Like most bloggers, I have a TODO list: coming up soon, what to cook, next to research. Breads and cakes, mains and sides are the usual suspects, but I also have a bunch of things you might raise your eyebrows at: ricotta, mascarpone, ketchup and puff pastry. And some are already ticked off on these pages: yoghurt, pesto, jams, pickles and clotted cream.
But I wonder: is everything always better when made at home from scratch? Wonton skins and corn tortillas? Chicken and beef stock? Spice mixes? And how about milling your own flour and making butter at home? Should I see about getting a cow to graze in my back garden? There is the sublime and the ridiculous, as with pretty much everything, so I’m going to try to decide what is worth making at home and what you should go out and buy from the supermarket because life’s too short.
Making stock is a noble act indeed, it fits in with the nose to tail eating and minimising waste. Your chicken carcass after the roast gets chopped up and boiled for ever, stinking the house out and providing yield of a cup of not very concentrated murky broth. Is it better than a stock cube or concentrate? No – you’ve spent several hours only to achieve the smug feeling of not wasting an atom of the roast chicken.
When I casually mentioned to my hair stylist that I made yoghurt at home, she was incredulous: why would I want to do that? Why, indeed: above all it gives you yoghurt at the price of milk which is at least three times cheaper; six if you strain it and end up with Greek style yoghurt. Secondly, you can make your own combinations of flavoured yoghurts, fully in control of the sugar that goes in there.
Ricotta and mozzarella are only a step further from yoghurt, you might say, but I’ve found the results disappointing: a collection of milk curds clumped together had neither the texture nor, frankly the taste of ricotta even at a big push. I didn’t persist, leaving cheese making to Alex James and Gran Padano.
Granola: yes, yes, yes! It will be at least five times cheaper. There will be no additives, E-numbers and ingredients your grandma wouldn’t recognise. You can tailor it to your taste: how long do you spend at the cereal aisle before picking the one that you think, meh, you’ll like? Only to find it discontinued in a month’s time? So there. The same goes for granola bars.
I would hesitate before making tomato puree, simply due to the shortage in supply of abundant, cheap and ripe tomatoes where I live but the next shelf in the supermarket houses pesto and buying it is as lazy as buying bottled salad dressing, Making your own takes a few minutes, it will be vibrantly fresh and the key thing: you’ll make only as much as you want for your pasta dinner that day. I challenge you to tell me that you use up your shop bought pesto jars to the last green crumb, without it languishing at the back of the fridge, developing vibrantly green mould.
Whenever I talk to someone who knows someone who worked for a meat factory, horror stories abound mainly concerning ready-made mince. Skin, pink slime, gristle and sulphates in the content is only the beginning, and then there are the issues of whether beef is beef or squirrel, whether lean means lean or about 25% of fat and it all starts to seem like a health hazard. Mince your own, unless you have a butcher who will let you pick the cuts and grind them for you while you watch.
Mincemeat is NOT minced meat, which you might not know if you’re not British. Mincemeat is the fruity, nutty, boozy filling that goes into Christmas mince pies – again, these are sweet pies not fit for dinner. Supermarkets sell jars of it starting from October, labelled as ‘fruity’, ‘luxury’, ‘rich’, ‘indulgent’ but frankly they all taste rubbish. I’m always amazed that someone might go to the lengths of making the pastry at home and stuff it with the stuff from the jar. Wrong. Buy the pastry if you must but make your own filling by simply throwing together dried fruit and nuts with a couple of other very basic ingredients.
Jams are where I’m undecided. I know people make their own sugar free preserves but the only jams I’ve ever made were as sweet as the shop bought ones – in my books if it’s jam, it’s half sugar, half fruit. Are they better than the shop-bought ones? Not really, if you purchase a decent brand. Is it fun? Licking the spoons is. Not strikingly cheap unless you grow your own fruit, so I’d say with jams it’s take it or leave it: jam your bumper crops or make speciality, sugar free preserves; otherwise go to the shops.
I’ll deal with puff pastry swiftly: it’s a no-no. It’s a chore enough to make laminated dough at home for croissants and Danishes; rolling cold butter into pasta dough sounds like a nightmare. There is really good, frozen or fresh, puff pastry out there to buy so let’s not get exceedingly stressed making it.
And finally, clotted cream: I bet you’re expecting me to nay on it, but it’s SO MUCH FUN! Clotted cream is high fat cream baked at low temperature for a long time, then chilled, a bit like yoghurt. If you are not familiar with it, give it a try: it’s a Cornish/Devonian speciality that tastes like cream and looks like butter, the best thing to spoon over your scones and brownies. The only caveat: if you make a lot, you’ll end up scoffing it all, it’s that good.
SUMMARY: make at home things which will benefit from your control of the ingredients or amounts; or which will work out very cost effective (yoghurt, granola, pesto, minced meat and mincemeat). Leave the chores to the industry (stock, cheese, ketchup, puff pastry). And feel free to disagree with me!