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Blogger Alana Chernila's enthusiastic debut cookbook, "The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying & Start Making" (Clarkson Potter, $24.99), could be titled "Yes, You Can!"
By putting a practical but fun-loving spin on do-it-yourself ricotta, tomato sauce, graham crackers, tortillas, marshmallows, ranch dressing and other kitchen basics, the New England mother of two demonstrates that replacing store-bought with homemade is a delicious strategy for leading a happy, healthy and budget-balancing lifestyle.
Q What's the genesis of the book?
A I was never really much of a cook growing up. But I was a mother at 24, and I had to figure out how to feed my family on very little money. I started to garden, I became a member of a CSA, I started volunteering at our Saturday farmers market. It was all so fascinating.
I went through about 15 careers in five years [laughs] and at the same time I was getting more adventurous in the kitchen. I would spend the morning at the farmers market talking about recipes and getting really excited, and that's when I realized, "Oh, I'm supposed to be working in food." I slowly got rid of everything else and I started writing, and that led to the blog eatingfromthe groundup.com.
Q Did you have an aha moment?
A It really started with yogurt. We were spending so much money on these little containers of yogurt, and I thought, "I can do this better." So I started playing around with cultured milk, and then I moved into making cheese. Then I started asking myself the same question on all the other things that we were buying. Readers started contributing ideas, too. Then I began to look for a book to help me out, and I couldn't find one. There were some 1970s homestead guides, and some do-it-yourself canning books, but I wanted a book for normal people, for busy parents who had to work but were interested in making real food for their families.
Q What basic items should be on everyone's to-do list?
A The easy answer is butter, because it works every time, it's really fast, it will enchant everyone in the room and it's delicious. You can't beat that, right?
But it's also about answering this question: Will it change my life? For me, the discovery that I could make my own granola bars changed my life. I felt like I was a slave to boxes of TLC granola bars. If I didn't have a perfectly wrapped bar to throw in the back seat when I picked the kids up at school, I would be in a panic.
And they're fine, those TLC bars, but they're $5 a box. Discovering that I could make my own was truly life-changing. I could decide what I put in them, I saved money, I saved all that packaging, and we eat them every day. But everyone has their own unique food patterns. For someone who doesn't have kids and doesn't care about granola bars, maybe rolling their own pasta is revolutionary.
Q What's the tale behind those amazing-looking toaster pastries?
A It's a true story. They came about during the time when I was running for public office. All of a sudden it became this six-week period of intense campaigning that I was totally unprepared for. The irony of the situation is that when people would ask, "Why are you getting into politics?" I kept saying that I was doing it for my kids, and at the same time my poor kids were so neglected. It was a time of deep maternal guilt [laughs].
So I just wanted to create something that, when I put it on the table, my kids would understand that I was really sorry, and I felt that it had to be something as amazing as a Pop-Tart. I think that there's real power as a parent in making amazing, magical baked goods.
Q We've been convinced by food manufacturers that so many staples couldn't possibly be made at home. How did that happen?
A It's unfortunate that we have been taught to not trust ourselves, to not trust our own kitchens. The truth is, we are better than we think we are. We are good at feeding ourselves and our families, as long as we take the proper time to say, "I'm willing to learn and do this right." And you know what? We can do it better.
Q What are a few items that immediately come to mind?
A Crackers. No one makes them anymore, it's a very Martha Stewart-ey thing to do. But it takes maybe 20 minutes, and it's easy and cheap and delicious. And they have a shelf life. Not that they stick around, because everyone eats them.
There's also a big cost savings when you make things at home, especially if you do it repeatedly and you have the raw materials on hand. You're no longer paying for the packaging, or the transport, or the advertising.
Q Aside from the obvious -- flavor, freshness -- what are the rewards that come from making it yourself?
A It's even more powerful for yourself than for the people you are cooking for. We have lost the sense that work makes food better. With so much focus on ease and quickness and convenience, we've lost the fact having our hands in dough or batter actually enriches our sense of taking care of ourselves.
It's amazing. I watch this happen when I make something new with my kids. There's this sense that I'm doing something I never thought was possible and this sense that I can create anything; if I can make this, what else can I do? It sort of opens up the whole world.
I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but I really believe this, because I've seen it happen. And because food is so integrated into our days, and our emotions, it's the perfect medium for bringing that sense of empowerment into our lives. We don't have to take what the store gives us. We have the ability and the power to make whatever we can.