Homemade: Virtues and Learning Curves

There is something to be said about “homemade” anything: the hand-knitted scarf; the hooked rug; the hand-carved spoons and utensils.  The time and effort that someone put into these crafts make them very special gifts.  With each one, they have put a bit of themselves into the item, a bit of their love and care for you, and it is really difficult to measure that in dollars and cents.  For the crafter, there is the added value of confidence.  With each new skill or craft that you develop, your confidence grows.  You feel stronger, invigorated.  That, too, cannot be measured in dollars and cents.  However, hand-crafted or homemade items generally tend to last longer and, because most of us can appreciate the time and skill required to make them–whether we were the crafter or a loved one was–we tend to take better care of them.  They are one of a kind.  They are indisposable.  Even if we secretly hate the scarf that Great-Auntie Millie knitted for us, there is very little possibility that that scarf will wind up in a landfill and that’s a blessing in itself; we have become too disposable a society.  And the cost of environmental deterioration–and even municipal trash removal–can be measured in dollars and cents but that is not the most important consideration here.  (Did I say that?)

When it comes to homemade food, there is also the taste factor.  Homemade almost always tastes better than store-bought.  It’s usually cheaper, too.  While the initial ingredients may cost you more upfront, many times you already have most of those ingredients in your cupboard or, even if you don’t, you’re not going to use a whole 5 lb. bag of flour to make one batch of cookies.  So you have that flour for a second batch…and a third…and often one “batch” of chocolate chip cookies equals 2 bags of Chips Ahoy or Keebler.  When you break down the amount of each ingredient you use to make those cookies, the cost becomes a lot less.

I’m a fanatic about frugality.  These trying, economic times have necessitated it to the extreme but, even before the housing market crash and this 21st century economic depression, frugality has been a necessity for a single person trying to stay afloat and have something of a life.  My philosophy is that the more I save on the essentials, the more I have for the little perks that come along and make life more interesting.   But I’m finding that even for the “perks” I’m weighing more carefully everything I spend.  For example, two weeks ago I stopped at Burger King on my way home from the laundromat and purchased a veggie burger, large order of onion rings and a medium order of french fries.  The bill came to $7 and change.  The fanatic kicked in as I was eating it and, the next time I went to the grocery store, I had a list of everything that went into that purchased meal: Morning Star garden burgers (as this is the brand that Burger King sells), hamburger buns, condiments, onions, tomatoes, lettuce, onion rings and french fries and noted the cost of each item on my list, the serving size and the number of servings per container…and divided the price by the number of servings to get the individual cost.  The cost of that drive-up meal was more than double what it would have cost me to make this meal at home using name brands; the savings becomes even more significant if, like me, you use store brands or even opt to make the onion rings and fries from scratch.  It is not that I will never buy a drive-thru dinner again but, when I do order take out, I am doing so now knowing exactly what my cost really is…even without the health concerns as I probably would’ve baked the fries and onion rings rather than deep frying them!   And that’s another positive factor of homemade: knowing what is in your food and having the control over how it is made as that can make a big difference in the nutritional value.   It’s like that Breyer’s ice cream commercial where the little girl is trying to pronounce the names of the preservatives in the competitors’ brands.   I would much rather look at my plate and say: eggs, cheese, spinach than have to tack on “Monosodium Glutamate”, “High Fructose Corn Syrup” and/or “Maltodextrin” (and those are some of the easier ones!).

With that in mind, I am experiencing the thrill of having tackled something new again in the kitchen: homemade marshmallows.  Store-bought marshmallows are loaded with all the “bad” stuff, especially High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), which is a major contributor to so many health problems in America today: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Fibromyalgia, Crohn’s Disease, Chronic Epstein-Barr, Type II Diabetes.  The list could go on.  Anything which has HFCS in the ingredients has the potential to excerbate these and other conditions.  I have IBS, CFS and Chronic Epstein-Barr so I write this from experience…and the extensive research I have done in regard.  I’m a bit of a fanatic where prescription medications are concerned, too, so I refuse to take anything for any of these conditions, preferring to monitor and modify my diet instead.  This is the reason for the extensive research because despite being very careful to follow my physician’s list of “do not eat” items like caffeine, red meat and chocolate (which has caffeine), I was still suffering from frequent bouts of these auto-immune diseases.  When I found the link between auto-immune diseases and HFCS–and decided to cut it out of my life as much as possible, if not altogether–I found that my bouts became less.  And less severe.

I became a vegetarian in 1998 after a severe attack of Irritable Bowel Syndrome that sent me to the local emergency room for 13 hours, doubled over in pain, being poked and prodded and tested into oblivion only to find that the decaffeinated iced coffee I was drinking each morning had triggered this attack.  I thought I was playing it safe because it was decaf but the trace amounts of caffeine that still exist in decaffeinated beverages had built up over time and, after 2 days of intense diarrhea, my intestines suddenly swelled almost completely shut.  I still had the cramping, still needed to go to the bathroom, but I couldn’t pass anything.  Later, after it all eased up and my intestines returned to “normal”, I began researching how to keep this from happening again.  I was also borderline Crohn’s Disease; by becoming a vegetarian, I actually reversed this situation and Crohn’s Disease is no longer an immediate factor at least.

People ask me how I could’ve given up meat of any kind.  That part was easy.  I thought of my love of animals and the fact that what I was eating was actually someone’s flesh; it was enough to kill any real appetite for it though, I confess, I have added some fish back into my diet due to having iron-poor blood.   Salmon, especially, is one of the richest sources of vitamin B-12 available and, though I know it is still the flesh of an animal of the sea, there were two factors that helped negate this sensitivity: 1. my faith and the Bible stories of Jesus feeding thousands with fish and 2. having watched two pet tropical fishes giving birth to hundreds of guppies all at one time and these new mothers opening their mouths and eating most of their offspring themselves!  I may love the animals and even the fishes, too, but I cannot save the world.  And fish is a lot easier for me to digest than beef, swine or even poultry.

Amazingly, the toughest thing to avoid has been chocolate.  I am human in this.  I love chocolate…especially hot chocolate.   But Swiss Miss, Nestle and all the other commercial brands of hot chocolate mixes all contain High Fructose Corn Syrup.  And, even knowing this, I cheat.  I buy boxes of Swiss Miss and enjoy a cup now and again.  And I pay for it by either being constipated and grumpy, or having loose and intense bowel movements…and still being grumpy…for the next couple of days.  After reading countless articles about HFCS and its effects on Irritable Bowel Syndrome, I started looking for a brands of chocolate–both hot chocolate and chocolate candy bars–that did not contain HFCS.  The only ones I found were the organic brands.  And there I only found organic cocoa.  I bought a tin of it and found, to my delight and surprise, that a cup of organic cocoa did not trigger an attack of IBS like the more commercial brands did.  I keep it to a minimum, only enjoying a cup infrequently, and I seem to do okay.  It’s nice to be able to enjoy this lovely taste again.  But organic cocoa doesn’t come with those lovely mini-marshmallows in it (eh, I want it all…).  And, while I can sometimes find organic marshmallows in the local health food store, the frugal fanatic kicks in.  Organic cocoa costs more per tin than a box of Swiss Miss.   If I factor in the additional price of organic marshmallows, well, that frugal fanatic just can’t justify it.  Is it really that important?  I’m guessing, to some degree, it has been as I’m still cheating with Swiss Miss hot chocolate w/ mini-marshmallows from time to time…

And then I found a new book entitled “The Homemade Pantry” by Alana Chernila listed in my book club.  The advertisement extolled the virtues of this new cookbook as having recipes to make your own marshmallows, Oreo cookies and various other “treats” and condiments for a lot less $$ at home.  Being unemployed and, again, a frugalist, I struggled with the expense of buying a new book right now but I had racked up a considerable amount of points with my book club from past purchases and they were offering a special that, if you bought two books right now, they would take an additional $5 off the price.  All total, with my points’ savings and the additional $5 off, I purchased “The Homemade Pantry” and another book that I’d been ogling for only $16.00 + s/h; they would’ve been $42.00 + s/h at regular price so I “splurged”.  And last night I made homemade marshmallows…

The recipe is simple but I won’t infringe on Ms. Chernila’s copyright by copying it here.  I can tell you the ingredients were easy to find: corn syrup (not High Fructose and definitely NOT the same animal at all…), water, plain gelatin, vanilla extract (and there’s even a recipe for that in the book…), sugar…and approximately 15 minutes of my time making them.  That is key whenever you buy a new cookbook.  If you can’t readily find the ingredients at your local grocery store and you likely won’t use them again for anything but the recipe you’re trying to make, it’s really cost prohibitive despite being homemade (especially if you find you hate the recipe after making it and vow never to make it again!).  Homemade should be simple and inexpensive as well as being wholesome and healthier for you.  As for the prep time with this recipe, I probably could’ve cut that time a little shorter as my mix started to turn white, shiny and thicker in about 8 minutes of mixing.  As a result, though they taste wonderful–like no other marshmallows I have ever had before–they are not exactly uniform in shape.  The extended mixing, because I wanted to follow the 10 – 15 minutes of mixing time she advocated, made them impossible to spread in a pan later on so they are quite lumpy instead of the round, smooth, cylindrical shape of commercial marshmallows.

Either way, they will serve up fine in a cup of organic cocoa tonight.  And that is where the thrill comes in…and the whole point of making them in the first place.

God bless you & keep you!