On a recent trip to the library, I spotted Magnolia Table: a collection of recipes for gathering on the best-seller shelf. The cookbook is a recent project from Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. I love to unwind by watching a few episodes, and I am always amazed by how Joanna and her husband, Chip, spin old shacks into gold in Waco, Texas. The couple has expanded their brand, Magnolia, beyond flipping houses. Besides all their business ventures, they have published a few books, including Magnolia Table.
After flipping through the pages, I found that most of the food in this book is opposite to what I cook day to day. Jo’s recipes are her takes on classic southern food. I tend to cook meals that are lighter and more vegetable-forward. She advocates for shortcuts, like opting for store-bought pie crust and chicken stock. The raspberry-chipotle pork tenderloin recipe simply calls for marinating the pork in Fischer & Weiser’s Raspberry Chipotle Sauce. I was a little disappointed, hoping to find a recipe for an original sauce.
The handful of recipes that connect to Jo’s heritage surprised me the most. She shares just a few recipes passed down from her family, and those are the ones I wanted to cook. In her recipe for Syrian donuts, she included a photo of the original version, typed up by her grandfather before he passed away, which I thought was so sweet.
There were two recipes that I wanted to cook. The first recipe in the book is for buttermilk biscuits, something I happen to make regularly. She wrote that she tweaked her biscuit recipe every Sunday until they were just right. Her pride in this recipe made me eager to make the biscuits myself. I also decided I’d try out her mother’s bulgogi, a type of Korean barbecue. She said that while growing up, her mom mostly cooked American food but learned traditional Korean dishes later in life. Bulgogi is something I wouldn’t have made if I saw the recipe on a website, but the story of her mom learning to cook from her Korean friends compelled me to try it.
The bulgogi was easier to prepare than I thought. The recipe calls for slicing, marinating, and grilling beef. It is served on a bed of rice with a cucumber-kimchi salad on the side. I decided to make a few adjustments to be practical. Because I’m just cooking for two, I made about a third of what the recipe called for (it calls for 4-5 pounds of beef tenderloin). I also used a cheaper cut of meat. The kimchi salad calls for gochugaru, a Korean chili flake (I had to google that). While I probably could have picked some up from a Korean market (there are a few in Pittsburgh), I decided just to use regular chili flakes I had on hand.
The marinade was simple to put together, and I already had all the ingredients in the house (soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, green onions… all pretty basic). The recipe called for three cups of sugar, and I felt a little guilty putting so much in. When it came time to cook up the beef slices, I used a cast-iron skillet because we don’t have a grill. This worked out really well except for my first few slices, which burned because the heat was too high and all the sugar caramelized too quickly. The flavor was excellent – sweet and salty and earthy. The spicy and crunchy cucumber-kimchi salad paired well with the rich beef slices. It also reheats very well and would be great for batch-cooking or meal prep.
The biscuits, on the other hand, were not as successful as the bulgogi. I followed the recipe to the letter, but my first batch fell flat. They lacked the fluffy texture I expect in a biscuit. She calls for a lot of butter and buttermilk, which I think added too much liquid to the dough. She brushes them with both egg and buttermilk, which made the biscuits taste too eggy and left a sickly yellow film on top.
I made a second batch, omitting the egg wash and using the cubed butter method instead of the grated butter method. I also used about 20 percent less buttermilk than the original recipe calls for. Joanna’s dough contains an egg, giving the final product a more cake-like crumb than I want from a biscuit. The second batch did come out better, but even after a few adjustments, I’ve made way better biscuits (specifically using the recipe from Dining In, Alison Roman’s cookbook). I prefer a lighter, saltier biscuit with a better rise, something that looks more like a snowball than a hockey puck in shape.
I’m not the right audience for this cookbook. Magnolia Table delivers crowd-pleasing dishes that make more sense for a big family than someone like me, who only ever prepares weeknight dinners for two. While I like to have leftovers, I had to cut both the recipes I tried in half or more (most of them serve 6-8 people, and some serve more like 12-14). It is, after all, a collection of recipes for gathering and not a collection of recipes for an urban couple. While the food didn’t click with me, I did enjoy reading about her history and how cooking has connected the generations of her family.