Over the past several years, O’Neill has criss-crossed the country visiting home kitchens, poking into recipe boxes, and talking to chefs from tiny off-the-beaten-path restaurants. One Big Table is a collection of the best and most interesting stories, recipes, and historical side-notes that she’s collected. It ranges from Virginia crab cakes and campfire trout to Vietnamese meatballs and homemade pastries like this recipe for Persian baaghlava.
There are a lot of books and cookbooks focused on capturing and preserving what American cooking used to be. What we love about this book is that it captures what it means to be a home cook in America right this very instant.
Molly O’Neill introduces this cookbook with the image of one big American table, a vision that grew with each new person she spoke to and each new recipe she collected. I sensed this clearly as I flipped through the pages and read the personal stories accompanying each recipe. There was a real feeling of people opening up their kitchens and inviting you inside to make their favorite dish.
The book is divided into several whimsically-named sections.. We get “Steaming Bowls: Soups, Chowders, and Other Consolations” and “From Sea to Shining Sea,” a chapter about seafood. There are also chapters focused on vegetable dishes, grain dishes, poultry and meat, as well as sweets and desserts. One unexpected, and very welcome, chapter focuses entirely on salads.
The recipes themselves run the gamut from the historically traditional (“Thomas Jefferson’s Chicken Fricassee” and “Shirley Creacy’s Chuckwagon Peach Cobbler”) to the more recent additions to our collective table (“Zhey Yang’s Korean Bulgogi” and “Mam Mbye’s Ceebu Jen - Senegalese Fish and Rice”). Woven into and around each recipe is the story of how it came to be cooked today, the ingredients that go into it, and its particular meaning for the person it came from. These are no mere recipe head notes, but full-fledged tales that have kept me up past my bedtime for several days in a row.
The only real negative about this book is the lack of a list of recipes in each chapter. We harp on this in a lot of the cookbook reviews we do here on The Kitchn, but it really bugs us - especially in a huge recipe collection like this! There is a recipe index organized by main ingredient at the back of the book, but it’s really just one long list and not very conducive to quick skimming.
This entire book is evidence that the tradition of home cooking is alive and kicking in the United States. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! Molly O’Neill has put together an excellent collection in this book. No matter what you usually cook at home, there are recipes here to comfort, inspire, and adapt into your cooking repertoire.
Originally baaghlava was made on special occasions, particularly the Persian New Year, celebrated on March 21, the spring equinox. Shala Nosrat still marks the holiday with her aunt’s recipe, as it’s a rare chance for her extended family to gather. Back in Iran, large families were a part of everyday life, providing an important support system. “Here, we make do with less—less family, less support, less chance to make time-consuming desserts. Perhaps that is why I wouldn’t dream of missing the chance to bake on the holidays.”
For the Dough 1/2 cup whole milk 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 2 large egg yolks 1 1/4 to 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon baking powder Or about 15 sheets of prepared dough
For the Filling 2 pounds blanched raw almonds, chopped very finely 2 cups confectioners’ sugar 1 tablespoon ground cardamom
For the Syrup 1 2/3 cups sugar 1 1/2 cups water 1 tablespoon rose water
For the Garnish 1/2 cup finely chopped pistachios Additional rose water and vegetable oil to brush the top of the baaghlava
1. To make the dough, combine the milk, oil, and egg yolks. Add the flour and baking powder slowly, mixing constantly until the dough doesn’t stick to you hands. Lightly flour a board and knead the dough for several minutes to combine well. Place in a bowl, cover with a damp cloth, and put in a warm place for 2 to 3 hours.
2. To make the filling, combine the almonds, confectioners’ sugar, and cardamom and set aside. To make the syrup, combine the sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, until the sugar is completely dissolved, about 2 minutes. Add the rose water and allow to boil for 2–3 minutes more until the syrup is thick enough to stick to a pastry brush. Remove from the heat and set aside.
3. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Sprinkle a work surface lightly with flour. Remove a piece of dough about the size of a golf ball and roll it out until you have the thinnest possible sheet. Cut a piece about 1/4 inch larger than a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Brush the bottom of the pan with oil or butter and fit the sheet of dough in the pan and repeat with the 2 additional layers of dough, oiling or buttering each.
4. Press a layer of the almond mixture that is about 1 inch thick on top of the dough. Sprinkle or spray lightly with additional rose water. Repeat sequence with 3 additional layers of dough, again, lightly oiling or buttering each. Cut the layers into diamond shapes that are about 1 1/2 inches high.
5. Lightly brush the top of the dough with oil, place the baking dish on a baking sheet, and put on the lower rack of the oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, then move to the upper level and bake until golden, about 15 additional minutes. Remove from the oven, cool on racks, and when it is completely cool, brush with the syrup. Wait several minutes for the syrup to be absorbed and then brush on 1 or 2 more coats. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios, cut and serve, with the remaining syrup on the side.