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This Holiday, Give Your Own Personal Cookbook

Custom cookbooks compiled by the author using, clockwise from top left, Blurb's BookSmart, TasteBook and Lulu.
Custom cookbooks compiled by the author using, clockwise from top left, Blurb's BookSmart, TasteBook and Lulu. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 10, 2008

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.

TasteBook

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, cocktail makers 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 http://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.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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