When Jennifer Reese lost her job, she decided to economize in the kitchen, something she'd been writing about already on her popular food blog, Tipsy Baker. She started the blog to test and review the many cookbooks in her home. Along the way, though, that testing made her curious about what can be made better and less expensively at home.
As a reviewer on her blog, Reese is admirably thorough. Just as I trust a recipe from Cook's Illustrated because it's been thoroughly tested, I trust Reese's cookbook reviews. She digs into the books, making many of the recipes, until she has a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses. When she wrote at her blog that she was putting together a book, I was excited to see how her comprehensive approach to testing would mesh with her accessible writing. In Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, I was happy to find they complement each other extremely well.
After I volunteered to review her book, I knew I couldn't skim it and try a recipe or three. Reese doesn't review lightly, and neither would I. Over a few weeks, I made eighteen of the one-hundred twenty recipes from the book, and am eager to try many more. Of the eighteen, not a single one failed. Some were good. Several were great. My eight-year-old son pronounced the pancakes perfect. He and his younger brother gobbled down the waffles on Christmas morning. A friend said the pumpkin chocolate-chip muffin was the best she'd ever had. My chicken noodle casserole was better and crisper for the homemade bread crumbs. My caesar salad went to a new level with garlic croutons made out of her recipe for everyday bread. A prosciutto and arugula sandwich made with milk mayonnaise (no raw egg!) was so crave-able my husband and I weren't satisfied at a half baguette apiece, which I'd assumed would be plenty. Next time I'll buy two baguettes, which Reese writes are better to buy than make, anyway.
For each food, Reese advises whether to make it or buy it. Granola? Make. Grape nuts? Buy. Hot dog buns? Make. Hamburger buns? Buy. Mayonnaise? Both. Like most modern food lovers, Reese values seasonal, local, sustainably produced foods. But she's not a harsh ideologue. She acknowledges that sometimes you're up for making things from scratch and sometimes you're not. Often she'll recommend buying an item, yet include the recipe (e.g., danishes), if you're feeling up to it. For each food, she evaluates the cost AND the hassle. Tonight, we made her recipe for oven-baked chicken, since Reese notes it's much easier and almost as good as the recipe for fried chicken.
The recipes are enhanced by the stories that go with them, like Reese's adventures with bees, turkeys and fermentation. She's frank about how her skeptical husband and two children have received her efforts. I laughed aloud at her attempts to make maraschino cherries, and welled up at her experiences raising chickens. Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is a cookbook, but it's also a personal history, and Reese perfectly captures the self-deprecating humor that makes an enjoyable memoir.
If you're a purist, this may not be the book for you. Reese found there are some items Big Food can do better, like hamburger buns or cranny-filled English muffins. Even things like Kentucky Fried Chicken and cake mix have a time and a place. Yet her encouragement to take the time to make things like pancakes, hash browns, bread crumbs, and croutons from scratch, along with her simple, well-written recipes, made me eager for the kitchen, not the grocery store. If you, like me, are trying to figure out how to eat well but not expensively while spending reasonable amounts of time in the kitchen, I offer this advice: buy this book and try the recipes.
Eggless Milk Mayonnaise, adapted from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese
(makes about 1 cup)
1/3 cup whole milk, cold
3/4 teaspoon lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, pressed
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup neutral vegetable oil
1/4 cup olive oil
salt to taste
1. Combine the milk, lemon juice, garlic and pepper in a small bowl. Using an immersion blender or whisk, blend until frothy. (You can also use a blender.)
2. With blender running, add oils in a slow, steady drizzle and beat until thick. Salt to taste. Keeps, covered in the refrigerator, about a week.
Kristin Boldon is a frequent contributor for Simple Good and Tasty, who also writes for the Eastside Food Cooperative's newsletter on health and wellness, Minnesota Monthly's food blog Dara & Co., and for her own blog Girl Detective. Her last post for us was "Greening Your Holiday Table."