Deb Perelman turns in the manuscript for her first cookbook, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, at the end of this month. I caught up with her to ask her how writing a cookbook has been different than writing her blog.
Q. What percentage of recipes will come from the blog?
A. Very few recipes, maybe 10 to 15 percent. I have to put in the greatest hits or it wouldn’t feel like the Smitten Kitchen cookbook.
Q. Where did you get your inspiration for new dishes?
A. I have no shortage of ideas. I have a long list of recipe ideas I’ve been building on for a decade, and I keep them all in Google Docs. I can reach them from any computer, from the phone and from the grocery store.
Besides cookbooks that I know and love, the web is a great tool to research recipes. I gravitate towards recipe sites that have reviews, like the Food Network, Allrecipes and Epicurious. It’s not that I’m looking for new ideas. It’s more like I have my recipe for pancakes, and I wonder if the salt level is too high or how much milk other recipes use.
I get a lot of ideas from restaurants too, where there’s something about the dish I like, like the combination of ingredients.
Q. How is the cookbook different from the blog?
A. There are things I’ve pulled from the cookbook because they were going to be really complicated to make. I didn’t think I could test out those recipes 20 times this summer to get them right.
In a cookbook, I get to do things I wouldn’t do on the site, like a gathering of meal ideas, certain kinds of sidebars, and a nice layout.
Also, when I’m remaking things from the website, I make them different now.
Q. What is the difference between the way you write a recipe for the book and for the blog?
A. It’s not terribly different. I have to add more detail because I’m not going to have process photos for each recipe.
Q. What have you learned from writing the cookbook?
A. Writing the book has changed the way I do the site. I’ve gotten more aggressive with my recipe testing and my writing.
My recipes in the last 1.5 years are different.The first couple of years, I was clueless about recipe copyright and adapting. I would use a recipe from somewhere and change very little. I used to feel it was disrespectful to the cook to change the recipe — that you’re supposed to give credit and compliments. As the site went on, I became a better cook. Now I’m working hard on recipe development.
My next project is going back to older recipes on the site and reworking them to make them true Smitten Kitchen recipes. They’re a minority.
Q. What is your definition of “adapted?”
A. It means you’ve changed things. If I haven’t changed the recipe, I won’t use it. I really try to detail in the headnote what I’ve changed. If someone loved that recipe from Ina Garten, I want to give them a heads up that I did not make it the same way.
Q. Are you in charge of the photography, and is it different from the blog also?
A. Yes, I’m doing the photos too. On the website, I will publish imperfect photos. Mostly I’m looking for a good top picture. If they’re not perfectly lit and the focus is not where I want it, that’s okay. But for the cookbook, I have to reshoot it.
Q. Who is your editor at Knopf?
A. Her name is Lexy Bloom. It’s her first cookbook. Judith Jones has been advising her a little bit about process. She talks about what she did with Julia Child! She likes to come to the kitchen with her authors see how they work. So now Lexy’s come over and we have a couple more visits scheduled.
Q. Did you use recipe testers for your cookbook?
A. For the site I’ve always done my own testing and I guess I’ve been very lucky because people like the results. For the book I’m more nervous so I’ve brought in two recipe testers. I’m not giving them all the recipes, just as many as I feel nervous about and want to get their home cooking notes.
It’s hard for me. I’m not good at sharing. I don’t understand the concept of rough drafts. Recipes are either done or I leave them in my computer.
Q. What do you want them to check?
A. More complicated recipes, baking recipes. Or ones where each time I tested it, it came out a little different. I’m going to have weights measurements in the book, so I want them to verify the weights, and the cooking times. I want them to let me know if there are gaping holes in the recipes.
Mostly I want to know that their results are the same. These people live in Brooklyn, and I really want to take a bite of what they make but I can’t run over there (DJ: Perelman lives in Manhattan)!
One thing I’ve found is that I have to be true to the way I make it. One tester said a bread wasn’t cheesy enough. But I have to remember that I made it three times that way and my family and I loved it. And I’ve always published recipes to my taste.
Q. Will you feel like you have reached some new level of credibility with the published book? That you’re not just a blogger?
A. I’ve never felt like I’m just a blogger.
I’m sure I will feel that way. My drive has never been to be famous, though. I just want to do work that makes me happy.
Q. What do you say to people, particularly bloggers, who want to write a cookbook?
A. I was very glad I waited for a fairly developed audience (DJ: Perelman says Smitten Kitchen has 2.5-4 million unique views a month. She started the blog in 2006.). I had a lot more opportunities, more people were interested, and could develop a book into what I wanted. As a result, the cookbook reflects my vision for the site, my vision for cooking, and how I feel about cooking.