'm not one of the "Trader Joe's tourists" who are travelling hundreds of miles to the store.  There's a store opening soon in Sarasota, but that's still too far away.

Nonetheless, I have hope.  Now that the Florida border has been breached, can Orlando be far behind?

I note that the Naples store went in where a Borders bookstore went out.  We're getting a Michael's at our former Borders.  Not that Michael's is a bad idea, but there's already one nearby, and wouldn't it be fantastic to be able to walk to a Trader Joe's?  Oh well, I'll be happy enough for one within a 15-minute drive and not on the far side of town.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Edit
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There's some debate just what Emmen is.  Stephan says it's a suburb of Luzern, and I suppose it is, Luzern being a 15-minute bus ride, or an even shorter train ride, away, which we proved today when Vivienne acquired her Swiss passport.  But it hardly has a "suburban" feel, at least as I know suburbs.  For one thing, there's decent public transportation—but that's no doubt because it's Swiss.  For another, most people live in apartments, which says "city" to me, though Janet says that is also a Swiss characteristic, city or no.  There's traffic.  There's industry.  There are plenty of stores, but no strip malls (though there is a mall or two).  Everything is close together, and what yards there are, are tiny.  Children walk to school.  Janet walks to the grocery store (actually, several grocery stores), the train station, the above-mentioned malls, the swimming pool complex, and church.  That feels like a city to me.

And yet....  Emmen certainly isn't a city like Basel, or Luzern, with a lively city center, and centuries of history and culture.  And it has a rural feel, as well.  Also within easy walking distance is a long hiking trail along the river (pedestrian, bike, and also equestrian in most places).  The trail runs through wooded areas where trees are still being harvested by loggers.

(Switzerland is a great place for hiking trails.  There's one that leads all the way into the city of Luzern; we had planned to hike it today, but the -9 degree Celsius temperature was a deterrent.   Perhaps we should have taken advantage of such balmy weather, though:  tomorrow's high is supposed to be -10, with a wind chill of -16 (that's 3 degrees Fahrenheit).

There are also several small farms nearby.  One of Joseph's favorite walks is to the see the cows and goats at the nearest dairy farm, where for a single franc we pick up a liter of fresh, delicious, raw milk.  (Click on the pictures to enlarge.)

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So, what is Emmen?  Whatever it is, it's like nothing in the United States that I know of.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, February 6, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Edit
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Breakfast
An international child, Joseph might start his day with leftover pizza, or rice, or bread and peanut butter, or a tortilla with "spices" (more on that later).  But for the most part his breakfast is "no no bissi" a.k.a. yoghurt and muesli.  Unsweetened muesli and plain yoghurt—and he loves it.  His drink for all meals is water.  He feeds himself with a spoon quite competently, although as you can imagine some cleanup is required.

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For breakfast I might have yoghurt and muesli, or cooked oatmeal, or good Swiss bread, or yummy, fresh Swiss eggs (with golden yolks). (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Edit
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If I weren't eating so well at the famous Swiss Zum Stücklin, I might be sad at missing the Outstanding in the Field event held at our favorite egg (and more) farm, Lake Meadow Naturals.  Not that I'm in the habit of spending $180/person on meals, not even in Switzerland, not even when we ate at the incomparable restaurant at Les Trois Rois in Basel.  But I'm happy for our local farm to get such national recognition.

Les Trois Rois
Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, January 13, 2012 at 9:16 am | Edit
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We're stocking up on meals, pre-birth, and today made a double batch of our favorite stew.  The recipe calls for a hefty helping of paprika.  Spices should not necessarily be increased in direct proportion, but I like paprika, so I doubled the quantity—and then, as I usually do, threw in a bit more.

Some of Janet's spices are labelled in English, but most in the Swiss triumvirate of German, French, and Italian.  This jar had but a one-word label:  "paprica."  Perhaps paprika is the same in every language.

Or not.  The spice in that jar was decidedly not paprika as I have always known it.  Picture a pot of stew seasoned with a heaping tablespoon of red pepper....

The stew was delicious.  Even Joseph liked it.  (Then again, he asks for "spices" on almost everything.)  Hot pepper worked.  But it's a good lesson in taking care when cooking in another country.  What if "paprica" had actually meant "ginger"?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 10:51 am | Edit
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So, Orlando finally gets a Wawa!  Nowhere near us yet, but there's hope.

I'm still waiting for a Trader Joe's....

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, January 4, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Edit
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The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi, from Samurai to Supermarket by Trevor Corson (HarperCollins, 2007)

Eating sushi is like rearing children:  there's always someone happy to point out that you're doing it all wrong.

Not that I care much.  So what if many of the rolls I love are American inventions?  If the Japanese consider them to be inside-out rolls?  If adding more seasoning to your roll is an insult to the chef?  (Well, I suppose I care a bit more about the last.  I don't like insulting people, especially not those who are providing my dinner.  Then again, I'm the one eating it.)  I like Japanese sushi; I like American sushi; and I don't mind being too unsophisticated to enjoy the sea urchin and raw quail egg combo that Porter ordered in Boston.

However, I was happy to learn that sushi is meant to be eaten with the fingers, not chopsticks.  And eaten in one bite—though I'm not sure how.  Do the Japanese have larger mouths than Americans?  Seems unlikely.

The Zen of Fish weaves the history, science, and culture of America's unexpected food craze together with the adventures of students at the California Sushi Academy.  It's well-written, highly informative, fun to read, and will make you very hungry—when it's not causing you to rethink consuming fish in any form.  My only complaint is that the author apparently considered his target audience to be largely made up of adolescent boys.  I could have done without the most of the sexual references and innuendo—although it was quite cool to learn about the shrimp that start out male, then after a few years become female.  The timing of the change assures a gender-balanced population, suggesting perhaps that shrimp are smarter than people.

Okay, even writing about sushi makes me hungry.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Edit
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