Test Kitchen; Homemade Or Semi? A Bake-off
Q: By Amanda Hesser In the world of Sandra Lee, cookbook author and self-proclaimed ''lifestylist,'' life is hectic and people are busy. Cooking food from scratch takes too much time, and is too difficult and too expensive. And while Ms. Lee believes that cooking food for someone is the greatest gift, it really isn't worth too much of your time. Ms. Lee also believes she has the solution for these problems: food that is ''Semi-Homemade'' (she has registered this name). In her first book, ''Semi-Homemade Cooking'' (Miramax, 2002), which according to Nielsen BookScan sold more than 61,500 copies and landed her on the New York Times best-seller list, Ms. Lee explained her philosophy: ''The Semi-Homemade cooking approach is easily done by combining several prepackaged foods, a few fresh ingredients, and a 'pinch of this with a hint of that' to make new, easy, gourmet-tasting, inexpensive meals in minutes.'' Ms. Lee calls this technique ''a new way of cooking.'' But it is not. Her approach merely underlines a way of cooking that is rapidly growing in American culture. While cake mixes and convenience foods have been around for decades, it is only recently that attitudes toward using them have shifted from embarrassment to allegiance. In 1999, Anne Byrn wrote ''The Cake Mix Doctor'' (Workman), which is filled with recipes for tweaking cake mixes with ingredients like vanilla and lemon zest so that they taste better. It sold 1.3 million copies and was followed up by another best seller, ''Chocolate From the Cake Mix Doctor.'' (''The Dinner Doctor'' is forthcoming.) Recipes on the Web site for the Pampered Chef, a cookware company that sells directly to consumers with Tupperware-like parties, include mixes and convenience foods. Recipes in Bon App?tit magazine, with a circulation of more than 1.3 million, occasionally rely on packaged and brand-name ingredients. All of which can add up to a kind of faux-cooking. Ms. Lee's slant is no different, except that she is savvy: she has made it into a brand. Miramax Books is publishing her second book, ''Semi-Homemade Desserts,'' this month, and according to Ms. Lee's Web site, www.semihomemade .com, she has recently signed a contract with Miramax Films for a variety of publishing, merchandising and television projects. Ms. Lee's beliefs are based on some degree of truth. People are working longer hours. People are commuting farther. And people have more choices of things to do with their spare time. But does this mean that people have less time to cook or that people make less time to cook? Ms. Lee puts forth the notion that there are lots of people who like to eat well, but who do not have time to cook. And who, apparently, don't want the bother of actual cooking. She emphasizes repeatedly that her recipes will allow you to get out of the kitchen sooner so that you can spend more time with your family. But since when did cooking have to be solitary? And since when were people unable to talk with their children or spouses while they cook? She herself reminisces in ''Semi-Homemade Desserts'' about the ''happy hours'' spent in the kitchen, baking with her grandmother. And, in fact, if you look at changes in kitchen design over the last decade, you'll discover that people not only like to be in the kitchen, but their spending habits would indicate that they actually would like to spend most of their time there. According to Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president for research of the National Association of Home Builders, the kitchen has become the focal point of the home. People are devoting more square footage to their kitchens and making them more multipurpose, with room for sofas, computers and play areas. And in the kitchen itself, he said, Americans are spending more money on stoves, refrigerators and cooking equipment. And yet, who isn't lazy? If someone tells you often enough that you do not have time to shop at a good butcher or to measure a cup of flour, you may start to believe it. And that is just how Ms. Lee wins you over. Using the same strategy that has been so successful for the food industry, she seems more intent on encouraging people to create excuses for not cooking than on encouraging them to cook wholesome simple foods. Any good cook knows that a roasted chicken and a salad take about two tries to perfect and about 15 minutes of actual work time, but such classic food doesn't leave much room for the kind of product references Ms. Lee likes to have in her recipes. As opposed to the recipes in Anne Byrn's ''Cake Mix Doctor'' books, in which good quality ingredients are used to sharpen the bland manufactured ones, Ms. Lee's more often than not rely on bland manufactured ingredients to mix with bland manufactured ingredients. Gnocchi Dippers, whose problems don't end with their name, are sauced with olive oil, onion, jarred garlic, milk, Tabasco sauce, sour cream and thyme -- all good, so far -- but then she adds Velveeta. With hundreds of delicious and interesting cheeses available in this country, many of them in supermarkets, it is difficult to understand how a responsible author could choose a tasteless, industrial cheese like Velveeta to prepare what she calls ''gourmet-tasting'' food. And although Ms. Lee courts home cooks on a budget, she never explores whether making things from scratch is more expensive. The ingredients for the Triple Lemon Poundcake in Ms. Lee's ''Semi-Homemade Desserts'' (which includes cake mix and instant pudding) cost about $6, whereas the ingredients for a made-from-scratch lemon poundcake in Ina Garten's ''Barefoot Contessa Parties!'' came to just over $3.50. In several instances, Ms. Lee calls for prepared mashed potatoes. A 22-ounce bag of frozen Ore-Ida mashed potatoes (the only prepared mashed potatoes I could find), which contain margarine and ''natural butter flavor,'' among other things, was $3.17. You need to add milk to prepare them. Bulk potatoes, on the other hand, were 99 cents a pound. You can boil them while you do something else, and add milk and actual butter to your taste. Some of Ms. Lee's recipes are simply odd. In ''Semi-Homemade Cooking,'' she gives a recipe for pesto, when so many decent prepared versions are available. In the recipe, she calls for fresh basil, but jarred garlic. In the same chapter, she offers a recipe for a hollandaise sauce made in a blender. So, rather than preparing it classically with simply a saucepan and a whisk, you have to wash your blender and all its parts. It leaves the reader wondering just how much cooking Ms. Lee has done. Ms. Lee insists that naming brands in recipes helps to keep the results of her recipes consistent. It also makes shopping an incredible pain in the neck. For Anthony Edwards's Superdad Banana Nut Sandwiches, I got all but one of the ingredients at one store, then had to run to two others looking for Betty Crocker Rich & Creamy cream cheese frosting. I was unable to find it, or any other cream cheese frosting, at any of the three stores. Since I had the makings for the rest of the dessert, I bought an ingredient you can find at any grocery store -- cream cheese -- and made my own icing from scratch (the cream cheese frosting from ''Joy of Cooking'' took five minutes and was delicious). Ms. Lee's reliance on brand-name products feels forced. There is a chapter in ''Semi-Homemade Desserts'' devoted to celebrity recipes. It is hard to believe that when she rounded up recipes from people like Katie Couric and Nathan Lane (not to mention Mr. Edwards), they all happened to call for brand-name products. In a recipe for Anjelica Huston's Having-It-All Caramel Shortbread, Ms. Lee calls for 20 Brach's Milk Maid soft caramel candies, unwrapped. I timed myself to see how long it took to unwrap them. Three minutes. It's not a long time, but it is an incredibly annoying task. The caramels must then be melted in a microwave oven, which takes another few minutes. It took me only 15 minutes to make the same amount of caramel from scratch. The difference in time was negligible, while the difference in taste was significant. Homemade caramel has the texture of taffy and tastes of butter. Brach's have a waxy texture and taste of sugar. The Duncan Hines Creamy Home-Style chocolate icings that Ms. Lee calls for in her Crispy Orange Coconut Balls (truffles, really) do not allow you to have control over the quality of the chocolate -- the main flavor of the dessert. If you were to use your own, you would have an array of good quality chocolates to choose from that would make the finished truffles taste that much better. I made a second version using a truffle base from ''Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herm?'' by Dorie Greenspan (Little Brown). I replaced Ms. Lee's icing with Scharffen Berger semisweet chocolate and heavy cream, and the recipe's Cocoa Rice Krispies with regular Rice Krispies. The rest of the ingredients were perfectly acceptable. (The two recipes are printed at bottom left.) The truffles I made did not use up any more dishes or require any more labor than Ms. Lee's. Surely, they were more expensive, but truffles are not food for everyday. They are a special treat, and in my view, a special treat should taste like one. Hers tasted grainy and flabby, like partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and left a coating of grease on my tongue. There are a number of recipes, particularly in Ms. Lee's first book, however, that are great ideas for simple and quick dishes. In ''Semi-Homemade Cooking,'' for instance, the roasted pepper soup is bright and sharply flavored. And if you used higher quality brands than the ones she suggests, it might even qualify for the word delicious. Another smart recipe is the one for Ricotta Berry Bursts, which call for pre-made graham cracker crusts and have a filling of fresh ricotta, jam and orange juice.
A: Ubiquitous and I hate each other's politics, but we agree 100% about Sandra Lee's *cooking*, and everyone else who uses similar methods of preparing *food*. That's not "cooking." It's creating hog slop. Someone on r.f.cooking posted this link: http://www.candyboots.com/wwcards.html Actually, Ore-Ida doesn't sell "mashed potatoes" any more - they've changed to a frozen product that you have to steam and then mash, instead of just adding milk. The originals were good and a true time- saver. Additionally, bulk Idahos are regularly on sale - I paid $1.88 for a 5- pound bag last week. I think this reviewer has some really good points, and I'm pleased to see a comparison of what the real world is along with what SLop's world is. I hope a bunch of SLop's followers read it. It's pretty obvious that she has done no more than is required to appear in front of the cameras - and sometimes, not even enough for that. It's also nice of the reviewer to give her credit where credit is due. Still, it will be a cold day in July in Iowa, if I ever watch one of her idiotic shows or buy one of her books. Maybe I'm weird but I prefer my galley kitchen. I don't like big fancy kitchens with all the newest gadgets. Just give me a gas top, my mixer,food processor, and I'm happy.
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