The Ottumwa Courier

March 8, 2010

In the kitchen with Mary Ann Reiter

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — Mary Ann Reiter doesn’t really need a cookie jar.

“Freshly-baked [products] have a short shelf life,” she said while cooking in her kitchen. “I don’t use preservatives.”

That means if she wants to serve coffee, she’ll make cookies, too. For those last-minute guests, she preheats the oven, takes homemade cookie dough — already portioned — out of the freezer and has freshly baked cookies by the time the coffee is done brewing.

To keep the cookies from sticking together in the freezer, Reiter first places them on a cookie sheet as if ready to bake, but instead puts the cookie sheet in the freezer. Later, she puts the raw, frozen cookie balls in a bag, then back in the freezer they go for family or guests.

“Eating is a very social thing,” she said.

Cooking can be interactive, too. While visiting her daughter, the pair took a half-day tamale-making class in Chicago.

“It was fun,” Reiter said.

And though she clearly enjoys cooking and baking, she takes food preparation seriously: She uses a flat surface to crack eggs because corners can drive shell into an egg. While bread is baking, she won’t open the oven door because that impacts the temperature. And guests helping in her kitchen — or just observing — are told to put on an apron and wash their hands first.

If you want a consistent product, Reiter said, even home cooks must be precise. She always uses the same brand of flour because she knows its characteristics. She uses a scale to measure items because weighing is more accurate. And instead of a spoon, she uses a tiny ice cream scoop to drop leveled, uniform quantities of batter into muffin tins.

Every egg shell, every apple core, orange peel and cherry stem is dropped into a container separate from the trash can: They’ll eventually make their way back to the garden as compost. There are also chemical interactions Reiter avoids.

For example, milk can have enzymes which affect yeast. Reiter scalds her milk before adding it to a yeast dough recipe. 

In some ways, she acknowledged, baking is like chemistry — there are things that need to be done one exact way. Other times, you can have some fun. Her daughter calls one of Reiter’s well-loved recipes “garbage bread.”

“On a given day, it has whatever I have on hand,” Reiter said. “The protein structure can support it.”

Over the years, her garbage bread has been topped with sesame seeds, cereal, oatmeal, wheat and other grains.

Biting into a treat in Reiter’s kitchen reveals two separate textures. While the inside of a muffin is warm and fluffy, the outside has a crispness, like a microthin, protective shell.

Though she keeps a neat, handwritten journal of recipes she’s discovered, she enjoys picking up cookbooks when traveling.

“I’m happy if I get [just] a couple of recipes from the book,” she said.

Why are there handwritten notes in the margins?

“Some recipes are flawed,” she said, “but you like the concept, so you fix it.”

Mark Newman can be reached at 683-5358 or by e-mail at