I waited so long for The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Making Sweets, Candy & Chocolates: 150 irresistible confectionery recipes shown in over 750 exquisite photographs that frankly I had forgotten that I had even preordered it when it arrived on my doorstep two days before Christmas. I find myself disappointed.
First, the recipes themselves, though from an American pastry chef (NOTE - NOT an American chocolatier), are clearly written for the UK, using ingredient terminology that many American cooks will find confusing. While Ptak does give amounts in Metric/Ounces/Standard, there is a lengthy notation in the front of the book citing changes that Australian and American readers will need to make in order to use the recipes.
As a cook, comfortable in both metrics and US Standard, I find this state of affairs MUCH less than useful. Having to do the math to change up UK measurements to US is every bit as uncalled for as having to do the math to change metrics to Standard. In this modern day of low-cost digital scales and measuring cups that have standard US volume on one side and metric volume on the other there is absolutely NO need to be mucking about with kitchen math. And this brings up another problem with these recipes.
The Publisher's Note in the front of the books states -
"Standard spoon and cup measures are level. 1 tsp = 5 ml, 1 tbsp = 15 ml, 1 cup = 250 ml/8 fluid ounces."
All very nice, except the amount that your one cup measure measures depends on just which set of measuring cups you happen to own! This problem first came to my attention when I acquired a baking book from a well known Australian author, who notes in the front of her book that a "standard" set of measuring cups for use with her recipes measures 1 cup = 250 ml, 1/2 cup = 125 ml, 1/3 cup = 80 ml and 1/4 cup = 60 ml. I'm sure you've noticed by now that four 1/4 cups are well shy of a cup as are three 1/3 cups.
As it happened, I had not long before purchased a new set of standard Kitchen Aid measuring cups. Mine came marked with the volume in both US standard and Metric. If you own Kitchen Aid measuring cups, those measure 1 cup = 237 ml, 1/2 cup = 118 ml, 1/3 cup = 79 ml and 1/4 cup = 59 ml.
Are you confused yet? I'm not done quite yet . . . because there is a THIRD set of measuring cups rolling around in your kitchen. That one does have a 250 ml "cup", but the smaller measures differ greatly from those required for the Australian baking book.
I'm sure this seems picky, but if you are a baker, or want to be, then you know that baking is quite a bit like chemistry. Making candy is even more so, so much so that we often use making candy such as lollipops as experiments in chemistry labs. Yes, it absolutely DOES matter which set of measuring cups you use for these recipes. Frankly, I would stick to metrics and avoid the confusion, most especially since converting recipes from metric to Standard and vice versa has resulted in significant error in more than one recently published cookbook.
I should mention a couple of other things that I noticed other than the measurements. I had particular problems with the chapter on fudge. Now as it happens, we've been making candy - most especially fudge - in my family for a very long time. My Grandma could whip up a pan of the creamiest penuche you've ever tasted on the rainiest day of the year. My Dad and I had a 30 year running competition over the Christmas fudge. Properly made fudge should have a high, shiny gloss on the top surface - and that is not apparent in most of the pictures that Ptak includes. That might be due to the quality of the photographs, but more likely it is due to her tendency to use a spatula to "smooth out" the fudge. When you pack the fudge into the pan you ruin the texture - and the gloss. One never smooths the top of the fudge or packs it into the pan.
Ptak includes a substantial amount of golden or corn syrup in most of her fudge recipes, calling for an entire cup in the Peanut Butter Fudge recipe that she provides, instead of the 2 tablespoons that is common to most fudge recipes. I try to avoid excess use of corn syrup whenever I can, so I wouldn't even consider making fudge that called for so much of the stuff.
And since I've mentioned that Peanut Butter Fudge recipe, let me tell you that I've been making Peanut Butter Fudge for 50 years or so and I have never once seen Peanut Butter Fudge that was as dark as that in the photo that accompanies this particular recipe. The expected color is much closer to that of coffee with extra cream. The nuts shown in this picture also don't look much like the peanuts called for in the recipe. In fact, I would not be the least bit surprised if a picture of Penuche with Walnuts or Pecans didn't somehow make its way into the spot for the Peanut Butter Fudge picture.
Grandma's $0.02 - Candy is expensive to make and there is a very fine line between superb results and a mess that ends its life dumped ignominiously into the trash, buried in hopes that no one will see. Not enough detail has been given about the measurements used for any of these recipes for me to feel secure using any of them and frankly, I have many better things to do with my time than spend a single minute of it doing kitchen math for a pan of fudge.
UPDATE: Just a few minutes after this review went live a friend, also a cookbook collector, wrote to me saying that she had a book by the same author. She had tried a pear confection and been disappointed in the results. As she started describing the confection she had made (we were on chat by then), I interrupted to ask "Is that the one where you slice the pears paper thin, cook them in syrup and then dry them in the oven?" "Oh yes!" she said . . . and so, because there is no Look Inside feature on either book, she sent me a copy of the recipe for Baked Pear Crisps from her book, Home-Made Sweet Shop: Make your own irresistible confectionery with 90 classic recipes for sweets, candies and chocolates, shown in more than 450 stunning photographs along with several pages from the index.
Well surprise, Surprise, SURPRISE - the Baked Pear Crisps recipe is in both books. So are the recipes for Raspberry Heart Marshmallows, Rocky Road Fudge Marshmallows, Vanilla Marshmallows and Two-Toned Marshmallow Sticks, though in this book the Two-Toned Marshmallow Sticks are called only "Marshmallow Sticks." In fact, nearly every recipe in Home-made is also in this book. Even the pictures are the same, though they have been put into a different layout in this version of Ptak's book. A picture has been added to the Baked Pear Crisps recipe too - a meaningless picture of green pears.
Now and then I've been known to buy an updated version of a book that I already own. I don't appreciate, however, being tricked into buying a "new" book that is anything but. If I happened to also own Home-Made Sweet Shop: Make your own irresistible confectionery with 90 classic recipes for sweets, candies and chocolates, shown in more than 450 stunning photographs and found myself with essentially the same book under a new title I would be mad as a wet hen!
Accordingly, I have subtracted a star from my initial evaluation and would subtract even the one that is left if I could. It isn't nice to try to fool Grandma!
Definitely not recommended.