Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

Want to read more about Cooking the Books and my thoughts on Chicago’s food scene? Check out this interview I did with Third Coast Review!

Oh, Ina, if there was a way to live your life.

Zucchini tart

For April, we picked the Barefoot Contessa Make It Ahead cookbook. Let me say first that there’s a reason Ina’s built the reputation she has–her recipes work, and they are delicious. They may not test the bounds of kitchen creativity, but there’s definitely value in a recipe for perfectly cooked beef tenderloin or a not-watery vegetable lasagna, especially if you’re looking for a centerpiece dish for a party. If you have a house in the Hamptons, friends coming over to play bridge, and just stepped out to get a bouquet of freshly cut flowers from your best friend the florist, so much the better.

Sangria is served

Jeffrey approves
Jeffrey’s going to love this!

That said, I–we–definitely had some gripes with this book. First, the majority of the recipes seem to have been repurposed from other Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. This wouldn’t a big issue except these recipes were so obviously shoehorned into the “make ahead” concept and not always in a way that made sense.

The one I kept shaking my head at was her version of bouillabaisse. The recipe instructs you to make stock (which can be refrigerated up to a day, though the recipe isn’t exactly clear at which step your stock is done) and then, 30 minutes before serving, reheating the stock and adding all of the other ingredients. That’s just…making soup.

When I’m looking for a “make ahead” recipe, I want one that can be made completely a day or more ahead (or only needs a simple garnish or a component like rice or noodles) and is either as good or better the next day. This book has those kind of recipes–the noodle pudding she describes as “a mash-up of kugel and spanikopita,” which I could have eaten a pan of by myself, chicken pot pies, even the herb-roasted fish that you can assemble completely in single-serving packets a day in advance.

Noodle pudding
Chicken liver mousse

But the oddest recipes were ones like the roasted cauliflower snowflakes where the make ahead component is just cutting up a head of cauliflower, or the cream of wheat that has you combine milk, sugar, and maple syrup, refrigerate it, then reheat it when you’re ready to actually make cream of wheat. It’s not that these recipes don’t sound good–I adore roasted cauliflower and cream of wheat is one of my favorite winter Sunday breakfasts–they just seem forced into the make ahead concept.

Someone's waiting for a treat
Lemon-ginger molasses cake

Several of the recipes also bordered on too salty. This is a difficult critique since I think most people (including me) under-season their food, but there is nothing more frustrating than spending an hour on a recipe, filling a sink full of dishes, taking a bite of your creation…and needing to follow it with a glass of water. Just watch the salt in her recipes.

Happy group

There are some great recipes, though, as long as you ignore that they’re supposed to be “make ahead.” And you’re not on a diet–more power to her, Ina does not cower in the face of butter, eggs, or cheese.

This is what we made:

More food and a special guest

  • Summer Rose Sangria – I can’t wait to make this for a spring or summer party. Not too sweet, just enough fruit.
  • Chicken liver mousse– Sarah’s Mt. Everest recipe, and one that even the liver-averse among us liked. According to Sarah, this is one of the recipes to really watch the salt on, though by the time it made it to us (with double the amount of livers, more butter, and more brandy), it was delicious.
  • Caesar Salads with Blue Cheese & Bacon – This was absolutely gorgeous, though we agreed it would work best at a sit-down dinner. Incidentally, Mike used America’s Test Kitchen steaming method for the soft-boiled eggs–they were *perfect* and very easy to peel.
  • Roasted Red Pepper Hummus and Toasted Pita Triangles – Hummus is such a party staple, and I really liked this version with a little kick from Sriracha hot sauce.
  • Marinated Herbed Feta – A great alternative to a simple cheese plate, especially since you can make it up to a week in advance (though ha! to it lasting that long in my fridge). I’d keep this around for topping salads, sandwiches, pizza, eggs…


  • Spanish Tapas Peppers – These are at the top of my list to make once peppers hit the farmers market. I loved the combination of sweet from the peppers and raisins, salty from the olives and anchovies (good to know those anchovies from the Marcella Hazan dinner didn’t go to waste!), and warm spice from the saffron.
  • Ham and Leek Empanadas – Another great one for a party that was easy, delicious, and looked impressive. We decided the size could easily be halved, especially if you’re serving these as starters or snacks.
  • Winter Slaw – Yay vegetables! I was eyeing this recipe because it was one of a few lighter vegetable dishes in the book, and it’s a great crunchy, slightly bitter accompaniment to anything rich, like a pork shoulder.
  • Peas and Pancetta – Mary said she had to make this twice since her husband swiped and ate the first batch of cooked onions and pancetta. Can’t say I blame him. I would add the pancetta/onion mixture to…well, just about anything. Mashed potatoes? Eggs? Spread on a sandwich? This is the kind of make ahead recipe that makes sense: make the onions and pancetta mixture and keep it in the fridge, when you’re ready to make the dish, just reheat the mixture and add the peas to cook through.

Perfect filet of beef

  • Filet of Beef with Bearnaise Mayo – A showstopper. I love, love, love perfectly cooked beef, and this was spot on, especially with the bernaise. I’d make this in a heartbeat.
  • Zucchini and Goat Cheese Tart – This is a perfect example of why I really do love Ina’s recipes–simple, delicious, beautiful.
  • Zucchini Basil Soup – Scott made this in advance per the recipe and said it was actually better the day he made it. While it was good at the party, I don’t think the overnight rest and subsequent reheat did the zucchini or basil any favors.
  • Spinach & Ricotta Noodle Pudding – Though we always have leftovers at our dinners, I rarely take much home–I’m picky about leftovers. But this? I took as much as I could for lunch the next day without stealing the whole pan. So. Good.

Chocolate chip oatmeal cookies

  • Lemon Ginger Molasses Cake – I departed from my usual savory dishes to try a cake and, to Ina’s credit, it was perfect. Plus it introduced me to whipped cream with creme fraiche. In theory the creme fraiche makes the cream less likely to soften once it’s whipped, which didn’t really happen, but it’s so good I didn’t care.
  • Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies – Personally, I think Jess’ looked prettier than the ones in the book, and they tasted even better.
  • Fresh Apple Spice Cake – This reminded me so much of my grandma’s apple cake, which must Ina’s doing something right. A perfect dessert for fall or winter.

Apple cake and ice cream

Overall, while this isn’t a book I’d go out of my way to buy, I do plan to photocopy a few of the recipes before I give the book back to my mom.

Next up, we’re kicking off farmers market season in May with Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (who, incidentally, just got the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award). Can’t wait!

2 thoughts on “Cooking the Books – Ina Garten’s Make It Ahead

  1. I bought this book because I love to cook with Ina’s recipes but wasn’t inspired to dig into it. Like you, I thought this is not my definition of “make ahead. However, after reading this summary, and when you finally give my my book back, I will try many of these recipes. The pictures and descriptions really help to motivate me to try them. As an aside, I did bake the intense chocolate cake and I did freeze half of it. The fresh baked cake and the frozen portion, once thawed were equally good,.


  2. interesting reading! Love the details you go into. I have some friends that love Ina’s books, but I hadn’t really looked into why.

    Can’t wait for your group to report/eat Madison’s book! I just bought it this spring and I’m trying to make inroads, but it’s so enormous.


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