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ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : Small Packages : Is Less More in a Cookbook? An exploration od This Years Tiny Tomes

I was given my first little cookbook about 10 years ago.

I had picked up a pasta machine at a garage sale with a friend, and when my birthday rolled around a few days later, this friend included in her gifts to me a tiny book on making and saucing homemade pasta. A slim four-inch-by-five-inch paperback, it was just slightly fatter and better bound than a stapled pamphlet.

I needed it. I used it. I loved it. It was a great gift.

Of course, I lost it. It was so small it slipped through a crack.

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Today, as I write, I have around 30 little cookbooks spread out before me. The largest are eight by eight inches, the smallest 2 3/4 by 3 3/4 inches. Stacked in a wobbly tower, they reach 14 inches.

Some focus on one ingredient, like basil or carrots. Others offer variations on a theme, like tea drinks, low-fat muffins or canapes.

There are timely books: one on cold weather foods, another on Jewish holidays. Still other books address cravings: for something sweet, for something spicy or for midnight snacks. A few seem to exist for no good reason at all.

In the last two years, most major publishers have dipped a toe in the little-cookbook market, enlisting well-regarded food writers to take on these small, focused projects.

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Little cookbooks seem to be the descendants of the single-subject pamphlets, put out by the Beef Board or the California Citrus Council, that my mother collected in the ‘50s. She had pamphlets on beef, pork, candy making, cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, etc.

The good ones (i.e., the ones not tied to ersatz cheese spreads or one brand of rum) contained in-depth information. They were handy and helpful and, because they were usually a form of advertising, they were also zippy and beguiling, especially to a child.

Never mind that back then, food photography was fairly unevolved--often murky, sometimes downright unappetizing. I found these little recipe collections far less intimidating than my mother’s bulky, picture-free “Settlement Cookbook.” Another thing these ad pamphlets had going for them was price: They were usually free, or almost free (“send $1 for postage and handling”).

The little cookbooks I have here today are not free. They range from $4.95 to $15--and cooks resist them for that reason. I recently asked nearly all the cooks I know whether they would ever by a little cookbook for themselves and the answer was a universal, resounding no. Some of the negatives were based on a prejudice that bigger is better. “I stick to a few large, comprehensive cookbooks,” said one cook, “and little cookbooks seem specialized, pricey, not something I’d use.”

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Another cook brought up a functional problem with many little cookbooks: “I like a cookbook that stays open.” She’s right. Unless you mutilate the spines on some of these little books (especially some of the tall, rectangular ones), the pages insist on fanning shut. By the time you weigh it down with a sack of sugar, you’ve covered the whole darn page.

“I probably wouldn’t buy one, no,” said still another cook, who actually owns six or seven diminutive volumes. “They’re not economically feasible. I don’t want to spend that much for the one or two recipes I’ll actually use. I’ll put my money into a ‘Joy of Cooking’ or ‘The Way to Cook.’

“But I do like little cookbooks. They’re fun. I gave my mother one on bread making when she got her bread machine, and she loves it. I would never have bought it for myself. They’re more entertaining than useful, although I have cooked at least one thing from every one I own.”

If many cooks are hesitant to plunk down household funds for small single-subject books, the publishing industry has finessed this pecuniary reluctance by targeting not the cook but the cook’s family, friends, guests. Most, if not all, little cookbooks are sold as gifts. Placed near cash registers in gourmet shops and bookstores, these pretty, alluring objects sell like the proverbial hot cakes.

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“They’re bought as mementos,” says a cheese shop owner.

“They’re stocking stuffers,” says a bookstore clerk.

“When I’m going over to someone’s house, they’re cheaper and last longer than a good bottle of wine,” says a bookstore customer.

Whether cooks like little books or not, they will probably get some. And the very smallness and cuteness may beguile them into reading them, if not into trying out a recipe.

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In this sense, little cookbooks may actually prove more immediately useful than those big old manuals. Last Christmas, I gave Richard Sax’s encyclopedic and wonderful “Classic Home Desserts” to an avid cook. It took her ten months to crack it open and actually start cooking from it. A few weeks ago, I gave her a little cookbook on sweets. In a day or so, she’d read the whole thing and brought me some molasses spice cookies from one of the book’s recipes.

At their best, little cookbooks possess far more than high-impulse cachet at the cash register. They can be small, beautiful objects full of focused, even fascinating information, with well-tested, accurate, easy-to-follow recipes. And the good ones do stay open to the page you’re working from.

At their worst, little cookbooks are ill-conceived, ugly, execrably written and, well, downright silly.

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If I were to give small cookbooks this season, I’d mine Chronicle Books’ Artful Kitchen series. For these small single-subject volumes, trustworthy, knowledgeable food writers were paired with gifted, high-spirited illustrators. Each volume contains 30 recipes and sells for a reasonable $9.95. Any cook, novice or adept, can appreciate these books.

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Janet Hazen’s “Vanilla” is a perfect example of the depth and humor accorded a single subject in a small book. I have used vanilla for years without knowing that it came from a rare yellow orchid native to Mexico, or that the Aztecs were the first to use it to flavor chocolate, or that the name the Spaniards gave this pod, vainilla, came from an R-rated Latin word meaning “sheath.”

In addition to vanilla-flavored sweets, Hazan includes a selection of such unusual savory dishes as beet salad with two citruses and vanilla and vanilla-infused chicken mole. Susan Gross’ fluid drawings are stylish and amusing. Hazan’s other titles in the Artful Kitchen series are “Basil,” “Garlic” and “Mustard.” Small cookbooks, it seems, were made for small titles.

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Georgeann Brennan (author of the wonderful, if full-sized, “Potager” cookbook) teamed up with her daughter Ethel and illustrator Jack Malloy to create the atmospheric and useful volume called “Sun-Dried Tomatoes.” This tiny tome packs all you need to know about buying, drying and storing dried tomatoes. There’s even a list describing 13 varietal tomatoes and specific hints for drying each.

The recipes emphasize the versatility of these concentrated flavor bombs in everything from chilled soup to spoon bread, lamb ragu to tapenade. Malloy’s antic, splotchy calligraphy and drawings seem sketched with a 17th-Century hand and a 20th-Century sense of fun.

“Autumn Nights, Winter Mornings,” by Barbara Scott-Goodman and Mary Goodbody, also from Chronicle, is the same size and shape as an Artful Kitchen book but is not, technically, in the series. Still, it’s about as good as a small cookbook gets. Accurate and gorgeous watercolors by Andrea Brooks illustrate this self-described “collection of cold-weather comfort foods” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It sent me straight to the supermarket to buy ingredients for a beet and beet green salad with pecans, a smoked salmon tart and bread pudding with red plums.

Chronicle also offers “The Candy Cookbook,” by Carole Bloom with illustrations by Dan Hubig ($14.95). Slightly larger than those in the Artful Kitchen series, this book is just as well-made and attractive, although I find Hubig’s hyper-stylized airbrushed illustrations unnerving; they remind me of cartoons that scared me as a child. Bloom guides us through the chemistry of candy making with a reassuring matter-of-factness and a promise that homemade candy is “much, much better than store-bought.” Be sure to give a candy thermometer with this book.

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Simon and Schuster has also jumped into the small gift-book market with two very small series (two books each). One series, devoted to cravings, includes “Something Spicy” by Frances Towner Giedt and “Something Sweet” by Jack Bishop. Both are illustrated by Matt Wawiorka in clunky faux-woodcut cartoons that scream Easy! Fun! These look like books moms might send to kids in their first apartments or that anyone might give to fast-food-addicted bachelors.

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The recipes are actually good and varied, and they are pretty straightforward: Both Giedt and Bishop know what they’re doing and have compiled their own personal selections of reliable, tasty, satisfying foods for the respective categories. But the book design and packaging seems rushed and lazy (where, oh where, is the recipe for curried cashews promised on the back cover of “Something Spicy”?) Priced at an insulting $15, the books failed the stay-open-to-one-page test miserably.

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Two small books written and illustrated by Lorraine Bodger, “Chutneys and Relishes” and “Sweet and Savory Sauces,” cover the subjects with admirable breadth but again leave something to be desired in visuals. (Simon and Schuster--indeed, every book publisher--should send a spy to Chronicle.)

Bodger is a clear writer and very thorough. “Sweet and Savory Sauces” contains 50 recipes for everything from pasta and enchilada sauces to barbecue and Asian dipping sauces to a variety of fresh fruit, hard and chocolate sauces. “Chutney and Relishes” gives good instructions for making more than 50 condiments from every conceivable fruit or vegetable, including hot green mango chutney, lemon-quince relish and quick zucchini pickles. Each recipe has many good menu suggestions.

Too bad the book designs are so oppressive. The covers have charm enough to attract the high-impulse crowd, but the sauce book is printed in teal-colored ink, the chutney book in purple. Both books could be a valuable resource to any cook; it’s just hard to embrace books that look like these.

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Since I first huddled over the pamphlets in my mother’s kitchen some 30 years ago, food photography has improved drastically, and some little cookbooks take good advantage. In 1995, Collins Publishers added to its diminutive-sized The Best Of series with “The Best of Clay Pot Cooking” and “The International Garlic Cookbook.” These volumes contain brief, unremarkable introductory material and inspire the reader mostly through lush color photographs of every other recipe. “The International Garlic Cookbook,” edited by Mary MacVean with food photography by Steven Mark Needham, has some pretty pictures but lacks an engaging point of view--it’s basically a collection of standard garlic recipes (aioli, garlic soup, chicken with 40 cloves, etc.) fleshed out with other international dishes (osso buco, pozole , curries and roast duck, for example) with a hyped-up garlic content.

“The Best of Clay Pot Cooking,” by Dana Jacobi, with food photography by Elizabeth Watt, provides around 40 recipes for such things as Portuguese peas, Romanian guvetch , as the cookbook calls it (in Romanian it’s actually spelled guveciu ) and other dishes that can be cooked in such clay vessels as cazuelas , tagines , tians and sand pots, as well as in Romertopf and other popular unglazed red pots. If you are giving a clay pot to someone this year, or know someone who’s getting one, this slim, pretty book would only enhance the gift.

(For a much blander All-American meat-and-potatoes approach to clay pot cooking, Nitty Gritty Cookbooks offers a small, wide paperback entitled “Cooking in Clay” by Joanna White for $8.95. Owners of Romertopf and Romertopf knock-offs who might want the recipes for clay-cooked meatloaf, hamburger hash, chipped beef casserole would like this book.)

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Another series of small photography-powered cookbooks is the Basic Ingredient series from Running Press Publishers, under the Courage imprint. Edited by Nicola Hill, these slim eight-by-eight-inch volumes are printed on glossy paper with alluring photographs and sell for a reasonable $7.95. This year saw the publication of “The Carrot Cookbook” and “The Chiles and Peppers Cookbook.” (Other volumes in the series include the Apple, Mushroom, Potato and Tomato cookbooks.)

Each book has a brief introduction, then an illustrated essay written by an expert on the varieties of the featured ingredient. These essays can be technical, but there are some interesting facts: Carrots, for instance, were originally yellow and purple--the orange or Horn carrot first appeared in Holland in the mid-1770s. There were also a few things I’m not so sure I wanted to know, like “the major pest of carrots [is] the carrot fly, whose maggots eat the roots.”

These volumes seem appropriate gifts for gardeners, especially those who have over-planted carrots, chiles or peppers. Each volume contains more than 60 simple recipes, surely more than the most ardent carrot or pepper lover will ever need.

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Crown and its subsidiary Clarkson Potter have a few new titles in this year’s little cookbook arena. As part of the Low Fat Kitchen Series, “Light Muffins” by Beatrice Ojakangas is sure to be appreciated by fat-gram counters. This attractive, comprehensive little $12 book includes recipes for breakfast, snack, savory and dessert muffins as well as a separate section on fat-free muffins. No fancy illustrations, but in the right hands, these pages will be batter-spattered in no time.

Another Potter title is a runner-up for the silliest little cookbook of the year. “Midnight Snacks” is subtitled “The Cookbook that Glows in the Dark,” and it does. But only the cover. I know, because I took it into the closet to see whether you really could cook out of it without turning on the kitchen light. No such luck.

But that’s OK--you’d have to turn on the light to find the measuring cups and baking dishes and utensils to prepare most of these recipes, anyway. The mother and son who wrote this book probably had a good, bonding time working together (either that, or they’re still not speaking), but I’m not sure that even the most rabid midnight snacker will be making curried popcorn or coffee custard or French yogurt cake at midnight.

To wash down those muffins or that French yogurt cake (just in case you did make one), there’s Mathew Tekulsky’s “Making Your Own Gourmet Tea Drinks,” also $12. Tekulsky may be a tea expert, but he’s no purist and that, I suppose is what makes this book both interesting and--to me--hair-raising. I was glad to find three recipes for chai , the spicy, milky Indian tea drink and then read with a kind of horrid fascination a recipe that called for dissolving mint jelly in Russian Caravan tea. If you know a tea fiend who likes the idea of tea floats--i.e., scooping ice cream into hot tea--you now know the perfect gift.

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A friend recently asked me to recommend a few basic cookbooks. “Now that I’m in my forties, I’ve decided to try cooking,” she said. While I’m thinking about which of those huge, comprehensive tomes I’d suggest, I will probably pass on to her “Simple Soups” by Teresa Kennedy, a plain and pragmatic little $12 Crown Trade Paperback that fledgling cooks may appreciate. Kennedy’s breezy, imprecise writing grates (" . . . the next time the urge for a bowl of homemade soup overtakes you, like Marcel Proust with a yen for madeleines . . . "), but then if it’s literature I want, I’ll pick up, well, Proust. Kennedy provides 60 non-intimidating one-page recipes for everything from Melon Madness and chestnut soup to basic broths and salmon bisque. Some recipes may need souping up with a few spices here and there, but the basics are covered.

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Hearst Books gave us “Cindy’s Itty Bitty Baking Book,” by Cindy Brooks, who owns Cindy’s Santa Fe Bite-Size Bakery, a successful wholesale food company that’s actually in Rio Rancho, outside of Albuquerque, N.M. Brooks has happily and successfully developed her own signature “bite-sized” Southwestern cookies; in this itty-bitty book, she shares her recipes for pin~on nut chocolate chip cookies, bizcochitos , Santa Fe meringues and “hot” Christmas cookies, among others. There are 20 helpful pages on equipment, ingredients and techniques and many moderately simple recipes.

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But I’m not sure Brooks always bridges the gap between what a professional baker and a home baker is willing to do to make a cookie. Some recipes are as daunting as a Very Difficult Designer Vogue pattern. I would recommend this book to serious and dedicated cookie makers--although many women named Cindy will inevitably receive it as well.

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From Little Brown, we have the Tempting Treat series, which, I’m afraid, is anything but. These are four little 4 1/4-by-5 1/2-inch volumes: “Canapes” and “Picnics” by Berit Vinegrad and “Chocolate” and “Children’s Party Food” by Janice Murfitt. Each book contains 100 recipes (no introduction, notes or appendixes) and sells for $8.95.

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These are actually re-issues of books published six to eight years ago in England. Besides the fact that the foods pictured are not very appetizing (any self-respecting child would flee in terror from most of the children’s party food), there has been no “translating” for American expertise or tastes. Almost every recipe I turn to calls for a technique or ingredient I’ve never heard of.

What is “salad cream seasoning” or caster sugar, ground rice or an “ogen” melon? What are “angelica leaves,” and where would I find a “packet of tangerine jelly”? Are pine kernels the same as pine nuts? What’s a chow chow that you can peel? And what, oh what, is a courgette?

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The silliest cookbook of the year has to be “The Perfect Setting Cookbook” out from Abrahms for $14.95. Ten years ago, furniture store owners Peri Wolfman and Charles Gold published a book on table settings entitled, “The Perfect Setting.” Now, here’s a little book of their favorite recipes to go with it.

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Don’t ask me why. But this glossy little book, filled with photographs reprinted from House and Garden and Cosmopolitan and recipes reprinted from Cosmopolitan and “The Silver Palatte,” proves that just about anybody can compile a cookbook. The cover photo, a little outside table in the grass with weird plates and melon, doesn’t look so perfect to me.

Ah, well, they probably had fun putting it together. And we know what all of their friends will be getting this Christmas.


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