Monday, November 26, 2018

Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines

Magnolia Table first came to my attention when I saw it on some cookbook awards longlist (can't remember which) back in the spring, then waited on a long list of library holds to finally get my hands on it this month. I wasn't aware of the existence of HGTV's Fixer Upper, which features Joanna Gaines and her husband Chip. They also own Magnolia Market, a shopping complex that includes a home decor store and restaurant in Waco, Texas.

After all that waiting, this cookbook was a disappointment: beautiful design, with gorgeous photos on thick matte paper stock, but the recipes aren't anything special. The ingredients in many are a throwback to the 70s—using Velveeta, cardboard tubes of refrigerated dough, cans of creamed soup, and flavour packets by Knorr. I don't like the taste of these things.

I'm surprised that there are so many reviews praising the recipes, and in particular for such ordinary things as baking powder biscuits (Jojo's Biscuits are made with eggs) and chocolate chip cookies (a variation on Toll House, with half the butter, so that they stay mounded instead of going flat). Comfort food is great, but I expect some little twist in BLTs or mashed potatoes when they are included in such a prettily-designed book.

Gaines writes: "If you told me I could have only one thing every day for the rest of my life, it would be mac and cheese. I realize this is exactly the choice that many 8-year-olds would make, and I'm okay with that." 

My reaction: great choice! But why make it with Velveeta cheese? And why put it in the chapter on side dishes? Why recommend serving it with chicken or meatloaf? You said yourself that you could happily survive on mac and cheese alone!

On a tangental aside, the Gastropod podcast recently did an episode on mac and cheese and I learned that Canadians consume more of it than any people from other country in the world. 

Gaines: "Creamy risotto is filling and satisfying enough to be a full meal, but if you are serving it to someone who doesn't consider anything a full meal without meat, stir in shredded rotisserie chicken. On the other hand, if you want to make it truly vegetarian, use vegetable instead of chicken broth."

My first reaction to the vegetable broth advice was: well, duh! But the core audience for this cookbook may not know that chicken broth isn't vegetarian. When I tell people that I'm a vegetarian, they sometimes ask if that means that I eat chicken.

Speaking of chicken, there are many recipes for that in this book. I counted eleven that call for purchasing whole rotisserie chickens, and another nine that start with uncooked chicken.

I get the impression that it's the men in the Gaines family who think meals aren’t complete without meat. In the recipe header for Sweet Pepper & Pancetta Frittata, Gaines notes that it's perfect for “lunch with the ladies.” A frittata, even one that includes meat, is apparently too much like quiche for the menfolk.

Scenes from my Syrian donuts baking adventure.
The recipe for Syrian donuts is the only one I was interested in trying. It's a baked yeast donut with a firm texture, flavoured with anise and cinnamon, and then soaked in syrup. Gaines advises eating them while still warm, but I found the flavour and texture was better on the second day. 

The story that goes with this recipe is touching: it's from her Syrian grandfather and he typed it up for her. A photo of the original is included, and you can see that he used less sugar. Gaines doubles the sugar because she likes "everything sweeter." (I followed his recipe.) I'm obviously not the only one intrigued by this recipe because you can buy it printed on a tea towel from Magnolia Market.

Speaking of sweetness, Gaines describes her recipe for Green Beans Amandine as "lightly sweetened." In a recipe for four people, she adds half a cup of sugar to the sauce. Sounds awfully sweet to me.

There were other things that inspired me. I'm allergic to tomatoes, so I think I'll try her suggestion to substitute peaches for tomatoes in Caprese salad sometime. I've also tried her way of spreading mayo on both sides of each slice of bread when making grilled cheese sandwiches and I like the result. I don't like using her favourite cheese for that sandwich, havarti, because I find it gets too liquidy. I may also try her way with cinnamon buns sometime, which is to roll the dough flat after layering cinnamon and sugar inside, then cut it into squares.

Amy Neunsinger's photography has a romantic-rustic ethos, executed in creamy pastels. There are lovely shots of the Gaines' four children, the goats, and the milk cows. The outdoor shots of the farm are as spotlessly clean and American-dreamy as those taken indoors. I went to the blog and saw the same aesthetic in the photos there.

Borrow this from the library to admire the photography, and maybe try a few recipes, but save your kitchen shelf space for more useful cookbooks.