Most cooks have their own system for saving recipes. Some still use recipe cards. Some stick their clippings in those old-school photo albums with magnetic pages. I slide mine into a three-ring binder with plastic sleeves.
Those are all functional systems. But none is very 21st century. A personalized cookbook may be a great gift idea, but you also want something that will impress on Christmas morning.
Digital cookbook software is designed to facilitate that. Nearly every electronic publishing company now offers recipe templates, and there are Web sites specifically created to make custom cookbooks easy.
I tested three popular software programs that have varying levels of flexibility and complexity: TasteBook, from a Web site that partners with recipe site Epicurious.com, and electronic publishers Lulu and Blurb. (I stayed away from expensive professional software such as Cooks Palate, which charges $39.95 for the software alone or $159.99 for the software and one printed book.) As promised, all were relatively simple to use. And the results were attractive and a far better way to preserve and share recipes than sliding a newspaper clipping into a binder.
But if you were secretly hoping that your book of family recipes might end up resembling The French Laundry Cookbook, think again. Designing a recipe collection makes you realize just how much work goes into a professional cookbook: the balance of recipes, the writing and, most of all, the luscious photography. I had access to the entire Washington Post library of digital images, and I still had a tough time getting the result I had envisioned. My books are serviceable and reasonably attractive. In other words, they're 21st century homemade.
For fast and easy, TasteBook is your best bet. The Web site was created by the people behind Kodak Gallery (one of the first sites that made it easy to upload and share photos), and it is linked to Epicurious.com, a database of thousands of recipes from popular magazines such as Gourmet, Bon Appetit and Cooking Light, among others.
The software looks like a cookbook version of Apple's iTunes. Search for a recipe you like, then drag and drop it into your TasteBook. You can also input your own family recipes and photos, and you can share them with other TasteBook users if you choose. (TasteBooks arrive in hardcover binders, so you can order new recipes later and add them.) The Web site prompts you for important details, such as number of servings, and automatically formats all the recipes.
If even that's too much work, TasteBook offers collections of recipes for holiday cooks, rookie cooks, cocktailmakers and more. You can personalize those with your own gift message and be done in five minutes.
Now for the minuses: TasteBook automatically alphabetizes your recipes within 10 chapters. It's sensible. But it means that my recipe for Thai-spiced Watermelon Soup comes after Shrimp and Mango Salad rather than with my favorite Indonesian Carrot Soup. I'd rather be able to order the recipes myself.
The designers also have smartly minimized photography on the recipe pages. If you don't have a nice shot, you won't miss it. But the downside is that a TasteBook looks more manufactured than personal.
What you get: A hardcover binder with room for up to 100 recipes; $19.95 to $34.95 plus shipping, depending on how many recipes you include; at www.tastebook.com.
Best for: Last-minute gifts and cooks content to assemble a collection of other people's recipes rather than personal or family ones.
I had the highest hopes for Lulu, which appeared to be the Goldilocks of custom publishing: not too much flexibility, not too little. Lulu offers three templates for cookbook pages: simple, rustic and retro. It then allows you to add your own photos or select from a library of Getty images. The Flash interface requires no download and is intuitive enough for even novice computer users.
The layout capabilities are great. You can choose a full-page photo, multipage photo, recipe with photo, recipe with ingredients or without, and Lulu does most of the formatting. You can use the same template throughout or mix and match. You can also reorder pages by dragging and dropping. Another nifty feature is that it automatically builds a table of contents as you go.
The only time I got tripped up was when I tried to reorder some recipes and realized that moving one threw off all the recipes after it: The photo of Cambodian Corn ended up next to the Blueberry Coconut Cake; the photo of Ma Po Tofu illustrated Grandma's rollups. Getting everything back on track took a while.
I didn't appreciate TasteBook's drag-and-drop recipe finder until I began to type all my personal recipes into Lulu. It's incredibly time-consuming, not least because you have to be careful not to make a mistake. (One tablespoon instead of a teaspoon of chili powder makes all the difference.)
Lulu's photo library also was disappointing. Most of the recipes I found in the Food category were pictures of people eating, not the lush images of dishes I wanted to put in my cookbook.
What you get: Paperback book with 20 to 250 pages, $15.45 plus shipping; hardback book with 20 to 120 pages, $25.45 plus shipping; at www.lulu.com.
Best for: Cooks with lots of family recipes and a reasonable selection of art and photography.
BookSmart by Blurb
The welcome page on Blurb's Web site features a slide show of coffee-table books, and this software is robust enough to create them. It offers by far the most flexibility: recipe layouts, picture layouts, collage layouts, chapter layouts, text layouts, plus ideas for title, dedication and copyright pages. For a simple gift, this is more than you need. But what is possible is awe-inspiring.
Unlike with the others, you have to download Blurb's BookSmart application. But once you have it, it's easy to navigate. Choose the size and shape of your book, a hard or soft cover, and whether you want the cover image to wrap around the front and back. Blurb also lets you choose fonts, colors and text size, which is great, though despite my best efforts to create a template, I ended up having to repeat those selections on each and every page.
Longer recipes were a problem for me with Blurb. If the recipe didn't fit on one page, it automatically added a new page in the same recipe template, which set aside a column for ingredients even though only the directions were continuing to the second page. Of all six templates, I couldn't find a good one for a continued recipe. I wish Blurb would create one and anticipate that the added page should be formatted differently than the first.
Blurb gives you a bounty of options for photography, but you must provide your own. I ended up using mostly whole-page photos because I never seemed to have the size or shape to fit the more sophisticated templates.
Then again, you get out what you put in. Of all the books I made, I thought the one from Blurb was the most beautiful. The images were well-printed, the binding professional. I think I'll start making another one. For Christmas 2009.
What you get: Prices vary according to the size of the book. Paperbacks of up to 40 pages start at $12.95; up to 80 pages, $15.95. Hardbacks of up to 40 pages start at $22.95; up to 80 pages, $26.95; all prices are plus shipping; at www.blurb.com.
Best for: Creative types who can take advantage of the program's tremendous flexibility, and cooks who don't mind the extra work because they plan to make multiple copies for relatives and friends.