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Cookbooks...beyond the recipes

Cookbook

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#1 snowangel

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 08:05 PM

I have some cookbooks I love, other's I hate. And, it goes beyond the recipes.

I want a good and complete index, and I don't want to have to buy higher powered readers to read the index (Gourmet, good on the first count, bad on the second)

Oh, and at the beginning of a chapter, if you've got an index to all of the recipes, wonderful!

Oh, and offer tips and hints. I love the fact that Molly Stevens in "All About Braising" talks about the cuts of meat.

Try and make it so I don't have to take my greasy fingers and turn a page at a crucial point in a recipe. And, do not, I repeat do not, break a page during the ingredient list.

Oh, and don't have so many cookbook potions such that I have to fix 8 things before I start cooking, or I will put the book in the box to go to Half-Price books.

And, oh, those baked goods, please tell me what they should look like (don't just give me 350 for 15 minutes) and what should happen when I poke them with a finger and what they will be like when done -- crunchy, soft, cakey, etc. (Thank you Maida Heatter).

And, do include plenty of margin space for notes!
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#2 maggiethecat

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 08:22 PM

Excellent topic, Susan, and I am so with you on all your requirements for a good, working cookbook.

I hate white type on a pastel background, a la Martha, although I think Martha Stewart's cookbooks are fabulous.

On the flip side, Julia Child's cookbooks are part of my personal canon, but the indices make me crazy. I don't like books where you have to flip back to an ur recipe before you proceed. And I love English cookbooks of the Elizabeth David era: no vertical ingredient list -- she just writes you through it, as a mother or Granny would.

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#3 C. sapidus

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 10:04 PM

Susan: In addition to your excellent list, I also value how the author addresses exotic ingredients in a recipe. Some authors specify the authentic ingredient without mentioning possible substitutes. Other authors specify an inauthentic ingredient without mentioning the real thing. A select group of authors get it right - they specify the authentic ingredient, list possible substitutes, and discuss how the substitution will affect the taste of the finished dish.

#4 ruthcooks

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Posted 12 February 2007 - 11:14 PM

I want the ingredient list in bold--or at least big--type. Mostly, whether or not I make something depends upon whether I like the ingredients and whether I have the ingredients on hand. What's with the itty bitty and/or italic type? I need to be able to read the list without a Halogen bulb.

And tell me a story about the recipe, I love stories. Not too keen on the origin of some grain from Mesopotamia, however.

I don't need color and I don't need pictures if your description is wonderful.
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#5 rgruby

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 12:53 AM

How to scale up/scale down the recipe. (Especially for baking).

What can be made ahead and how best to hold it. For how long? Can it be frozen succesfully? (Way too few cookbooks give us this info).

But mostly, I'm hopeful for a recipe that works without too much tweaking, and has some sort of story/ context for why it is in the book.

I do know that I'm somewhat torn between the recipe writers who spell everything out (ie Julia Child, to name but one example - but a very good one) and those who don't (ie Claudia Roden - who doesn't delve into the level of technique of Ms. Child necessarily, but whose recipes, to me at least, are still very clear and give excellent results. Often, they're more guidelines than a definite path etched in stone.)

So, do you have opinions on the degree of specificity in a recipe? Is more necessarily good?

Cheers,
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#6 prasantrin

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 03:22 AM

For baking, I want the weights of ingredients. You don't have to give me weights for every recipe, but it would be nice to have a page somewhere that gives equivalents, like "1 cup all-purpose flour=4.8 oz". I have baking books that have glossaries explaining different ingredients (also helpful), but they don't include that basic information.

I'd also like a list of substitutions, if possible, so if I can't find a particular ingredient, I can still make the recipe using something I might already have.

#7 Mallet

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 05:33 AM

So, do you have opinions on the degree of specificity in a recipe? Is more necessarily good? 

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I find extremely specific recipes very confidence-building, especially when I first started cooking. Although many find her writing style insufferably pedantic, I really like Rose Levy Beranbaum's books for that reason.
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#8 C. sapidus

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 05:52 AM

Oh, another thing – I love when the author gives recipe variations. Rick Bayless does this especially well; recipe sidebars often list several regional variations on a particular dish. These variations give an idea of how the recipe can be changed, and pack several additional recipes, sometimes quite different, onto each page.

Fuchsia Dunlop does this well, too, providing vegetarian and non-vegetarian versions for several recipes. For example, she casually mentions that a grilled chicken marinade works well on halved zucchini. We made both, for a very good and very easy weeknight dinner.

When authors describe recipe variations and ingredient substitutions, they demonstrate that they have explored the recipe and tested its resilience or sensitivity to change. This gives me ideas for exploring my own variations on the theme.

#9 IlCuoco

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 06:57 AM

Great topic indeed. For me, a lot depends on the type of cookbook and how I intend to use it. When I buy a cookbook covering a technique or cuisine that I'm very familiar with, I want inspiration - I don't need th detailed instructions, etc because I'm already sort of familiar. So it's about variation, uniqueness, or interest.

When dealing with cooking of a type that I'm unfamiliar (ingredient, cuisine, technique, whatever), I'll echo space for notes, index of recipes by both name and key ingredient (and secondary ingredient if possible), glossary for the unusual terms, ingredients, etc. Descriptions of technique and ingredients, possible substitutions and guidance as to what can be made in advance (Les Halles is particularly good about this) are all very important indeed. The biggest one for me is describing what done looks/smells like. When I'm working on something for the first time, that's the single biggest thing I need to know. In fact, one think I like about cooks illustrated is that they describe looks and smells throughout the process.

With this in mind, I think the above are most important in the large, "general purpose" cookbooks (How To Cook Everything, etc) as many of those are being used either by novice cooks or as a reference guide. Indeed, while I may not need all that detail anymore, I'd rather err on the side of having it than not (and goodness knows, I still need my share of guidance).

#10 Priscilla

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 08:07 AM

I want a good and complete index, and I don't want to have to buy higher powered readers to read the index (Gourmet, good on the first count, bad on the second)

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A complete and easy-to-navigate index is a big Love Gift wherever one appears. I singlemindedly habitually go to the back of any book when looking for anything, so I don't even know if some of my cookbooks have tables of contents or not.

I like to be able to look up by ingredient as well as dish name and dish type; Gwendolyn's Pumpkin Souffle, in my ideal index would be cross-referenced and quickly findable under pumpkin, souffle, AND Gwendolyn's. An esoteric counterexample is my 10-year+ subscription to King Arthur Flour's Baking Sheet newsletter. Its annual index is so difficult to use it's a testament to how good the content is that I use it all the time. The collection bristles with Post-It™ notes so that I can find what I want quickly. But I would SO prefer an easy-to-rip-through index.

Years after assembling the cmplete Time-Life Foods of the World I happened upon the pamphlet cross-indexing all the volumes... a treasure.

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#11 snowangel

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 08:20 AM

Oh, and page numbers. They should go on the outside edges of the pages, not in the middle, or worst of all, tucked in next to the spine.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#12 Kim Shook

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 08:58 AM

I want the ingredient list up front and on top of the recipe in full. That is why I don't use The Joy of Cooking much. The ingredients are buried in the directions and when I try a Joy recipe, I inevitably miss some ingredient and get 'lost'.

#13 srhcb

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 09:43 AM

I like a nice, simple, logical index. I'm sorry to say that I hate the index style in two of my favorite books, Baking With Julia and Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home :sad: Another good book, Shirley Corriher's Cookwise has this same cross-referenced too-much-info format. :sad:

I also like cookbooks that sit flat when opened, but I know that's a lot to ask.

SB (but, I'll survive :wink: )

#14 ludja

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 11:41 AM

...
What can be made ahead and how best to hold it. For how long? Can it be frozen succesfully? (Way too few cookbooks give us this info).
...

View Post

I agree; this is a great help at both the front and back end of making the dish.

I also really like a feature that snowangel mentioned in the first post and that is a listing of all the recipes at the beginning of each chapter.

I like a detailed and comprehensive index as well that cross references by key ingredients and type of dish, etc. and by the English and if appropriate, non-English name. I also appreciate if the index includes references to people or restaurants that are mentioned in the text. (I just noticed srhcb's post! I guess I'd rather visually "weed out" extra indexing that I don't need at a given time rather than not have it when I need it.)

For cookbooks on regional or traditional dishes I *really* appreciate suggestions for sidedishes or for how the dish would fit in a typical meal in current times and/or historically. I feel this is important background information for a dish. Other background information I like to have is the region of origin or popularity. For these types of books (as opposed to a general or restaurant cookbooks), I also really value a bibliography.

For cookbooks on food from non-English speaking countries it really peeves me if the recipe does not include the name of the dish in the originating langugage. Aesthetically I like to know the original name of the dish and it also clears up any potential confusiion arising from different and frequently unwieldy English translations of the name.

Edited by ludja, 13 February 2007 - 11:43 AM.

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#15 shellfishfiend

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 12:26 PM

I like an index by recipe as well as main ingredient.

I like the ingredient list to be in large, easy to read print (nothing cutesy).

I like it when it has a sidebar describing what specific tools/dishes will be required for the recipe. Yes, you can usually make substitutions, but I like to know what's recommended.

I also appreicate it when it states an oven temp in nice bold numbers if it is not noted seperately. it makes it easier to find at a glance.

I really appreciate knowing whether or not the dish will freeze.
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#16 Daniel

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Posted 13 February 2007 - 12:54 PM

One book I have which I absolutely love is Escoffier.. Beyond the recipes, the man writes with such a tone of superiority ..My whole life I have met people who have spoken so highly of themselves despite lack of talent or credentials... This is the first time a person has actually delivered.. This type of matter of fact, this is how it should be done because I said so works for him.. In fact people with this personality should be forced to read this book to see what a real expert on a field looks like.. The man is a genius and its not up for discussion.

#17 Bill/SFNM

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Posted 14 February 2007 - 11:45 AM

Perhaps a minor pet-peeve, but how about dry ingredients listed before wet ingredients if they will use the same measuring cup or spoon in the same step? This avoids having to rinse off and dry between measurements. For example, I have a recipe that calls for a tablespoon of honey and then a tablespoon of flour. I try to catch these lapses in logic ahead of time, but in the heat of battle, it is easy to discover this after it is too late.

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#18 Catherine Iino

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Posted 14 February 2007 - 12:44 PM

The binding should not fall apart after a month or two. This is particularly outrageous with books like the Joy of Cooking or the Cake Bible or Bittman's How to Cook Everything, which are reference books, in a way. I'm tempted to return them to the publisher as defective. Grrrrr.

#19 Kouign Aman

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Posted 14 February 2007 - 02:03 PM

Please list ingredients in order of use. If they are used in groups (ex these for the cake, these for the topping), a blank space between the groups is a nice touch.
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#20 snowangel

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Posted 14 February 2007 - 04:09 PM

Please list ingredients in order of use.  If they are used in groups (ex these for the cake, these for the topping), a blank space between the groups is a nice touch.

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And, if the eggs (or some other ingredient) is to be at room temp, mention it up top with the ingredients, and don't bury it in the recipe.
Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

#21 Bella S.F.

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Posted 14 February 2007 - 06:33 PM

When an ingredient is going to be used more than one time in the recipe, but the list of ingredients just has the total amount of what you need for the whole recipe. I often screw up and add the total amount the first time it is called for in the recipe. I know, I should read more carefully, but I would rather see the ingrdient listed multiple times, in the order of when you are going to use it and how much you need each time. I have seen, for example 1T. of salt, divided. That at least clues you into the fact that you will not be using it all at the same time. (I'd still rather see the amounts listed separately.)

Doesn't happen often, but I also have not read carefully enough, and have missed a tiny :huh: bit of information like, "marinate for two days", or "bake for 3 1/2 hours". It is nice when at the top they list, active time and cooking time.

I really enjoy when cookbooks have quotes and tidbits on each page. A good example is The New Basics by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. You can open to just about any page and find something interesting to read.

I also like reading before the recipe starts about where the idea for the recipe came from, or where the author had the dish, or something about the part of the world and the people. Joyce Goldstein does that alot. Take a look at From Tapas to Meze by Joanne Weir and Trattoria by Biba Caggiano for great examples. You actually feel like you are there. A cheap way to travel.
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#22 onehsancare

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Posted 17 February 2007 - 10:23 AM

I'm making James Peterson's Chicken Soup with Garlic, Saffron, Basil, and Tomatoes. The ingredient list includes: "1 bunch of spinach, stems removed, 1 c. packed leaves, shredded (chiffonade)"--all on one line.

Is that one bunch of whole spinach leaves, PLUS an additional cup of shredded? Or, is that one bunch, removing one cup of leaves and shredding it? :blink:

The instructions don't clarify--"Put the chicken back in the soup along with the beans and spinach."

I'm sure that it will be great either way, but (1) I like to try recipes the first time following slavishly and (2) I'm a lawyer and like clarity! :raz:
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#23 K8memphis

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Posted 17 February 2007 - 10:43 AM

That's really unfortunate wording. Me, I would do the 1 cup chiffonade and keep the rest on standby if I thought it needed it. It seems to me it's a pure judgement call unless you can contact the author.

#24 Catew

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Posted 17 February 2007 - 11:02 AM

I just found this recipe on the Cooking Light webiste, and it calls for "1 cup of thinly sliced spinach". So I'd remove the leaves from the stems of one bunch of spinach, then I'd do the chiffonade (which I guess Cooking Light readers aren't expected to understand), and then I'd measure out 1 cup of the spinach after slicing. What a headache!

#25 petite tête de chou

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Posted 17 February 2007 - 04:28 PM

Yeah, that's awful wording. My take on it is to take one bunch of spinach, remove the stems, make one packed cup of said leaves, then chiffonade *that.* :wacko:
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#26 onehsancare

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Posted 17 February 2007 - 11:12 PM

My take on it is to take one bunch of spinach, remove the stems, make one packed cup of said leaves, then chiffonade *that.*  :wacko:

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That's what I did, and it was excellent. No real need to make the basil cream (1 c. chopped basil, 1/2 c. cream) just for a garnish or condiment, but the soup and aoli were great!
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#27 Chufi

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Posted 18 February 2007 - 02:09 AM

I hate recipes like that.
Minutes before I read this thread I was thinking about this one, it's very common:
1 pound chicken thighs, bones removed.

I never know if that means "take 1 pound and remove the bones" or "take 1 pound boneless thighs".

#28 Smithy

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 11:13 AM

I hate recipes like that.
Minutes before I read this thread I was thinking about this one, it's very common:
1 pound chicken thighs, bones removed.

I never know if that means "take 1 pound and remove the bones"  or "take 1 pound boneless thighs".

View Post

I'm happy to see that some cookbooks now say, in the introduction or earliest chapters, exactly what they'll mean by something like that. Using the convention I seem to see most in my cookbooks, I'd take that instruction as meaning "take 1 pound thighs and remove the bones". It could be taken the other way, though.

Another ingredient listing that used to drive me crazy, but that I now find useful, is "divided": for instance, "1/4 cup butter, divided". I used to think, "what, they want me to chop it up?" But after a few times of pitching in the entire amount, only to realize later that I was supposed to save some for another part of the recipe, I've learned that it's a flag to people like me who don't mentally process a recipe without doing it once step by step.

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#29 GTO

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 01:22 PM

I've always hated seeing things like chicken breasts/thighs listed by weight. Even when I'm at my Butchers. I never want 1lb of chicken breasts. If you're anything like me, you think "I want say, 2 - 3 breasts (chicken)"

Edited by GTO, 19 February 2007 - 01:23 PM.

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#30 snowangel

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Posted 22 February 2007 - 08:18 PM

Pet peeve number bazillion. Just how big is a medium carrot, onion, shallot or garlic clove? A handful? Just how big are your hands? Medium dice? Medium to who? I can't remember what recipe I ran across that called for "thinly sliced chives" without any sort of quantify.
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