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ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : PLUGGING IN : Julia Child Enters the Electronic Age

November 30, 1995|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CD-ROM cookbooks have gotten a lot more sophisticated in the last year. No longer are they just recipes loaded into a computer database(a species of software technically known as "shovelware"), offering only a couple of advantages over a printed book, such as the ability to customize recipes by the number of diners and to print out shopping lists. Like last year's "Four Paws of Crab," they're making more use of the unique features of the CD-ROM format.

This year's crop tends to have musical soundtracks . . . and the option of turning them off if you get sick of them. The screens are more playful. Preparation time is likely to show up on a pocket watch instead of a dumb old information field labeled "preparation time." Several disks have fun with the computer animation technique called morphing.

Many have fun with their click-here information screens. When you click on an ingredient, whether to find out more about it or to call up a list of recipes using it, quaint things tend to happen: The egg makes a quiet cracking sound, the nut jar changes into a chattering squirrel, the beefsteak chortles, the lobster waves its claw. A screaming spider may even scuttle from behind a tomato (no kidding; that happens in "The Four Seasons of French Cuisine").

In addition to recipes and an index function for looking them up by ingredient, type of dish and nutritional or preparation time considerations, the disks feature explanations of cooking techniques (often with very helpful animated demonstrations), sections on ingredients and photos of the dishes.

And not just a few dishes; typically every single dish has its own color portrait. You can usually look through them at your own speed or have the program page through automatically. Either way, click when you see one that appeals to you and you'll go directly to the recipe.

You'd think that by now programmers would have gotten the kinks out of their interfaces, but there are still occasional bugs, particularly in setup programs. While trying to install "The Art of Making Great Pastries," we were repeatedly stopped with a warning that MCHICAGO.FON was being used by another program. It turned out to be no big deal; press IGNORE and everything continues smoothly.

As last year, the prices given here are only the suggested prices. Like everything else in the computer world, CD-ROMs can usually be found discounted.

*

JULIA CHILD: HOME COOKING WITH MASTER CHEFS

Interactive Cooking Lessons From 16 All-Star Chefs

(Microsoft: $34.95.)

If this disk gives the impression of a cookbook combined with one of Julia's TV series, it's probably because she's interviewed these chefs for TV. There are 16 of them, from all over the country, but California is particularly well represented with Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Nancy Silverton (bread recipes only, not desserts), Michel Richard, Susan Feniger and Mary-Sue Milliken, not to mention transplanted Louisianian Jan Birnbaum.

Click on the chefs' names list (which slips down with a quiet metallic sliding sound), then on a name, and you go to that particular chef's page (with a brief musical segue--Cajun for Emeril Lagasse, wind chimes for Jeremiah Tower). There you can read a bio, check out recipes and get cooking tips. Child narrates an introduction to each chef and each dish, and her infectious enthusiasm for all kinds of good food adds greatly to appeal of this volume.

Notes accompany the individual recipes, and they are pretty sophisticated for a CD-ROM production. The "chefs' tips" will already be familiar to a moderately experienced cook, but some are quite good, such as Alice Waters' suggestion to bake beets instead of boiling them. Of course, you can index recipes the usual way, print out shopping lists and so on.

And needless to say, the 100-odd recipes, coming from some of the most exciting chefs in the country, are terrific. This appears to be the class act among this year's CD-ROM cookbooks.

*

BETTY CROCKER'S COOKBOOK

(Lifestyle; $30.98).

In a Betty Crocker cookbook, you expect thoroughly tested recipes and lots of them. There are more than 1,000 here, and you can look them up using about a dozen search criteria (including both cooking time and total elapsed time), not counting the manifold dietary searches that are possible.

No surprise, the vast majority of the recipes have an American, and usually a Midwestern, flavor. The foreign dishes are mainly French. The other ethnic food choices can be a bit arbitrary: one Thai dish, one Irish dish, two "Jewish" sandwiches--both of them flagrantly non-kosher.

For cooking information, you go to a section titled Betty's Got It. There you can enter a question ("What does it mean to fold in eggs?") and probably find the answer. A database program seizes on the words fold and eggs and lists every answer that contains either one. You click to see the answers, some of which are illustrated by animated videos.

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