Friday 14 November 2014

Elsa's midweek birthday and beef Wellington... and a confession

Elsa (left) with girlfriends and daughter.
You wouldn't have thought they'd have the energy to dance after a meal of Beef Wellington and sticky toffee pudding.
Elsa was the third person to ask that week. "Do you do beef Wellington?" Thing is, I didn't but I was beginning to think I should. Is that the confession. No? That would be dull.

When I started the restaurant it was as a fund raising exercise. To that end, and because I thought I was filling a market gap, I mainly offered slow cooked foods: cheap and often overlooked cuts - shins, shanks, cheeks and bellies - that deliver flavour through time and endeavour. I deliberately avoided the choice fillets and breasts. Partly this was about my own costs as I obviously can't offer a dish I haven't cooked and tried myself, but partly it was a principle; it's easy to take the MasterChef route and pan fry the flashy, expensive stuff but I wanted to do 'everyday ingredients differently'.

But Elsa was celebrating her birthday and (as she insisted) beef Wellington is a good dish to have in your repertoire - It's regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the king of English meat dishes - and I have been looking for a new beef offering. It's also nearly Christmas. Maybe more people would want to splash out on this poshest of pasties.

So I agreed. 

And splash out you have to. Be ready to empty the pool. The dish uses a centre cut fillet of beef, the most expensive part of the cow. This is where those delicious nuggets of fillet steak, medallions and mignons come from. And if you want your animal to be of good provenance and high welfare... be ready to part with at least £40 a kilo.

This is Mk 1 Wellington that I served to my family for Sunday dinner. There's too much pancake here and too thick a mushroom layer; I reduced both for Elsa's party.

That name - Wellington... there's no evidence that it was made for or even eaten by Arthur himself. In fact the dish may not have been invented in time for his Dukeship, dukedom, whatever. The earliest attested date cited by the Oxford Dictionary is 1939, in a New York restaurant guide. As with so many dishes, the history is as much a creation as the food itself.

Historic it may not be, delicious and rich it certainly is. Almost a meal in itself. The fillet is seared, coated in a paste of chopped mushrooms (duxelles), wrapped with something to keep in the meat juices - crepes, spinach or thin ham and finally encrusted in pastry. 

As this was my first time I decided to keep it classic. I used a recipe from Michel Roux Jnr. I'm a big fan of the Roux family and trust their recipes. The trouble with the classics is everyone wants to present their 'twist'. Perhaps it is wonderful (Gordon) with black pudding purée but I need a benchmark first. I was also going to serve it traditionally, with a port gravy, green beans and creamy potatoes dauphinoise.

This isn't a difficult dish. It has a bit of a rep I know but I expect much of that is the sheer cost. No one wants to waste a £55 fillet. It does have a fairly high faff factor. Let's take them in order.

This Wellington was enough to feed eight people.


The main event. Don't skimp, there's no point. This is a celebration dish. It should be luxurious and expensive. If you want cheap meat in pastry, Ginsters or Greggs will oblige - I know, I eat enough of the bloody things. I used a 1.2 kilo (after trimming) Aberdeen Angus beef, as ever, from Julian at Wades Hill Butchers.

Beef Wellington - NUDE!

One of the benefits of the fillet is that there's very little waste. You buy a kilo, you eat a kilo. But check it over. Remove fat or membranes and thumb into the meat to find and remove any sinew or gristle. Remember the beef is barely cooked if you serve it medium rare (AS YOU SHOULD) so there's no heat for this stuff to hide behind.

Searing the beef is really important. Note I said searing not sealing. You cannot seal meat with heat. Colour = flavour. Coat the beef in salt and black pepper. Don't just sprinkle a bit on the top. Press the seasoning in on every face. Sear the beef in a smoking hot pan with a neutral oil. Rice bran oil is good here because it has a very high smoking point. You're looking for deep, crusty brown tones. I went back over the joint with a blow-torch, just to be sure.

I brushed the fillet with English mustard, a Gordon Ramsey favourite, then wrapped it tightly in clingfilm and refrigerated. This helps to form a more cylindrical shape.


Next are the crepes, we can call them pancakes if you like, designed to be a barrier between juicy meat and crispy pastry. I decided to make my own crepes. Duh! Despite Michel advocating shop-bought. Crepes aren't hard and I added a good sprinkle of fresh thyme into mine.

Crepes. Shame you can't see the fresh thyme.
There's a deal of discussion on-line about the best wrap for the beef with many going for pancetta or even bacon. I think this is a mistake. If I pay for beef fillet, I want to taste beef fillet. These other meats are highly flavoured and will interfere. No porkiness here thanks. Crepes are traditional but I think even with ultra thin ones, they add too much sog. I did read about using filo pastry and I think I'll try that next time. It's crisp and impermeable.

My family Wellington was made with my usual two egg batter mix but I only used one egg for the restaurant meal; thinner batter meant lighter pancakes. These were well seasoned and I added a good handful of fresh thyme. Keep the pancakes layered with greaseproof paper if not using immediately.

Still can't see the thyme.
I overlaid three trimmed pancakes onto clingfilm and spread these with a thin layer of the mushroom duxelles...


A word I've never heard used before or since, duxelles is chopped or minced mushrooms. They have a word for every culinary eventuality those French. Here I added two chopped shallots. It's important to fry the mushroom mix without oil until it is fairly dry as that moisture (mushrooms are 90% water) will turn to steam and blow out of your delicate pastry case.

I used a punnet of chestnut mushrooms and two long shallots that had been sweated off in butter. I added a smidgen of double cream, just enough to make a paste, and a teaspoon of the truffle paste I use for my amuse bouche velouté.

Some specify a smooth paste but I agree with Michel Roux (like we chat all the time) in, advocating a textured mix. Some also add black pudding, chicken livers, various patés or even fois gras (I wish!) but I'm keeping it simple.

The cooled beef is wrapped in the duxelles coated pancakes. Again use clingfilm to roll the pancakes onto the meat and then secure them. Twist the ends of the clingfilm to make a tight cylinder and refrigerate again. The package must be cool before you encase with pastry.

Puff Pastry

And here comes the confession. I didn't make my own. I've had a go at puff before and it is a tedious thing, rolling and turning and folding. All in, it takes about two an a half hours. You do get a better rise from home-made but I bought some good, all butter blocks. I read that even Michelin starred restaurants buy in PP which helps me deal with the shame. But if you want to make your own, this recipe is excellent.

Sadly, the egg wash makes it look rather slimy. 

You'll need a sheet about 3mm thick (pound coin) from a 400g block. I used more for a leaf motif decoration.

Using more cling film, roll out the pastry until it's slightly wider than the meat and pancake parcel. egg wash the pastry liberally, this helps to glue the overhang in place, and place the meat at one end. Using the clingfilm, roll the meat up in the pastry (like a huge saus' roll) and cut off with only a slight overlap. Egg wash the seam and press together, thinning the pastry so you don't get a thick ridge. Ensure the meat parcel is tightly wrapped, big air pockets could blow out the pastry.

Now fold over the ends like a parcel, again with the egg wash. You can decorate the pastry with traditional scoring or with pastry cut outs. The scoring also allows the case to expand rather than split, as you can see below. I made pastry leaves. No idea why. None of this has anything to do with trees. Cover the outside pastry with an egg wash for a golden finish.

A pair of Wellingtons. The big beef and the little veg.

The Bake

The trickiest part of the Wellington is the bake. Without any means of testing the meat you have to trust the recipe. And you can't trust recipes because there are too many variables. Once you cut into it, you can't return it to the oven. OK, you can, but I can't in the restaurant. The ends, of course, will be more cooked than the middle. This gives you some serving flexibility; medium rare middle with medium ends. 

In other recipes that call for a 700-800g joint, the timings given were 30 minutes. Michel Roux's instruction for a 1kg piece was for 25 minutes at 180°C and a resting of 10 minutes. Mine being slightly larger at 1.2kg, I opted for 30 minutes... and reader, it was room temperature in the middle. The beef in a Wellington was always meant to be served rare but I swear you could still have milked that middle bit. I was lucky not to have served that to paying guests. 

For Elsa and Simon's party I increased the time to 38 minutes with an even longer resting time. This was much better - tender and pink. But you could even opt for 42 minutes if you like your meat medium rather than medium rare. A food probe should be showing the centre of the joint to be around the 48°C mark and the ends upwards of 50°C.

It was delicious. I was very pleased to see that both roasts came out without any leakage, meaning all the juices were either in the meat or the encasing crepe. Either way, no loss of flavour. The meat was wonderfully tender too.

Vegetable Wellington

One of the group that night was vegetarian (he still is I believe), so made an individual Wellington for him, replacing the meat with roasted celeriac, carrot and a little shallot. I thought these would pair well with the mushroom. He said it was delicious. 

The rest of the meal was a starter of roast beetroot, asparagus and goats cheese. Served for the first time with a dressing of lime and mint. Dessert was the winter favourite: STP. Sticky toffee pudding. Made not with suet but flour, dates and walnuts and baked not steamed but served sticky with toffee sauce and mascarpone.

I didn't think there'd be much inclination to dance after that much food but I was wrong.

Elsa texted me yesterday to say it was one of the best birthdays she'd ever had, which swells me with pride. And thank you Elsa for giving me the push I needed.

And if anyone else fancies a Christmas Wellington. Beef or vegetable? Or venison? Or rabbit loin...

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