UNLIKE GERTRUDE Stein's roses, a recipe isn't a recipe. We Americans love recipes. We love cookbooks. But there is more to a cookbook than its cover, and one reason so many of them end up on a shelf ignored is because the approach to cooking recommended by the author, or even the way the recipes are written, doesn't suit you, the person who expects to cook from it.
From my experience, there are two factors that lead cooks back to certain recipe books time and again: confidence and comfort.
Much has been made of confidence, although too often it is confused with authenticity.Are they the author's own recipes or have a good many been "borrowed?" At the risk of offending both truth and dignity, I don't think the source of recipes matters as much to cooks as it does to copyright lawyers. Some of the most successful authors make no claim to being original cooks or professional chefs. (Some of the latter can't claim to be the former, either, but that is another subject.) Of greater concern is whether the recipes are accurately written and whether they work. Again, these are two separate qualities. A recipe that is accurately written may not work -- for you. The fault may be yours in interpreting and executing the recipe, not the author's.
Which brings us to comfort. The recipes you use most often are those you can understand, that demand the amount of input in time and energy you are willing to expend, that produce dishes with a taste, consistency and appearance that appeal to you.
Don't be lured on blindly by fancy names or rave reviews. For example, James Beard is one of my favorites. My enthusiasms often coincide with his, and I admire the knowledge and perspective he brings to food, his confidence and his instinct for creating stimulating combinations of flavor and texture without violating a firm commitment to simplicity. But James Beard isn't one to measure the exact amount of salt and pepper, nor spend time in a recipe explaining a cooking technique. His seasoning is too forceful for some, his casualness leaves others uncertain and confused. It's not a matter of right or wrong; like perfume or neckties, it's a question of what is right for you.
So think before you buy or ask for a book, or even before you clip a recipe from a newspaper or magazine. How daring a cook are you? How much do you need to be told to feel secure, even if it is your 10th or 20th roast duck? Do you gnash your teeth when you are referred to another recipe on another page? Is the type large enough and the presentation easy for you to follow?
Does Turkey Wellington sound chic? Surely it is different, but would the family eat it? If not, are you planning to entertain? Are you likely to make puff pastry, a turkey stock, a mousse of turkey livers, cranberry aspic? Have you ever started two days ahead to prepare such a dish? Are your guests likely to eat it, or to admire the effort that went into preparing the dish? Are the instructions in English or franglaise? Are all the ingredients available at supermarkets? If not, are you likely (or able) to change your cooking routine to include lessons in French and shopping in Paris?
You may want to bypass the recipe for Turkey Wellington or a book called "Wellingtons for All Seasons." You may want to bypass ethnic recipes or collections unless you already know the style and like it. You should beware of translations, too. All too often they are done hastily by language scholars without sufficient culinary knowledge or experience.
Sometimes a recipe looks beautiful and seems simple, only to prove how difficult it can be to achieve simplicity. Michel Guerard's "Cuisine Minceur" is a landmark book. But you don't come up with a cute hors d'oeuvre by leafing through the index. The dishes are so intricate, either dependent on special ingredients or built from basic recipes prepared in advance, that the cook should -- as Guerard suggests -- adopt a cuisine minceur diet for a week or two.
As for how different recipes can be, even if they carry the same title, a comparison of a dessert as basic as chocolate mousse should prove illuminating. I've selected four, which are reproduced on this page. They come from "Joy of Cooking," the all-time best-selling cookbook; Julia Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking"; "Craig Claiborne's Favorites, Volume 4"; and "The Making of a Cook," the first book published by Madeleine Kamman, a leading teacher of French cooking.
Cooking buffs frequently can identify the author of a recipe merely by reading the directions, so pronounced is his or her style. Child, for instance, is the patient teacher, giving a trio of French names for the dessert, specifying what equipment to use and instead of merely writing "ribbon," explaining the term: "until mixture is thick, pale yellow, and falls back upon itself forming a slowly dissolving ribbon." Her dedication to thoroughness leads to lengthy recipes that may try the patience of experienced cooks. (This one is 188 words, compared to 73 for the "Joy of Cooking" mousse.)
Claiborne, who usually works within the space limitations of a newspaper format, has finely honed the journalist's talent for compression. His numbered paragraphs usually convey the rhythm of the recipe, but he will pause to identify a process as the same one used to begin a hollandaise, or warn the reader that his mousse will be foamy, not thick.
Look now at the ingredients. Have you a real sweet tooth? Claiborne's mousse, which calls for 8 ounces of sweet chocolate plus sweetened whipped cream, probably will be the sweetest. But it also will be the lightest. Both Child and Kamman use coffee. It provides a contrast of bitterness that will increase the flavor complexity. "Joy of Cooking," which uses basic terms such as "pudding" and "custard," clearly is on another tack. This mousse will be less intense. It should have the color and flavor of milk chocolate. Notice, too, the different liqueurs recommended and the amounts.
As for techniques, Kamman's recipe calls for a separate process -- making praline powder. It will add a fascinating dimension to the recipe; it also requires additional time and will challenge the novice. Claiborne's approach is trickier than Child's or "Joy of Cooking."
Last, but not least, notice the attention paid in each recipe to presentation. Which suits you?
Such forethought will help make you a more effective, and probably a better, cook. Still, the only sure way to choose is to try them all. If you are tempted, I urge you on with one of Mrs. Child's favorite phrases: