Before losing her job, Jennifer Reese didn’t bat an eye at store-bought peanut butter or bagels. Wondering whether homemade, D.I.Y. meals were actually cheaper, she began a series of kitchen-related experiments. In her new book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, some of Reese’s discoveries will surprise you—and help make your family meals easier. We spoke to her about the method to her kitchen madness.
Tips on Life & Love: What gave you the idea to write Make the Bread, Buy the Butter?
Jennifer Reese: It used to be that every time I went to the supermarket, this irritating dialogue would start up in my head: You’re going to really buy those tacky cupcakes for your son’s birthday? You should be MAKING cupcakes. Come to think of it, you really should be making your own yogurt, growing your own carrots, canning your own pickle relish, raising chickens, etc. It really intensified a few years ago after I lost my job and started worrying more about money. Then, when I’d actually bake bread, I’d start thinking, what if it actually costs MORE to make bread? I couldn’t win. I decided to look at the subject empirically in an attempt to shut down that irksome internal conversation. And I succeeded.
What did your family make of it?
My daughter, a teenager, is mortified by the farm animals that now populate our backyard. But she became deeply involved in the cooking projects and developed the outstanding chocolate chip cookie recipe in the book. My son, who is 10, loves the animals and couldn’t care less about the cooking. As for my poor husband, he’s very patient and sweet but has forbidden me to ever cure another prosciutto.
VIDEO: Jennifer Reese shows how to make homemade bagels
Do you really have a goat?
Two goats. They’re quiet, clean, friendly and, best of all, you don’t have to walk them. I love dogs, but I do think it’s peculiar that we take for granted the presence of dogs in American suburbs and cities, but not goats. When was the last time a goat barked at the mailman? When was the last time you milked your dog?
Which foods are cheaper to make at home?
Most. But probably the most dramatic example was vanilla extract. Shop around for a reasonably priced source of vanilla beans, buy a bottle of booze, then make yourself a big batch of vanilla It will take you about 5 minutes, last a lifetime, and cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for a tiny bottle from the supermarket.
Are some foods just too hard to make at home?
I assumed that making sausage would be a breeze, but it isn’t. Hot dogs? Never again. And you can make croissants and Danish pastries but they aren’t exactly relaxing. But almost everything else was shockingly easy. Pastrami? Simple. Bagels? Simpler. Most surprising, though, had to be the cheese. You can make fantastic, really inexpensive camembert with a couple of cheap mail-order ingredients, supermarket milk, and sterilized soup cans. You feel like a wizard. I’m not saying people should stop buying camembert from the cheese counter, but there is an option.
Are you still experimenting?
Although I never figured out how to make truly great veggie burgers or granola bars, I remain convinced I can do better than store-bought. Those are two ongoing quests. Plus, I fully intend to one day make jelly donuts.
What can the ordinary home cook take away from your book?
I hope ordinary home cooks will feel liberated—in all ways. You don’t have to meekly accept what Safeway or Stop n’ Shop has to offer. Cooking is easy and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. On the other hand, don’t feel guilty when you buy something delicious that happens to come from a supermarket. Lay’s Potato Chips are better than any chips I’ve ever made by standing over a cauldron of hot oil. The perfectionist homespun/do-it-yourself/urban farming ethic some of us are susceptible to can become rather enslaving. I’m all about the middle ground. I’ve just tried to figure out exactly where that is.