“A” Is for Apple Cake

Adventures in a cookbook's index

Opinion published 4 April 2024

I had some apples in my fridge—the last of the apples picked last fall by my neighbors who have some older apple trees, varieties unknown, in their yard. A few trees produce wonderful eating apples. The others, baking apples.

The apples that I still have are baking apples. I could make a pie or a cobbler, but I remembered how years ago, when we’d travel to Brattleboro, VT to visit friends, we would stop at a coffee shop called Sonny’s every time. I loved their apple cake. That’s what I wanted to bake.  But I never found a good recipe for one.

I had a baking book out from the library that showed promise. This was the type of book that would have an apple cake recipe. It featured old-fashioned recipes, and apple spice cakes are an old-fashion type of cake.

I turned to the beginning of the index to look for the “apple” entry. Hmmm…only a recipe for a torte. Nope. Not making a torte. I’m looking for a cake.

Maybe there’d be a pear cake I could tweak. Nope. Nothing under pears.

OK, so let’s look under cakes. Maybe this is the type of index that decided to group by types of bakes instead of ingredients. But in the back of my mind, I wasn’t hopeful because, remember, there was already one recipe under apple, and that was for a torte. So, the chance of a cake recipe containing apples is next to nil. But I decided to look anyway.

Would you be surprised if I told you that there wasn’t an apple entry under cakes at the top of the list? After all, “apple” would be high up in the entries under cakes because it starts with the letter A. And according to this index, there was only one recipe that contained apples and that was a torte recipe.

Frustrated because I really wanted to bake a cake now, even if it didn’t contain apples (and isn’t baking supposed to be relaxing?), I decided to skim the subheadings*. Maybe something would catch my eye.

And there it was. Almost all the way at the bottom of the entry that took up one column of the page was an entry for an upside-down cake: Dutch Apple Cake.

I was happy I found the entry. But why was this so hard to find? It wasn’t under apple but could be found under the D’s for “Dutch apple” and under the U’s for “upside-down cake.”

This is one of those moments when I scratch my head at the mysteries of cookbook indexing. This index featured recipe names and kinds of baked goods but didn’t emphasize ingredients. And that choice is often what the editor asks for. Or it might be how the indexer decided to compile the index.

Regardless of who made the decision, it’s me, the index user and wanna-be baker, who misses out.

The function of an index is to point the user towards useful information. Whether I had baked from this book before or not, the chance of me thinking to search for “Dutch Apple Cake” is slim. But if I wanted to make an apple cake, good places to look would be under “apple,” “cake,” or even possibly “fruit cake.” But it wasn’t under “apple.” There was no “fruit cake” entry in the index. And yes, it was under “cakes”, but I got lucky when I found it since it was so far down the list as an “upside-down cake.”

I could have given up on this book and returned it to the bookshelf (or the library), but then I would have missed out on a great bake. The cake was really delicious, and it froze well, too.

So, authors and editors, take note. Sometimes, it’s better to create recipe names with the star ingredient as the first word. And indexers, let’s not be slaves to recipe names in the index. Let’s serve our readers, not the creative titles.

An index can literally “save” a book—that is, make a cookbook reader keep it on their already crowded bookshelf. It doesn’t matter if your recipes are good—if a reader can’t easily access them, they might not keep your book.

Then again, your book might not even make it to the cook’s kitchen. If your book is picked up in the bookstore (or the library) with the intent of finding a few specific recipes, and the potential buyer doesn’t find them in the index even though they are in your book, your book may never make it to the checkout counter at the bookstore.

Postscript: By thumbing through the book, I found two more apple recipes: Baked Apples and Mock Apple Pie. Even though I’m not supposed to write in a library book, I did pencil in all the apple recipes under “apple” in the index. I couldn’t help myself.

* That’s what entries listed under the main heading are called. In this example, “cakes” is the main heading, and “upside-down cake, Dutch Apple Cake” is the subheading. Here’s a very short article on parts of an index in case you’re interested in learning more index terminology.


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