Monday, January 17, 2011

Cookbook Review: One Big Table

Like many cooking enthusiasts, I read cookbooks the way other people read novels. Some cookbooks are really fun to read this way, and one I especially remember was the New York Cookbook by Molly O'Neill which provided me with hours of entertainment back when I lived in NYC, although I never did cook anything from it.

When someone from the publishers Simon & Schuster e-mailed me a couple of months ago about reviewing Molly O'Neill's newest cookbook, I happily agreed. They kindly let me download a free e-book version of this book to review.

Molly O'Neill's One Big Table was everything I hoped it would be- over the holidays, I spent many many happy hours reading this book, and here are 10 things I loved about this book.

1. It appeals to my penchant for armchair travel. In the introduction, O'Neill talks about how she packed up and traveled around the US searching for "motley crews of food obsessives" as she puts it. With this cookbook, I experienced all the fun of stumbling across wonderful food all over the United States without dealing with airport pat-downs.

2. I love regional food and this food cross-crosses the country discovering local favorites and regional flavors. I am determined to make the Southern pimento cheese; I have now heard so much about it and the recipe in this book has won awards at Pimento Cheese events (!)

3. The cookbook is illustrated with very interesting pictures. It calls itself "a portrait of American cooking" and the book is full of sweet candid photos of home cooks smiling from kitchen tables, proudly holding their dishes and participating in community events. There are also dozens of historical pictures and vintage posters about food and cooking.

4. This is a cookbook without borders. People from almost every culture in the world make their home in the United States, and their recipes are represented in this book in large numbers. Among recipes from home cooks who have roots in India, there is a recipe for rawa dosa using cream of wheat, and another for saag paneer using broccolini and collard greens, and many more.

5. Each recipe tells the story of the cook who shared it. It is immensely entertaining to come across the personalities of these home cooks- passionate, funny, warm people all- and it is easy to identify with them. For instance, the woman who shared a recipe for ranch dressing has this to say about the first time she tasted ranch dressing: "Smack me with a lettuce leaf, those are the flavors I want in my mouth". I hear ya!

6. There is a big dose of history in this book. I learned that the pop-up toaster was invented before sliced bread was widely available, and that the invention of an appliance that would make perfect toast without burning bread was an engineering dilemma that stumped many inventors. There are bits of interesting trivia about the invention of American icons such as Ball Jars, Philadelphia cream cheese and Green Bean Casserole.

7. There are plenty of knock-off recipes, and you know how much I love those. For instance, Campbell's Tomato Soup and Onion Soup Mix both sound like intriguing recipes I would like to try.

8. It contains 600 recipes- there really is something for everyone. Although the book as a whole is very heavy on meat, poultry and seafood, just as contemporary American cooking is, I've still managed to bookmark many recipes, including Jeni's Awesome Dirt Road Ice cream from the famous Jeni's of Ohio.

9. It is available in e-book form as well as the traditional paper form, and I love the option of having a digital paperless cookbook with a search function to quickly look up recipes.

10. I found a new recipe for classic American macaroni and cheese that I will make again and again; see below.

Just last week, V dropped a casual hint that I haven't made mac and cheese in a while so this seemed to be the right recipe to try on him.

I normally make a very non-traditional version of macaroni and cheese (I've posted it 5 years ago!) with a white sauce base. This recipe suits me because I like cheese to play a subtle background role in dishes. My constant dinner companions, V and Neighbor Girl, love cheese to play the main role and to be used in vast quantities. The following recipe is for people like them rather than people like me.

As with all recipes in this cookbook, Molly O'Neill interviews the home cook whose recipe this is. This lady explains that she cannot imagine a gathering without macaroni and cheese and that she likes this dish to be plain and pure. She mentions watching cook-offs on Food Network where people tried to glam up mac and cheese by adding artichokes or whatever, and says, "I don't know anyone who would do a thing like that". I'm shaking my head in agreement- why fix what isn't broken?

The construction of this dish was very unusual for me, but very easy to put together with minimal stovetop cooking. Elbow macaroni is cooked until just tender, then macaroni and tiny cubes of cheese are layered in the baking dish. A custard of eggs and milk is poured over it and with a quick topping, the dish is baked. How beautifully simple!

Mac and Cheese
Adapted from "Helen Griffin Williams' Macaroni and Cheese" from the cookbook One Big Table by Molly O'Neill

1. Mac: Heat a pot of salted water and boil two cups elbow macaroni (8 oz. or half of the standard package) until barely tender. Drain the macaroni and rinse in cold water to prevent the pasta from overcooking.

2. Cheese: Meanwhile, use 1/2 lb. mild cheddar and 1/2 lb. sharp cheddar and chop each block of cheese into small cubes. Mix the cheese cubes and set aside.

3. Sauce: In a bowl, whisk together

  • 2 eggs
  • 2.5 cups milk (I used 2%)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. mustard (powder or paste)
  • 1 tsp. pepper (I used black pepper but white pepper is recommended)

4. Prep: Preheat oven to 375 F. Spray an 8 x 8 baking dish with oil.

5. Layer: In the baking dish, add one-third of the pasta and spread in an even layer. Top with one-third of the cheese, again sprinkled evenly. Repeat two more times to use up pasta and cheese in even layers. Pour the seasoned milk mixture evenly. Jiggle the pan to distribute the milk sauce.

6. Top and Bake: Top with breadcrumbs and paprika. Bake for 30-40 minutes until bubbling and until the crust is browned. Let the mac and cheese rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

If you love cheese, this is THE mac and cheese for you. V and Neighbor Girl just about swooned over the taste. There is a very high ratio of cheese to pasta which is what makes it so rich and delicious. I served the mac and cheese with a beet and arugula salad, and chickpea cutlets for a complete dinner.

I'm hosting a Soup Swap this weekend- and I've bullied several of my friends into signing up. If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to participate, write me an e-mail. I have a few spots left.


  1. Hi Nupur! I totally agree that the best mac n cheez is the most simple version. However the best one I have tasted and try to make these days is with a bit of diced roasted New Mexican green chillies added in it for that bite!

  2. ooh- sounds like a great cookbook- I love the local flavor to come through in any book- be it a novel or cookbook..And I am like you- I could easily read a cookbook like a novel- I spent a lot of my Saturday reading a library copy of the 'ultimate rice cooker cookbook'..:)

    And I LOVE macaroni and cheese especially baked ones like these..My recipe is based on a Tarla Dalal recipe (vegetable au gratin) that my mom used to make with amul cheese- it is white sauce based too but I add LOTS and LOTS of gryuere cheese in my version and top is off with more cheese (I share V's love of cheese..:))..I love the versions served on 'continental menus' in India.

  3. Great review... And this recipe is just good.. My DH loves cheese... Bookmarked...

  4. Hi Nupur! Oh, this post spoke to me on so many levels! I passed up getting this cookbook at Christmas in lieu of another I had been craving--NOW, I must go back and save pennies for this! I glanced through it on and off--so am familiar with its heft! *On a side note, I think you read the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks(was it you?!). I finished the book last week. Loved it! Thanks as always for inspiring me!

  5. Interesting that you were given a free copy of the book. My lemon pickle recipe is supposed to be in there. I had asked if I would be given a copy of the book, after spending hours being interviewed and corresponding with a member of the team who wrote the book. The answer was no because it was simply not possible to make a copy available to every contributor. I got a postcard in the mail telling me of the release. I'm glad you have good things to say about it. If my recipe is included, I know it's in good company. I won't be buying this cookbook but I will wait for my library to get hold of it.

  6. I love the review and craving for some mac and cheese as well. rawa dosa with cream wheat???-intriguing and sounds fun!

  7. That definitely sounds like a very interesting cook book. I love to read the little tidbits associated with anything--makes for a great conversation starters.
    Mac-n-cheese looks yumm.

  8. 600 recipes? thats a lot! I have 2 cookbooks which have recipes penned down by ladies of various community clubs and they have some real humdingers of Souther recipes for example - which make for fun reading if not cooking! These have no pics and are just spiral bound - were gifted to me by my friend from St Louis.

    The mac and cheese recipe looks sinful - I am with you, I prefer the simple one...but when one wants to indulge, this one looks perfect

  9. The mac n cheese looks fab!! I'm drooling :)

    On a separate note, I found your idli sambar picture used on some Kerala Tourism website. You might wanna check


  10. I liked it, too, and am happy I have one, but there are a LOT of typographical errors and grammar errors in it. Somewhere there's a drowsy editor....

    Best wishes and I do love your blog.

  11. Hi Nupur

    I LOVE mac n cheese and am always looking for good recipes to make em. I tried this one out last night for dinner,halved the portions and I substituted the egg with 1/4 cup water+2tbsp cornstarch. OMG, it turned out so gooey and yummy I am SO looking forward to having leftovers for lunch today. Thanks for the keeper recipe.

  12. Bala- Oh my goodness, I am definitely going to spike it with roasted green peppers the next time I make this!

    Lavanya- LOL so you bought a rice cooker, I gather? I loved baked vegetables growing up, I need to write a post about that sometime. Yup- that continental stuff!

    Krithi's Kitchen- Cheese lovers will love this recipe!

    Kelly- Yes, it has heft but the e-book weighs almost nothing ;)
    I did mention the Henrietta Lacks book, and I am so glad you had a chance to read it. You inspire me too- I love your blog, Kelly!

    Manisha- I totally did not notice any lemon pickle recipe while going through the book, because it really is a huge book, but when I read your comment, I went and searched and sure enough, there you are! Congratulations on being featured; you SO belong in this book!

    Preeti Kashyap- Well, cream of wheat is very very similar to rawa.

    Pavani- I know, the little tidbits are what make this book very interesting!

    Miri- LOL I know what you mean by the entertainment value of community cookbooks- there is something very sweet about those collections of recipes.

  13. Preeti- Thanks for pointing that out.

    Ann L P- I do love your restaurant reviews too- thanks for reading my blog!

    Altoid- Wow, that was quick. Thank you so much for leaving this comment, it will be very helpful for anyone who wants to make an eggless version of this recipe.

  14. Great Review! I really liked your blog entry on freezing up Desi foods.

    Happy Blogging!

  15. The chickpea cutlets you mention caught my eye. Were they good?

  16. Nice review! I must say, I am a southern girl, so this is the Mac and Cheese I have known to love!

  17. This sounds like such a remarkable cookbook. I, too, love reading cookbooks cover-to-cover like a novel and mostly drawn to the little stories that precede each recipe. I will have to track down this cookbook!

  18. Loved reading this review... and it is so amusing to think that an appliance we take for granted caused so much heartburn to its creators. :-)

  19. I'd love to hear how your Soup Swap went!

  20. My mother always used sharp cheddar two to one with the macaroni. Heaven on a plate. This recipe is almost exactly the one she used.

  21. CrocheterFromCA- Thanks :)

    Melissa- They were very tasty, but I did not mash the chickpeas as well as I should have so a few of them fell apart while cooking. Still good, and easy to make.

    Sharan- Thanks!

    janet- Like you, I love the stories behind the recipes, and this book is full of them! Probably why I like food blogs so much, for the stories.

    Raaga- I know, I was amused at the toaster being a marvel of technology too, but when you think about it, it really is :)

    Knox Gardner- It was a lot of fun- we had 6 soup swappers (and several other people came just to socialize- heh) and this is something I'd love to do again next year. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Marlena- Yes, I was astonished at how much cheese went into this- but oh so tasty :)

  22. Hai
    Great Blog.

    I would like to share an award which I received from Shilpi. Please collect it at my blog.


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