When I saw this cookbook at CostCo, I just couldn’t resist. It was William Sonoma after all, and looked like just what I needed to get started as a beginning baker. As far as presentation goes, this book is beautiful. The photography will have you drooling over many of the pages in no time at all.
Like most beginning cookbooks, this one has very nice sections at the beginning covering equipment and ingredients as well as basic techniques for things like measuring and preparing pans. But the real test of a cookbook is the recipes themselves.
There’s a wonderful selection of classic as well as specialty recipes in all the basic categories, and the book included some of my favorites like Challah and Pumpernickel bread. And although delicious when successfully baked, the book suffers terribly from what appears to be errors in quantity. In the dozen or so recipes that I have attempted so far, about three quarters had significant trouble caused by issues that could only be attributed to the quantity of goods. Being new to baking, I assumed at first that this was just something to do with me or the way that I measured things. But after a while, and with the purchase of a very nice cooking scale, I had to admit that I was indeed measuring correctly. I am a guy and all, which makes me anal about such things to begin with. But I’m also a graphic designer who was raised by a mechanical engineer. Attention to detail, was my personal mantra growing up. It wasn’t me.
After a few frustrating attempts with breads, I thought that much of the problem had to do with their tendency to simply be vague about certain key things. They called for 2-3 ‘extra’ cups of flour in their Sourdough bread to get a “soft dough”, and “the juice from one lemon” in their Apple Pie filling. Have they been to the store lately? You can get lemons any size from “golf ball” to “softball.” And yes, it makes a very big difference.
I suspect that many of these errors are based on publishing, and not with the original recipes themselves. It would be very easy to introduce problems into things if you needed to have weight measurements tagged onto all the ingredients in every recipe throughout the book. If the original baker used only volume measurements, then they would have to find equivalents someplace. Stuff like sugar is pretty consistent whether it’s by volume or weight, but not things like flour.
But if these mistakes weren’t problem enough, I have already encountered instances of out and out errors to the basic recipe itself. For Apple Turnovers for example, they started with four large Granny Smith apples for eight small turnovers. That’s half an apple per! No way. Somebody goofed.
So, does it mean the book is a flop? No. I have been able to adjust the recipes in most cases to produce an acceptable end product, and certain sections do not seem as prone to the measurement trouble (such as Cookies). But given that this IS a book for beginners (thus, ‘essentials of baking’), this is pretty unacceptable. A more experienced cook might see a problem coming and correct before it’s too late, but not someone just starting into the art. It’s also pretty appalling given that this is William-Sonoma as well as an expensive high-class publication and not some rough, first-time published baker trying to break into the market.
Who’s at fault? I have a hard time blaming the recipe sources, namely Cathy Burgett, Elinor Klivans, and LouSeibert Pappas, since the Editor (Chuck Williams) is ultimately responsible for the accuracy. Still, I would have hoped to have them actually try out some of their own recipes a bit more before publication. I’m sure it would have eliminated some of the more glaring problems.