When you first read the title of the book, you may think that this is quite simply another collection of wonderful recipes by well known French cuisine author, Hillary Davis, but you would be wrong. In actuality, this book is not only a collection of wonderful recipes, but also a well thought out compilation of history and important information on how to properly prepare meals in what we have come to know as Dutch ovens.
For some, using cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens are commonplace in daily meal preparations, but others like myself have limited experience and knowledge on the topic. When presented with the opportunity to review Hillary’s book, I jumped at the chance to learn more about this simple but delicious way of cooking.
Cast iron pots (molded in sand) have been around for more than 2,000 years. Apparently, the technology evolved in China during the Iron Age (Han Dynasty 206 BC – 220 AD), during which time bare, cast iron vessels were used for salt evaporation.
The Europeans picked up the trend in the 15th century, but it was the Dutch who perfected the manufacture of the cast iron cooking pot — hence the name, Dutch oven. Its use spread to England and then to America when the English colonists arrived. Today, these Dutch ovens might also be called camping stoves, chuck wagon skillets or cowboy Dutch ovens.
From the early to the middle of the 19th century, people began cooking their meals in the open hearths or fireplaces of their homes. The cookware became essential items to those responsible for meal preparation, and no one traveled without them. During this period, mostly all were designed with swing handles to allow them to be hung over a fire, and had legs so that they could stand up in the embers of a fireplace. Cast iron cooking pots were treasured by all who used them and were revered for their durability and their ability to retain heat, thus improving the quality of their meals.
When the use of the cast iron pots moved indoors, a few things happened — the legs and swing handles disappeared, side handles emerged and enameled surfaces appeared on newer versions. These types of cooking pots are now made all over the world, with varying degrees of quality and price.
Out of all of the companies currently manufacturing these types of items, it is the French who have invested the most in the research and development of new products that can function at the highest level and at the highest temperatures, while maintaining the integrity of the material. As Hillary suggests, since the French have emerged as leaders in the manufacture of cast iron cookware, they have more than earned the right and the respect to call their creations, French ovens.
Hillary does a great job of setting the tone for the book in her Introduction, by explaining so eloquently how she was influenced by her grandmother’s methods of using enameled cast iron Dutch ovens for all of her cooking. As the book unfolds, she discusses the pros and cons of different manufacturers and the sizes that are available, and includes some discussion about the limited warranties offered by some and the lifetime warranties offered by others.
Some people have stayed away from using cast iron cookware because of its weight and limited use on certain types of stovetop surfaces, but Hillary candidly discusses how all this has changed and that cast iron cookware can be found in a variety of different weights which can now be used on both radiant and induction type surfaces. Some are even designed to tolerate extreme temperatures and can be used from freezer to oven without a slow warm up time.
In France, these enameled cast iron cookware are called cocottes and Hillary has provided recipes for both large and mini versions of both sweet and savory dishes.
The book is not really broken down into chapters, but rather sections that succinctly discuss many different topics that relate to cast iron cooking. Topics begin with subjects like how to choose and care for your French oven and then effortlessly move to the many different recipes she has created.
The different food sections included in the book cover appetizers in mini cocottes, soups, baking, stovetop cooking, roasting, braising, stewing, frying, desserts in mini cocottes, desserts in French ovens, jamming and even drinks for a crowd. With every recipe in each section she provides a little introduction and some history on the recipe, especially noting the specific region in France where the recipe comes from. She also provides little pearls of wisdom as seen in the roasting section when she tells us that roasting in a French oven provides a crispier skin to meat and vegetables. At the very end, she has a resource section of manufacturers for not only the French ovens she used in her book but also discussed, along with the French linens, cutlery, glassware and dinnerware used in the book — just in case any of the items used caught your fancy.
Hillary mentioned that she chose to create and entire section on mini cocottes appetizers since there were not many recipes available for this individually sized portions, and only a few were offered by some of the manufacturers.
At the end of each recipe, Hillary offers an Ideas & Suggestions section where she offers the reader options with different ingredients to make them uniquely yours. I really like cookbooks that encourage the reader to add their own flair and personality to a dish, and this one does just that.
Some of the standout recipes that caught my eye were things like crustless smoked salmon and zucchini quiche, fondue mac ‘n’ cheese, warm mushroom custards with garlic bread, artichoke parmesan soup, homemade basil garlic bread, date and raisin soda bread, super creamy goat cheese vegetable lasagna, Alsatian pork chops with gingersnap gravy, stuffed chicken with apples and cider sauce, beer braised beef brisket, beef stew a la bordelaise caramelized carrots and turned potatoes (cover pic), lemon lovers panna cotta with lemon curd, fresh orange creme caramel, vanilla cheesecakes with strawberry compote, warm chocolate semolina spoon cake and green tomato and lavender jam. Not all recipes had accompanying photographs but the recipes definitely sounded wonderful and piqued my interest.
As a pastry chef I was immediately attracted to the baking section of the book where recipes like Homemade basil garlic bread offered up a quick and delicious way to make bread in the covered oven. Other recipes such as date and raisin soda bread offered easier bread recipes for those who do not want to fiddle with yeast. I love to share quick recipes with my readers, so I chose to make this recipe in my Dutch oven — it was beautiful and so moist & delicious. The picture of the final result along with the recipe that Hillary agreed to share with you is listed below.
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
3 tablespoons chilled butter
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons of dark brown sugar
1 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup raisins
1 tablespoon melted butter to brush on top
Preheat oven to 400°F oven and butter the bottom of your French oven (I used a piece of parchment paper and tossed on a few tablespoons of coarse corn meal).
Sift the dry ingredients together into a large bowl and then add in the brown sugar to the flour mix and whisk it in. Add in the chilled butter and cut the butter into the flour with a pastry cutter or with your fingers. It should look like a coarse meal when you are finished. Combine all of the wet ingredients together and pour everything into the dry ingredients. Use a fork to mix everything well together and then add the dates and the raisins, and work it into the dough. Pour it out onto a clean surface and bring the dough together into a ball that will fit into your French oven. DO NOT knead the dough because that will make it tough. Lower it into your French oven and use a pair of scissors to cut a deep criss cross into the top of the bread. Cover it with the lid and place it into the oven for 20 minutes. Remove it after 20 minutes and brush on the melted butter, then return it to the oven uncovered until it becomes a golden brown color all over, another 10-15 minutes or so. The bread is ready when it tests clean with a cake tester. Let it rest for 15 minutes, then lift it out of the French oven onto a cutting board. Use a serrated knife to slice.
As an eager collector of cookbooks, I consider myself a very visual person. The one thing that I appreciate the most is the information that a photograph conveys, especially when it is paired with its respective recipe. It tells the reader so much about what the final product is supposed to look like for those eager to try it, in addition to drawing you in by allowing you to imagine the aromas and taste of the final dish. The photographs accompanying the recipes were exquisite, as were the beautiful vistas of France shared throughout the book. This is a great testament to photographer Steven Rothfeld who somehow seems to capture quintessential France in all of its very chic, country French glory.
I did find that there were well over 30 recipes that did not have accompanying photographs, but it did not detract from the overall quality of the book. I did find myself yearning for photos of a few of the delicious recipes, like the the elegant standing rib roast over potatoes and vegetables, which had me drooling for a glimpse of a moist and tender cut of prime beef. The warm chocolate semolina spoon cake sounded heavenly and so reminiscent of other semolina based desserts I grew up eating. I would have loved to have a visual of this wonderful recipe also.
Variety Of Recipes
What I love most about Hillary’s recipes is that she knows her audience and develops her recipes accordingly. She has offered a large selection of recipes from every protein category and highlights her small meals for 1 or 2 people in her mini cocottes section.
Achievability Of Recipes
In any cookbook, the ease of execution for each recipe is most important for the average reader. I did not find anything overly complicated or any ingredient that needed to be handled in a manner that was time consuming. Even the ingredients, including the French green lentils (lentils de Puy), are relatively easy to find these days.
Hillary’s recipes are presented so elegantly, but yet are achievable for anyone who likes to dabble in the kitchen. Her clear and concise recipe format helps her reader execute the recipe efficiently.
Book Review Summary
This is a great resources for those interested in learning more about cast iron cooking and cookware. I learned that I do not use mine nearly enough, and that just about any type of recipe can be made with them. This information is great for people who want to simplify their cookware, especially if space is at a premium. A few different sizes can do the work of an army of other pots and pans.
I had the opportunity to try Hillary’s recipe for date and raisin soda bread (p. 75) and served it for breakfast one morning. The recipe came together quickly and the bread quickly disappeared as grabby fingers reached for the moist and buttery slices from across the table. The recipe was very easy to follow, as are all of her recipes.
Overall, the book is very well done. Hillary’s expertise in French culture and cuisine is evident in the way she describes the recipes and the regions of France that created them. Hillary has a certain unmistakable warmth to her writing which is especially seen and felt as she takes us on a journey through her life and reminisces about the things she misses most.
This is a wonderfully written book that would not only make great reading but also great eating. Whether you choose to buy the book for yourself or give as a gift for someone else, you will find that the recipes transport you back to a simpler time — a time when meals were simmered for hours on back burners and vegetables were just pulled from the earth or off the vine.
This is the type of cuisine that cooks and chefs alike are desperately trying to resurrect. I applaud Hillary for capturing the essence of French cuisine in its purest form.
For more information on how you can purchase your own copy of Le French Oven, please visit Amazon for hardcover or kindle purchases.