Ever wondered how a cookbook evolves from a loose collection of recipes to the polished final product? Author Brooke Dojny shares her notes on the process as she works on her book Chowderland.
“Where do you get your recipes?”
This is the question most often asked of any food writer, and it’s a good one, because it gets at the fundamental rules that all professional cookbook authors live by. First off, all book contracts stipulate that every recipe must be original to that book and never before published. So, while an author cannot use a previously published recipe verbatim, he or she can definitely repurpose a concept by changing titles, yields, and tweaking the dish with ingredient changes and substitutions, testing the recipe and rewording the method so that it doesn’t read exactly like the original. Since I’ve been doing food writing for over two decades, this serves as a primary source for ideas. For example, a recipe for Cranberry-Orange Upside-Down Cake that appears in Lobster! was too good to use only once, so a similar cake will appear in my upcoming book Chowderland, with a reworked topping and a cake batter made with ground walnuts instead of the original pecans.
Other sources for recipes? Magazines (usually just concepts to get the juices flowing), other cookbooks (which I use primarily as references to check my own work), and the Internet, which can be very hit or miss in terms of reliability and which I also use mainly as a reference. I always loved the apple custard tart in Julia Child’s first book and wished to try to adapt it for Dishing Up® Maine. Upon testing and retesting, the recipe evolved away from the original substantially, using less cream, more sugar and apples. I still called it Julia’s Apple Cream Tart and wrote a headnote about the original source.
I also absorb inspiration from restaurant meals and from markets — especially the farmers’ markets, which drive a lot of my work.
Though I think about a given project for weeks or months before signing a contract with a publisher, jotting down notes and collecting recipe ideas, it’s not until I sign the contract (more about that in another blog post) that I set to work in earnest. Following my own basic outline — on paper because it’s been part of my original book proposal — I create file folders for each chapter, plus a folder for sidebar ideas, the introduction, and an acknowledgments page. I stick recipe ideas into each folder, gradually building up the number of recipes (more or less) that the contract specifies.
When I’ve got everything fairly well balanced — not too many recipes with any one ingredient, etc. — I pick a chapter and start in testing. First, I type up the recipe the way I think it should work, and, as I cook (for example) a Lemon Pudding Cake that will be in Chowderland, I edit, making notes on the printed-out recipe, changing the amount of milk, or the quantity of lemon zest, double-checking the baking dish size, and paying close attention to baking time. I then try to retype while the cooking is still fresh, making refinements and adding a headnote at the top of the recipe.
I put myself on a schedule in order to meet the agreed-upon deadline and forge ahead, testing recipe after recipe, chapter after chapter, often going back to tweak recipes based on knowledge gained while I’m testing other recipes (this was frequently the case with Chowderland, which had to be internally consistent) until I’ve built a book. At this point I usually print out what I have, proofread, make corrections, and add accompaniment suggestions to the headnotes. (“Serve this creamy chowder with Crusty Skillet Cornbread, page 00, and Brussels Sprout Slaw, page 00”). Then I add the sidebar material I’ve collected — historical tidbits, literary quotes, amusing anecdotes — scattering them throughout the appropriate chapters.
Lastly, the introduction, which is, for me, the hardest part of any book. Even though some readers skip right over it, an introduction has to read as though it’s being judged by your peers — and it often is — so it needs to be an authoritative, informative, and hopefully well-written summing up of the book’s subject matter. I then add a book dedication and an acknowledgments page.
Finally, I print out the manuscript one more time, proof again, input changes, and hit Send.