Fooled By Fat (The Buttery Contessa)

You who are wise and who read this blog will know whose recipe requires the following ingredients:


That’s six sticks of butter and two packets of cream cheese. Who else could it be? There was a profile about her last week in the New York Times. Yes, it’s everyone’s favorite Contessa–the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten–and these are the ingredients required for her famous coconut cupcakes. The cupcakes came out great, as you can see here:


But people couldn’t believe how much butter went in them. “Six sticks!” said Craig, after Raife and Alex consumed five cupcakes between them. “Six sticks of butter!”

(For the record: that’s three sticks in the batter, three sticks in the icing.)

The article mentioned that people attack Ina for her weight and I’m not here to talk about how much Ina weighs, but it is remarkable how much fat Ina uses in her recipes. On one hand I really admire her for it: while the rest of the world is Atkins-ing and South Beach-ing, Ina’s having a butter party on her Hamptons estate. On the other hand, though, watching her on TV I sometimes want to scream out: don’t you ever cook anything that doesn’t require a cardiologist? Not every recipe needs a gallon of fat to make it taste good. Why is Ina so undisciplined in the fat department? I have an answer and you will find it in the next paragraph.

One word: caterer. Think about it. Ina worked as a caterer at the start of her career and when you’re catering a party or event you don’t care about health, you care about umph. You want people to groan with pleasure as they eat your coconut cupcakes and vow to hire you for their son’s Bar Mitzvah, wedding, and funeral (all of which, if they keep eating your food, may happen at the same time.) Ina knows that fat makes food taste good so she uses lots of it. Lots and lots of it.

It’s a business decision. It sells cookbooks because people see your recipes on TV, they try them, and they come out great and they buy your books and call you a genius. Hell: that’s exactly what I did when I started this blog; The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook is the most used cookbook on my shelf. I love it. But I’m starting to realize a Barefoot Contessa diet is unsustainable, unless I want to go to an early grave.

Am I exaggerating? Let me whip out her book and go through it recipe by recipe to see how much fat there is. Ok, her roasted eggplant spread has only 3 Tbs olive oil, her lobster salad had 1/2 cup of mayonnaise, her crab cakes have 4 Tbs of butter and olive oil plus 1/2 cup mayonaisse and 2-extra large eggs.

Maybe that’s not so bad. That seems reasonable, normal proportions for those recipes. But then we get to her pan-fried onion dip: 4 Tbs butter, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, 4 ounces cream cheese, 1/2 cup sour cream and 1/2 cup mayonnaise. Jeesh! Her sun-dried tomato dip: 8 oz cream cheese, 1/2 cup sour cream, 1/2 cup mayonnaise.

Her cheddar corn chowder has 8 oz. bacon, 1/4 cup olive oil, and 2 cups of half and half plus 1/2 pound sharp white Cheddar cheese.

Are you getting the picture?

Sure there are healthy recipes scattered around–fat-free gazpacho, for example–but those aren’t the ones you’re going to make. You’re going to make her outrageous brownies which have 1 POUND of butter and 1 POUND of chocolate. Or her pecan squares which (oh my God, I never even noticed how much fat there is in this recipe) have 1 1/4 pounds butter in the crust and 1 pound of butter in the topping. No wonder I’ve been cooking these recipes for so long: I’ve been fooled by fat.

Look, I don’t begrudge Ina her old catering habits. They work. They make food taste good and that’s a great way to get people cooking. But now that I’ve been cooking for three years I need to cook things that I can eat every day. Curried cous cous salad? That’s ok. But lamb sausage in puff pastry? I’ll save that for my last rights. And I’ll eat that along with her lobster pot pie, which has 8 Tbs of butter and 8 Tbs of lard in the crust.

Today I saw Heidi Swanson’s beautiful new cookbook, Super Natural Cooking at Barnes & Noble and I’m ready for it to change my life. Only there are two cakes cooling right now in my kitchen. They’re filled with lemon zest and sugar and buttermilk and, oh yeah, two sticks of butter.

Oh, Ina, you’ve got me wrapped around your bejeweled little finger. You lured me in with fat and now I never want to leave.

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