It’s hard to start off a cookbook with a disappointing dish.  And this one sounded so promising: layers of thinly-pounded beef, potatoes and onions, laced with butter and cream and baked in water bath for a couple of hours.  How could that go wrong?

And it’s not so much that it went wrong…it just didn’t go very right. 

Problem 1: it just may be that the 1-1/2 to 2 hours called for is not enough.  After 2+ hours all the components felt barely done and might have profited from another hour in the oven.

Problem 2: appearance.  Wow, a sad, monochromatic dish if ever there was one.  It reminds me of my first-grade school picture.  I had forgotten that it was picture day so instead of whatever Carmen-Miranda-style outfit I would have worn, I wore my least favorite drab brown dress.  When you look at my face in the picture my sartorial shame is overwhelming.  Sad face, sad dress, sad effect.  And that’s what’s happening here:

It’s like it’s in a witness-protection program.  It’s downright Soviet in its lack of vibrancy.  It’s really hard to get excited in the face of a dish whose primary culinary statement is “brown.”

To be fair, I might not have used the right cut of meat.  I’ve never seen anything called “boneless beef shoulder” but I found a beef chart that suggested that a chuck roast was from the same bovine neighborhood so that’s what I used.

The recipe also asks that you miraculously have two dutch ovens, one large enough to accommodate the other inside so as to create a water bath.  Who has that?  So I used my LeCrueset and just put it in a roasting pan filled with water.  Could the water be to blame?  Would this have cooked better with dry heat, like a traditional pot roast?  Or, again, did it just need more time? 

In my mind I envisioned more of a pot roast: fork-tender meat, melting potatoes, and caramelized onions.  Fail, fail, fail.  The flavor was not bad, which leads me to believe it can be fixed. And Amanda Hesser herself has cited it as one of her favorite dishes from the book, so there must be something I’m missing here and perhaps it’s worth another try. As I think about it, would this work better in a crock pot?

There’s not a lot out there about “Fricco” so I’m assuming this recipe, from 1877, may have represented the pinnacle of its American popularity.  But if anyone’s made this, or had it before, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what might have gone wrong.

If you’d like to try it yourself, the recipe is here.