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Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter

There are plenty of reasons why a person might choose to prepare or grow food at home rather than buy it at a store or restaurant:  to save money; because homemade or homegrown tastes better, or is better for you, or is better for the environment; or because you simply enjoy it. I, for one, regularly bake my own bread, mostly because I like doing it, but also because it tastes great, if you'll pardon my saying so.
But there are things that I'd rather buy than make myself. Some are obvious. I like a good hamburger or steak now and then, but I'm not about to raise and slaughter my own cattle.
Others are less so. After trying and failing several times to make perfect french fries at home, I've decided to leave that to the experts at Mickey D's and elsewhere. I'm sure there are reasons why that's a bad idea, but the bottom line is, theirs taste better, and it's a pain in the butt to make them at home.
Now comes a book that breaks it all down for you. At least that's the premise of Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese. According to the book-jacket blurb, after losing her job, Reese "began a series of kitchen-related experiments, taking into account the competing demands of everyday contemporary American family life," seeking to answer such questions as "When is homemade better? Cheaper? Are backyard eggs a more ethical choice than store-bought? Will grinding and stuffing your own sausage ruin your week? Is it possible to make an edible maraschino cherry?"
This makes for interesting reading, although it will be a rare reader who agrees with all of Reese's suggestions. I take issue with two of her verdicts, on pizza and baguettes. She recommends making the former, and buying the latter. I've nothing against making pizza at home - I do it myself, with some regularity - but there are times when you want to pick up a pizza, for the sake of convenience or variety. I mean, I think I make some pretty good pizza, but sometimes I want pizza from a particular pizzeria, that I just can't duplicate at home.
As for baguettes, I don't find them much trouble at all. Sure, I'm always tweaking my recipes and methods, in an endless quest for la baguette parfaite, but there's really not all that much work involved in producing excellent loaves at home. I'm not sure why Reese's attempts have met with such disappointing results, but that points up one of the flaws in this book. Reese tends to extrapolate too much from her own personal experiences. Regarding baguettes, for instance, she confesses that "after years of experimenting," she has come to the conclusion that she is not a "serious bread hobbyist." But I'm equally convinced, from my own experience, that you needn't be a "serious" baker to make terrific bread - in fact, in some ways I find baguettes easier than sandwich loaves, which Reese recommends making, not buying.
Likewise, Reese relates a horror story of her failed attempt to raise egg-laying ducks, but half way through, she admits to having figured out that she and her family are simply not "duck people." We have ducks at my house, and though my wife and daughter are their primary caretakers, I pitch in, and I think they would agree with me that the ducks really aren't much trouble. Of course they're not for everybody, but if you've done your homework, then once you're set up, you shouldn't have nearly as difficult a time of it as Reese apparently did.
Having said all that, there's still a lot to recommend about this book. Reese breaks down the relative costs and hassle of homemade vs. store-bought, and though I haven't done my own calculations, her numbers mostly sound about right.
The best part of the book, for me, was the recipes. At least for those items that she does recommend making at home, Reese provides simple how-tos that walk you through the process. Now it's easy enough to find recipes for just about anything today, but until I'd leafed through this book, I'd never seriously considered making my own caramel corn or Worcestershire sauce, much less the Korean condiment kimchi. But after reading Reese's recipes, they do sound easy enough, and as I write this I'm in the middle of making homemade mustard from Reese's recipe.
I only wish that Reese had included similar recipes for the items she doesn't recommend making yourself, just so I could judge for myself whether it might be worth trying. What she typically does instead is again to relate her own ill-fated attempts to make a dish, and based on that, to advise against trying it yourself. (She does give recipes for a few things, like onion rings and bacon, about which she doesn't take a hard, make-it-or-buy-it position, leaving it up to you to decide.)
On the plus side, I should add that I have made some things in here, like hot sauce and barbecue sauce, and I completely agree with Reese that they're easy and cheap to make at home, with results that are at least as good as anything you'll buy at a supermarket.
So while I don't agree with all of Reese's verdicts, I still enjoyed, and do enjoy, thumbing through this book. It's more valuable for what she does recommend preparing at home than for what she doesn't, but it's generally a fun read. Even when I find myself disagreeing with Reese, she's at least gotten me thinking, which in itself is one mark of a good book, particularly when the subject is one about which people are as opinionated and passionate as they are about food.
Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch -- Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods. Jennifer Reese (author). 304 pages. Free Press (Oct. 18, 2011).

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