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This year's holiday selection of cookbooks.

By Rebecca Cook

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  THE THICK OF the holiday season has once again drawn nigh, bringing its inexplicable penchant for eggnog and a steady outflow of cash.

Choosing the perfect gift can be a challenge, but chances are there's someone on your list who either loves to cook or is wildly enthusiastic about eating--a newly published cookbook might be just the thing.

What follows is a partial list of some of the most appetizing cookbooks to pop up at bookstores this year. Given the scope of the titles reviewed, you shouldn't have any trouble finding the right tome to tickle your favorite epicure's fancy.

The first cookbook I ever owned was Joy of Cooking, and lo these many years later, it's still the volume I refer to most often (and the one that has bailed me out of more potential cooking disasters than any other). Originally published in 1931, this much-revised book written by the mother-daughter team of Irma and Marion Rombauer Becker has undergone yet another reincarnation in 1997, and is reportedly bigger and better than ever. The All New, All Purpose Joy of Cooking (Scribner, $30) still contains instructions and recipes for concocting some of the basics in a cook's repertoire (pie crust, bread, mashed potatoes); but now you can also find vegetarian fare along with an impressive selection of international dishes. Whether someone's just beginning to explore the gastronomic world or is no stranger to the kitchen, this latest edition should succeed in satisfying their basic needs.

If someone you know numbers Joy of Cooking among their all-time favorite books, perhaps they'd enjoy reading about the extraordinary women behind the classic. Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt and Company, $29.95), a new biography of the Rombauers by Anne Mendelson, is a fascinating portrait of personalities and culinary influences stretching across the better part of this century. The enterprise began as an amateur's attempt to compile a few favorite recipes for modest profit, but it wasn't long before the project took on a life of its own. The rest, as they say, is history. Read all about it in Mendelson's entertaining book.

Another culinary icon, Julia Child, is also featured in one of this year's new biographies. Appetite For Life: The Biography of Julia Child (Doubleday, $25.95), by Noel Riley Fitch, pulls back the curtain on one of this country's best-known chefs. Known to millions through her PBS cooking show and her signature falsetto voice, Child's mid-life transformation into a world-renown master chef makes for great reading. Making the book even more appealing is information about the passionate and ongoing love affair Child had with her husband, Paul Child. It's a fine thing when the spice of romance can be added to a biographical broth.

Kitchen chemists will be enamored with Shirley O. Corriher's new book, Cookwise: The Hows & Whys of Successful Cooking (William Morrow & Co., Inc., $28.50). A trained chemist as well as an experienced cook and gifted writer, Corriher takes the reader through the mysterious and magical maze of various recipes, exploring the properties and contributions of each ingredient. Such knowledge constitutes power in Corriher's opinion, giving the cook a more informed and creative discretion about how to adjust or improve various recipes. Far from being a mere primer for beginners, Cookwise will also appeal to veteran cooks anxious to improve or expand their culinary expertise. More than 200 recipes are included in the book.

Vegetarian cuisine was tantalizingly featured in several new cookbooks this year, indicating perhaps that the once-fringe food preference has finally broken through the Epicurean ceiling. Two of the year's best are Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, $35) and Didi Emmons' Vegetarian Planet (Harvard Common Press, $16.95).

Madison, best known as the founding chef of San Francisco's Greens restaurant and author of The Greens Cookbook, has compiled more than 1,400 recipes in a collection that will undoubtedly appeal to as many confirmed carnivores as ethically minded vegans. Madison not only instructs readers on how to build vibrant flavor into each dish and selectively choose fruits and vegetables, but also introduces an array of tasty dishes that dispel forever the notion that vegetarian cooking is boring.

Vegetarian Planet is notable for its deceptively simple and streamlined recipes, and a bold and innovative use of various herbs and spices. If you're looking for recipes to entice a loved one away from the meat counter, Emmons' book is just what the doctor ordered: fun, flavorful and surreptitiously good for you.

Another culinary legend has published again this year, in what she vows will be her very last cookbook. Marcella Cucina, by Marcella Hazan (HarperCollins, $35), is to Italian regional cooking what Madison is to vegetarian, or Child to French cooking. The author of four previous cookbooks, Hazan has introduced millions to Italian cuisine through her writing and cooking classes. Her recipes are prefaced with reminiscences and interesting observations about life, love and food, offering a read more like a memoir than a cookbook. Make no mistake though: Wonderful adventures in Italian cooking await all those who endeavor to try Hazan's recipes. Her solid blend of traditional regional cuisine, along with a measured portion of innovation, is masterful and delicious.

Lovers might do well with a nifty new book of aphrodisiacal specialties appropriately titled Intercourses, by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge (Terrace Publishing, $24.95). Each chapter features a different food reported to have aphrodisiac properties. History, personal narrative and individual recipes are included, all of which will aid in selecting an appropriately seductive menu for your sweetheart. Reference guides that match the aphrodisiac to the time of year or day, the particular occasion or even the astrological sign of your designated Cupid target are also included.

And what would a list of cookbooks be without a passing nod to dessert, in my opinion still the whole point of sitting down to a meal in the first place. While no edition of killer chocolate confections caught my eye this year, I did manage to find extreme satisfaction perusing the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, put together by the Moosewood Collective (Clarkson Potter Publishers, $22). Comforting items like bread pudding, pies and fruit cobblers rub shoulders with more decadent offerings like Chocolate Grand Marnier Cake, and White Chocolate Raspberry Fool. Every one of the 250 recipes could find a permanent home among your tried-and-true favorites.

Happy shopping and, in the shrill, immortal words of Julia Child, "Bon appetit!"

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