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.

48 thoughts on “Fooled By Fat (The Buttery Contessa)”

  1. Her brownies are the only ones I will ever make and when people ask me why they taste so damn divine, I have to admit the poundage. It’s a bit of a pride issue and a bit of shame. “Those brownies are SO badass, they have THAT MUCH CHOCOLATE IN THEM! Beat that! Oh wait, I think the heart attack will…”

    But dear god, how is two pounds of chocolate and a pound of butter not heaven in a pan? Thank god I only have occasion to bake them only once and a while.

  2. Never. It simply isn’t necessary. Butter-filled brownies may be Paradise on the tongue, but so is burnt sugar chiffon cake, ordinary sponge cake, white pound cake with pecans, and a list as long as your head of great desserts with a rein on the fat content.

    One of the other ways to get people to cook is to help them realize that they can make fabulous food that is healthier than what they eat from take-away or in restaurants.

    Only children can’t help themselves in the face of a Hostess Twinkie and we grownups should be educating them to know what’s in food and what’s both delicious and good for you. But first, we must know that ourselves.

  3. I have to say that Ina’s program (and I wish she’d make more new one’s), is my most favorite on The Food Network. The only comment I have about her weight is, a selfish one. I wish she would take better care of herself, so she can continue to produce such fabulous episodes, and wonderful cookbooks!

  4. The sweet recipes in the last chapter of Heidi’s book will doubtlessly hold up against Ina’s buttery treats. Honest. I think it actually HAS changed my life!

  5. Just like you Adam to get us laughing and thinking at the same time. I think we’re all hoping for Heidi to change our pathetic butter and cream cheese filled lives.

  6. I do not understand how her weight is anyone’s business and really disagree that being fat = Ina not being able to last long. She is rolling in the dough and likely has the best docs, better than I would have access too. She may spend time at the gym every day, how could you know? Some people can be fluffy and still have excellent cardio health.

    We can not all be buff-masters of the universe.

    I am not a fan of Ina at all but when I do watch her show (cant find the remote or am in the mood for disturbing Ina giggles) I am impressed that she is doing it her way, fluff and all. I could not do that. I would have a breakdown from the pressure to look like Sandra Lee (as if THAT were even possible, which it isnt)

    Re: her recipes/cookbooks.. just because they are there doesnt mean you have to cook from them. The person who decides to do that is solely responsible. The creation and existence of actual food from her recipes is totally on the cook, not her.

  7. I love her recipes – but I don’t think they’re everyday food at all. It is, like you said, party food. None of us should be eating that way all the time!

  8. I can see you have probably never worked in a restaurant; if you had any idea how much fat goes into everything you eat when you’re eating out, you would probably never do it. It used to be that dining out was about indulgence; for the most part, chefs aren’t there to show you a healthy way to eat, they are there to feed you delicious food.

    Baked goods should probably be consumed with restraint by most people. I make a divine “pounda pounda pounda cake” which contains a pound each of chocolate, hazelnuts, and butter. I wouldn’t even eat it once a week – it’s a treat.

    At least Ina is using natural ingredients such as butter and cream cheese; a more critical eye could be focused on the 9 degrees from natural products we consume every day in the form of processed junk. Especially when our schools are feeding it to our children. We need to start putting the “unhealthy” criticism where it’s due.

  9. Accidentally found you and I’ll be back!I also love to watch Ina Garten cook, although there’s no way I could make the recipes she prepares on her show and writes about in her cookbooks. But it’s always fun to live vicariously and walk on the “fat side” as a break from all the healthy stuff I write about in my cookbooks and articles. I’d have to walk a million miles to burn up all those calories if I prepared a recipe with 6 sticks of butter!

    Norene Gilletz in Toronto

  10. I love Ina Garten, she is so personable and her show so wonderful I can’t help but watch. I agree, her recipes are (at least for me) for special occasions due to all that richness. Nevertheless, I love reading them and looking at all the photos.

  11. I learned to cook in the 80’s (my God, how old am I!?!) from the Silver Palate chicks. Same scenario as the Contessa. Loved the food. Gave every recipe a dutiful outing with full fat, then started whacking it back for a healthier menu. Most everything (except the baked goods) were just as good without it. But, once in awhile…. full fat’s where it’s at.

  12. You should see the Silver Palate Cookbook if you haven’t already . . . it has exactly the same characteristics. There is a cup of mayonnaise, heavy cream, sour cream, butter or all of the above in basically every recipe including salad and soup recipes!

    I mostly read Ina Garten’s cookbooks for the pictures, and once in a while bake something like muffins with 1/2 of the sugar and the fat taken out. (It’s still good that way. Possibly not brownies though.)

  13. When I bake, I use only the fattest, most delicious of recipes. And I only bake once or twice a month, so that works out perfectly.

    But I agree that for every day, I need recipes that are tasty and yet non-fatal. (Once or twice a week I make something which is tasty and possible fatal.)

    I’ve always been a big follower of Julia Child’s “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” dictum. So don’t give up on Ina, your life would be much less fun. Just, try some of Heidi’s recipes, too.

    And please, let us know what you’re making every night. Food writers tend to only write about the special occasion stuff, and I’m always curious about the daily meals too.

  14. Like everyone else here I adore Ina and I love watching her shows. Her recipes are “special occasion”, and after I make them a couple of times I know that I can reduce some of the high calorie ingredients without too much problem. Hey you got to live!

  15. Isn’t it funny how much you’ve used Ina Garten recipes and yet you don’t look fat! Come to think of it, neither did Julia Child who loved French cooking.

  16. everyday should be a party. life is only temporary anyway, might as well eat all the cupcakes that we can in the limited time alloted.

  17. The NY Post’s Liz Smith in her book “Dishing” (a great read, by the way) has some excellent quotes about food, and an anecdote to which thepauper might agree: During the World Trade Center tragedy, a journalist asked an aide to order her lunch. “Don’t bring me any fat-free mayonnaise,” said the journalist. “If the world is coming to an end, I want the real thing.” Everything in moderation — including moderation. Life is short. Live a little. (and frankly, I think Ina Garten, though overweight, looks pretty hot!)

  18. I too am an Ina Disciple, she gave me the Party Queen rep I now enjoy through the Onion Dip alone. But I tend to adapt everything to “The Lowfat Contessa” version as I go along. I routinely cut 2/3 or more of the fat from her food, and it still tastes great, especially the dips and soups. We eat the corn chowder all the time, I use *2TBSP* of cream in place of the 2c. and it’s delish!

    I agree that her catering ways seem to make her reach for the full-fat mayo when a dash of EVOO or lemon juice would work just fine…but she has *great* taste and an eye for good food, color, and style. I love the total Ina package — it’s just that every night can’t be a cocktail party chez moi.

  19. I make that sun-dried tomato dip with low-fat everything, and it still tastes great. I love her recipes, but many of them (for me at least) are special-occasion, not every day foods.

  20. I’ve made Ina’s Outrageous Brownies many times, but always as a gift. It’s so utterly rich that it cuts like cold, chocolate butter. Little do my friends know I’m giving them the gift of clogged arteries disguised as holiday treats.

    When it comes to Ina’s cooking, I prefer to follow the Judeo-Christian ethic of “Thou shalt look the other way.” Denial, I’m afraid, is the only answer.

  21. Love Ina – so glad someone else mentioned her disturbing giggles…in .05 seconds she goes from cute, round-cheeked cooking goddess to bawdy wench who knows a thing or two…it is a disturbing transformation! But I love her.

    Anyhoo, I plan to make her “Pasta, Pesto and Peas” recipe this weekend. Saw it on my Tivo, and have had the printed out recipe next to my computer all week. Tons of fatty ingredients, and yet it looks too good to pass up. Mayo, parm, pesto, olive oil, more parm, pine nuts….creamy goodness.

    And comments on her weight are just not right…I’d rather have Ina’s round plumpness than Sandra Lee’s water balloons on a broom look she’s got going on. Yuck!

  22. I have no opinion about Ina Garten one way or another, other than that she and Sandra Lee both epitomize lifestyles unsustainable by the average American. How many of us can afford a place like Ina’s in the Hamptons? I have, on occasion, watched one of her shows and been shocked by the amount of fat she uses. Your insight into her background as a caterer and the motivation behind the way her recipes are formulated was insightful.

  23. Half of the joy of watching Ina’s show is the disturbing amounts of fat she uses in her recipes. It’s almost like some kind of food pornography (or would that be Nigella?). It FEELS sinful to watch Ina giggling while she whips up a pound of butter, chocolate etc.

    I still marvel over the way she cooks and, quite frankly, her blatant love of all things full-fat scares me. I’d rather watch her dinner guests consume the million-calorie meals on a regular basis than do so myself. However, once in a while, you really need a soul-satisfying, decadent, outrageously delicious recipe and Ina will be more than happy to dictate it to you in her syrupy voice…

  24. I too love the contessa, and your post was fascinating. Six sticks of butter notwithstanding, I so want to try the coconut cupcakes! :)

  25. I bought Ina’s book on entertaining less for the food than for her approach.. sunset antipasto and sherry, clambake on the beach, etc. The idea that a meal should be an occasion not necessarily just a gathering in your living room really inspired me… as for the butter… all things in moderation!

  26. I’ve made Ina’s coconut cupcakes a few times and I must say that they are the best cupcakes I may ever eat in my life. It is seriously like biting into a cloud.

    I have had my eye on the recipe for the pecan squares for quite some time now. But it’s the 2 1/4 pounds of butter that scares me away. The price alone is too much for me, let alone the fat content! But I bet they are the best pecan squares that I may ever eat in my entire life.

  27. I suppose the issue of fat in a recipe has never bothered me much because I’m not afraid to make substitutions or halve a recipe or what have you. Also, I don’t bake much. It’s never offended me to read a recipe with a lot of fat in it, because I never felt constrained by the recipe itself, nor have I felt a recipe necessarily reflects on the morals of the person making it. That is, I can’t connect Ina’s cupcake recipe with any evidence that she’s irresponsible or not taking care of herself.

    As to the comments above which occasionally veered toward the subject of Ina’s weight, I think it’s silly. She looks fabulous, and I would love to look like she does when I’m almost 60 years old. She looks 40, 45 years old, tops.

  28. Great points on Ina!! And I love her and her full-fat recipes…

    I will say that I learned the *truth* about catering food when I first bought my house and needed extra cash so I started serving/assisting caterers. One night before Christmas, I worked all night at a very high-end grocery store preparing VERY expensive meals for clients.

    Beef Wellington, buttery mashed potatoes, whole standing rib roasts, shrimp cocktail, apple cobblers, etc. etc.

    My point? I was shocked to discover that every recipe used literally pounds of butter, at a minimum. No wonder everything tastes so good, looks so good and isn’t dry when re-heated? No mystery there. :)

  29. “I know this seems like a lot of butter…”

    I’m right there with you Adam — the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks always seem to be on top of my pile and where I’ll turn in a pinch. With a few exceptions (lemon bars being one), her recipes are consistently excellent. They take well to substitution (“recipe f*cking” as it’s called in my house) and generally call for more wholesome than those of many of her Food Network peers.

    While Ina certainly doesn’t hold back in most of her desserts, I would argue that there are a good number of generally healthful recipes too (although a bit heavy on the “good olive oil” perhaps). Off the top of my head (some favorites): Butternut Squash-Apple Soup, Braised Lentils with Salmon, Chicken Chili, and the aforementioned Roasted Red Pepper-Eggplant dip (amazingly simple and delicious).

    And contrary to a post above, I find Ina to be the polar opposite of Sandra Lee. Above all, I appreciate how much Ina’s love of food, cooking, and company percolate through all of the media. For all of their talk of enjoying cooking, Sandra Lee/Rachel Ray/Robin Miller (shudder…) are at their core about getting through the cooking process as quickly as possible, using whatever tricks or shortcuts they can find prepackaged for them. While Ina’s doing her best to make her guests/family really enjoy their meal, SL/RR/RM are instead trying to trick them into acquiescent smile.

  30. I don’t disagree with you about how unhealthy the recipies are, but all I could think about when looking at the pictures of the cupcakes was “mmmm…” :)

  31. I love Ina! She has a recipe for Oreo Brownies that are without question the choclatiest, fattiest brownies ever…only for special occaisions–not every day. I love Ina’s approach to food–good quality ingredients, fresh and local and best of all cooking is fun and an the resulting meal is to be shared with friends and family.

  32. Yes, Ina’s recipes use a lot of butter. BUT, most of her baked goods are made in a half-sheet pan, which is too big even for most parties. Halved, they aren’t too bad.

  33. I have to admit, I own EVERY Barefoot Contessa cookbook, and I use them quite a bit. But, her healthier recipes are actually my favorites. I make her Turkey Meatloaf all the time, and use ground turkey breast, with her barbecue sauce on the top instead of ketchup, and it is wonderful. I actually know of someone who lost 75 pounds and the thing she made at least twice a week was the turkey meatloaf. I also LOVE the chicken chili.

    There are some of her recipes that are so good, it is like crack. Her Potato Fennel Gratin is amazing, but so rich I feel guilty for days after eating it.

    Overall, I cannot eat all of her recipes everyday, but I will say that everything turns out just as well and is as easy to make as it looks, which is the reason she is so popular. I know I will not be putting the cookbooks away anytime soon.

  34. Ina Rocks – Ina Rules! and while we’re on Food Network icons – isn’t that Emeril praising lard and bacon as “love,” not “fat”? Isn’t Paula Deen the undisputed lover of butter in general? And they’re all three of ’em a bit portly, ahem, huggable and loveable. I agree with Nika’s post in general up above – it’s up to the cook/reader to prepare the dish as they see fit and live with the consequences – it’s one thing to be a foodie and even delve into it as a lifestyle as much as you have Adam, but it’s up to us to take that walk once or twice around the block, make time for the gym, and for those of us that are sedentary office dinasours – stock up on trail mix and crudites for snacks, not naughty twinkies and chips (for which I believe by sacrificing trash for good health – the indulgence into a naughty Ina brownie every other weekend isn’t gonna hurt – as long as you have a work out pattern in place too – whether it’s the bike, a good walk, or a sultry lover – but that’s another type of post!). Roberto desde Miami

  35. Be warned that just because Ms. Swanson’s book is touted as healthy cooking, does not mean that the recipes are low-fat. Her recipes include a lot of really healthy ingredients, but take, for instance, her crepe recipe- oil, gruyere, potatoes. Not nearly as bad as Ina, but certainly not for the small-waisted. That being said, this is still a really interesting cookbook.

  36. I try to catch the BC in the afternoon some days right after getting home from work. I love the whole production, from the music, to the intro., as I say to the TV Screen “oh, Giada, you’re no Ina Garten… she’s a REAL woman!”

    I admire her. But you’re also right, she’s selling something, just like her buddy Martha Stewart, whom I don’t care for. I think the comments are right-you don’t cook her stuff every day… it’s celebratory food, or food made to impress. As a cook, you’re ultimately responsible for what you feed yourself and your family, so don’t blame Ina or anyone else who calls for 4-6 sticks of buttah.

    The real travesty is what food network follows Ina with–that semi-homemade nonsense. Garten reminds me most of my alltime favorite FoodTV host, David Rosengarten, whose TASTE show was the best.

    I wish he’d come back.

  37. Ok – lots of valid points here about Ina. But no one’s mentioned what I find most compelling about her recipes/books. Every single thing I have ever cooked from her books turned out exactly like I expected… or better. I have about 300 cookbooks and not one other book I own is so reliable. I’ve cooked almost every recipe from her first book, and lots of other recipes from her subsequent books. They are spot-on, every time.

    I think that’s an amazing feat. She’s my go-to girl for dinner parties or any other kind of entertaining!

  38. From reading your blog, you seem to follow recipes fairly closely— have you tried going the modified Ina route? I made her tzatziki this morning with lowfat yogurt and sour cream, and have always made her onion dip with lowfat yogurt/sour cream and maybe two tablespoons of mayo. And anytime she sautes I can usually cut out up to 3/4 of the butter. Not AS outrageous as their original counterparts, but still damn good.

  39. Love your blog, Adam and I love the Contessa, too. I made the Pecan Bars for Christmas last year, and while they do require pounds(!) of butter, the recipe does make a ton of bars. I think I was able to get at least 50-60 squares out of it. That said, I only use Ina’s dessert recipes for special occassions. Also, I have to agree with someone said earlier about Paula Deen being the undisputed queen of coronary-inducing cuisine. Bread pudding made out of Krispy Kreme donuts- come on, really?!?

    Keep doing your thing, Ina!

  40. On the issue of great cookbooks for sustainable diet, my favorite is Sally Schneider’s New Way to Cook (she’s got a new one out called Improvisational Cook–haven’t looked at it yet but sounds like it’s a similar structure).

    Schneider’s books are great because she has a sophisticated, foodie-friendly palate, but she emphasizes getting maximum impact from a minimum quantity of flavorful fats (like pancetta). The dishes are beautiful, especially if you favor rustic European-style foods (Italian and Greek are prominent influences), and everything I made from her book has been excellent. Her pastry dough is a revelation, and you’d never guess it was a reduced-fat dough.

    I wouldn’t call it lowfat cooking, and it never ever feels like diet food. Rather, it’s about using as little fat as you can get away with while still keeping everything delicious. She’s also strong on guiding the reader through improvising new dishes around similar techniques and structures, and there’s a huge chapter on marinades, spice rubs, sauces, dressings, etc.

  41. I do not see a problem with Ina’s weight. The fat and cream cheese in the desserts are not the problem—the problem with them is the flour and the sugar—that is what will send you to the cardiologist quicker than the fat ever can—you need to do the science—fat is not detrimental to your hear—period.

  42. Really late update; Mini Coconut Cupcakes, an adapted recipe appeared in May 2001 issue of Martha Stewart Living Magazine (1 & 1/2 sticks of butter for cupcake batter). Better Batter right??

  43. I like to use Ina’s ideas in my everyday cooking. Take the idea of roast chicken on arugula salad and croutons (which is fabulous) and then do a dinner for two with six ocean scallops (three each) halved horizontally sautéed in olive oil and butter and served over shaved bread, drippings and all with a side of arugula and vinaigrette. Small, elegant, unctuous, and delicious. The idea of the pan drippings on the thin toasted bread is hers and I thank her for it.

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