What Makes a Recipe Headnote So Good You Want to Rush into the Kitchen?

by diannejacob on November 29, 2010

My last bookstore talk for 2010, at A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland, CA. Two stellar headnotes were all I needed to try out new recipes for the crowd. (Photo by Owen Rubin.)

For my last 2010 local bookstore talk based on the new edition of Will Write for Food, I worried that no one would show. I had already done two signings in San Francisco (one at Omnivore and another at Book Passage). So I made up a flyer and handed it out at my aerobics class with a note: There will be cake.

Sure enough, about a dozen fellow classmates and their friends showed up, plus friends, neighbors, former students, my sister-in-law and a local blogger I hadn’t met yet. Funny how just the word “cake” produces results.

I was up late two nights before, baking two enormous cakes I had been wanting to try. Why would I choose recipes I had never made before for this event? Because I trusted the authors and their headnotes. I loved their reassurance, their strong voices, and their no-fail offers:

1. Orange Olive-Oil Cake from Leite’s Culinaria. Once I saw my pal David demo this cake on the Today Show, I contemplated making it. What convinced me further was the headnote, different from the one in his award-winning book, The New Portuguese Table. On the blog, the first two sentences cemented my resolve, along with the gorgeous photo:

“This orange-olive oil cake was, without a doubt, the hardest recipe to develop in The New Portuguese Table. Cindi Kruth, one of my recipe testers, and I made 13 versions of it until I knew it was as good as the recipe I got at Papas, the tiny restaurant up the hill from my apartment in Lisbon.”

The deep yellow cake rose beautifully in the oven. It towered over the top of my old Bundt pan by about 5 inches and perfumed the house with the faint smell of orange.

2. Teddie’s Apple Cake, with a cinnamon-scented batter so heavy I could hardly fold in the apple slices, raisins and nuts, came from Amanda Hesser‘s new Essential New York Times Cookbook. Here’s the sentence in her headnote that did it for me:

“When I asked readers for their favorite dishes from the Times, this apple cake recipe one was near the top, with thirty-seven votes.”

How could I lose? My favorite part was when the cake emerged from my tube pan unscathed, always a major source of stress.

I arrived at the signing armed with these two enormous, heavy cakes. I was so confident of leftovers that I told a friend, who expected me for dinner a few nights later, that I’d bring cake. But between the crowd and the young bookstore staff, they reduced both cakes to a few pathetic chunks.  I had read out the recipe headnotes, increasing the crowd’s desire to taste.

So, I like headnotes by trusted writers with strong voices. If you read the two examples, you’d see that both authors also have a good sense of humor. What are other attributes of a good headnote that make you rush into the kitchen?


Sally Pasley Vargas November 29, 2010 at 5:20 pm

What your examples show is enthusiasm and excitement for a recipe. If a headnote can convey that and include bit of description (context) to make the reader’s mouth water, it’s a winner.

diannejacob November 29, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Excellent points, Sally. Both can transfer to the reader and cause the same response.

Nimisha November 29, 2010 at 5:31 pm

My mouth is watering for orange olive-oil cake! Thank you for all of the tips.

diannejacob November 29, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Sure! It’s a winner. Or as David wrote me in an tweet, “thwackingly” good.

Nancy Singleton Hachisu November 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm

For me it is less about the description of the dish than the context of where the author was when she first ate it. But what clinches it for me is when the author confidently announces that the particular dish is one of her personal favorites or even the favorite of her husband (or friend). I remember distinctly the enthusiasm in Paula Wolfert’s headnote for Macedonian Pork Smothered in Leeks. She asks a Greek cookbook author her favorite dish and the author’s husband interrupts to tell his–and then Wolfert adds that the dish is a favorite of her own husband’s as well. But it was that element of interruption that really seized me–that the Greek author’s husband felt so compelled to speak up about the dish. And in truth Macedonian Pork Smothered in Leeks is one of my all time favorite dishes that I never get tired of and that I make to comfort or to nourish the souls of my friends and family.

diannejacob November 29, 2010 at 7:37 pm

That’s a good one, Nancy. Although a recipe developer might have many favorites, a spouse might have only one.

Liz the Chef November 29, 2010 at 6:36 pm

SO much to learn. I learn something from each of your posts – thank you so much. Perhaps you might look out for my new post next week “Jeffrey Steingarten’s Mother-in-Law’s Fruitcake”. You are a great support for me.

diannejacob November 29, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Hilarious title, Liz. Look forward to it. One good thing is that you can plan out posts. I am not so good at that.

The Italian Dish November 30, 2010 at 4:16 am

Great post, Dianne. I love headnotes for recipes in cookbooks. They make a big difference, I think. I always zero in on a recipe if the author says something about it being a recipe that they actually use a lot, like “it’s my family’s favorite” or “this is my go-to recipe for. . . .”

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 9:08 am

True, that always makes me trust it more. But you can only have a few of those or credibility suffers.

Jane November 30, 2010 at 6:19 am

I agree that thoughtful headnotes can make a huge difference in a reader’s decision to make–or to completely dismiss–any given recipe. I enjoy and appreciate, for example, the headnotes in Nancy Baggett’s baking books and in Carole Walter’s as well. Often, they are part personal anecdote, part food culture/history, and they help clarify why each recipe made it into the book in the first place. But the best headnotes, it seems to me, could probably be titled, “Why I Really Think this Recipe is Worth Your Time.” And, all other things being equal, that’s what I what to know–what makes each recipe worth my time and effort? I also agree that knowing a recipe has been tested, retested, and tested again gives a home cook or baker extra confidence right from the get-go!

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 9:10 am

I suppose they’re not always possible, but in books, there should be room to express what you have said so succinctly: Why this recipe is worth your time. Brilliant. Sometimes I will go for intrigue too.

Carol Lander November 30, 2010 at 7:22 am

Dianne, I love headnotes that tell a story – where the recipe came from, when and where it’s been used, who loved it, has it evolved from another source. It’s the “once upon a time” that gets the reader into the recipe. Of course, a great title provides a hook too. In your first example, the words “orange and olive oil” perk my interest and then the story of a little bakery down the street in Lisbon grabs me – how romantic! In the second example, the title “Teddie . . .” makes me wonder: who is Teddie? Someone’s grandmother, aunt? And then the headnote cements the interest – everyone loved it. Count me in. One of my favorite titles came from a chef friend who shared this recipe that almost doesn’t need a headnote: “Shannon’s Mother’s Jalapeno Cornbread Salad”. Perks your interest – my headnote to add: “This is the one dish that I have every year at our Kentucky Derby Party. Guests would kill me if I did have it on the menu!”

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 9:16 am

That title is funny. It’s better than just “Shannon’s Salad.” Typically I don’t advise people to use a person’s name in the title, because the reader did not know the person so it doesn’t add anything. Ex. what does it tell you about the dish, if it was just “Shannon’s Salad?” Where Teddie succeeds is because it’s an unusual name, and at least it has “Apple” in the title so you know what kind of cake it is.

I love to read stories in headnotes. What I’m wondering is whether you would make a dish based on a good story.

Penni Wisner November 30, 2010 at 8:56 am

I love headnotes that give context–the where, why, and when of it. How else to distinguish one orange-olive oil cake from the next. The ones that have a strong personal attachment ring truest–the paradigm from the Lisbon shop, the strenuous home testing. All add up to trust whether you are familiar with the author or not. Then when you bake the cake, roast the lamb, you can tell the original story and embellish it–I heard about it from and oranges are in season and this olive oil was a present from Jane. Etc. Etc.

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 9:18 am

Yes, it’s the details that make these headnotes so good as well, as you say, Penni. Funny how that small note about the Lisbon restaurant intrigues us and piques our interest.

Mariko November 30, 2010 at 7:25 pm

Ben came? Lovely. Wish I could have hopped on a plane to come too, especially for that cake. 😉
I think you’ve convinced me to get Leite’s book now, although I was trying to wait and see if it showed up as a Christmas present.
I agree about the headnotes. This probably relates to exactly why I believe so much in Cook’s Illustrated. If you can write an essay about how you have perfected the recipe, it must be true.

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 10:14 pm

Well, you can make the cake yourself, and see how you like it!

The thing about Cook’s Illustrated is that the backstory has always been there. CI put it into print instead of just presenting the finished product.

Rosemary November 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm

I like to see clarifications or tips about the recipe preparation, especially if its something unique the developer tried or learned from the recipe. Headnotes are a great place to put recipe variations too.
I’d love to know why the olive oil cake was one of David’s hardest to develop, and I appreciate and feel for his effort! I’m ready to try his perfection!

diannejacob November 30, 2010 at 10:16 pm

Both are great things to put into headnotes, agreed. Also variations. I don’t like reading them at the end of the recipe.

I suppose it took him a long time to move from a chiffon. This current cake is more like a pound cake.

Michael @ Herbivoracious December 1, 2010 at 9:09 am

Great question and examples, Dianne. One way to look at both of your cake headnotes is that they are examples of “social proof”. The first one only has one external person besides the author, and the other has 37, but in both cases, the message is “it isn’t only me who thinks this is great”.

Nurit - 1 family. friendly. food. December 2, 2010 at 11:27 am

I was thinking lately about what turns me off in recipe titles. (Have you written about this already and I missed it?) The words “simple”, “easy”, “the ultimate”, or “perfect” came to mind. Aren’t they as bad as “delicious”?

diannejacob December 2, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Oh, yes, Nurit, these words are certainly overused. However, simple and easy will always be popular, if they are actually true. I’m sick of ultimate, and perfect is only in the mind of the writer, often.

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