I always like to offer some background on the origins of any renowned dish I cook. However, my vast cookbook collection remains suspiciously silent on the subject of beef wellington. Even the gastronomic tome Larousse doesn’t contain so much as a whisper on the subject.
This seems odd for a dish which has been a dinner party staple (along with the ubiquitous prawn cocktail) for decades. The internet, of course, is a more fruitful source of information although most of the sites I looked at seemed to concur that the dishes link to the eponymous Duke of Wellington are tenuous to say the least.
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of beef wellington. Individually, I like all the elements that make up the dish. Fillet of beef, puff pastry, pancakes, duxelles and pâté. I just find them contrived when combined (rather like the efforts of the 1960s hostess trying to impress her husband’s boss). It’s fiddly to prepare and seldom looks as pretty on the plate as it ought once it’s been carved. It’s also devilishly easy to over cook and can end up as being as tough as a rubber welly. I’ve always found it to be a leaden filling to what could otherwise have been quite a light and graceful three course meal. I’d far rather have a rare fillet steak with béarnaise sauce or a slow cooked steak and kidney pudding than beef wellington any day of the week. But it’s the last item on the ‘list’ so I am destined to tackle it.
Below is my recipe for a relatively conventional beef wellington. Would the Duke of Wellington approve? Probably not. According to Clarissa Dickson Wright* he was in the habit of pouring vinegar all over his food, much to the dismay of his French chef. But what did he know?
*Author of A History of English Food.
Serves 4 – 6
You can prepare this in advance and leave it in the fridge for a couple of hours or so before you are ready to cook it. Remove it from the fridge about 30 minutes before you place it in the oven.
- 1kg fillet beef
- A little vegetable oil
- 500g puff pastry
- 1 beaten egg to glaze
For the duxelles
- 500g mushrooms
- 2 shallots
- 50g butter
- 1½ tbsp wholegrain mustard
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
- salt and pepper to season
For the thyme pancakes
- 100g plain flour
- Pinch of salt and black pepper
- 1 egg
- 250ml whole milk
- 50g butter, melted
- 1 heaped tbsp chopped fresh thyme
- Small squares of grease proof paper
For the Madeira sauce
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 25g butter
- sprig of thyme
- 300ml Madeira
- 600ml beef stock
- salt and pepper to season
For the duxelles
- Roughly chop the shallots and mushrooms then blitz in a food processor until they are really finely chopped, (this will only take a matter of seconds).
- Heat the butter in a frying pan and gently cook the shallots and mushrooms until all of the mushroom liquid has evaporated.
- Stir in the parsley and mustard. Season to taste. Transfer to a bowl and place in the fridge until required. This is best made the day before you need it.
For the pancakes
- Sift the flour, salt and pepper into a bowl or large jug. Make a well in the centre then add the egg. Using an electric whisk beat the egg into the flour.
- Gradually add the milk to the egg and flour beating until you have a thick batter.
- Stir in 1tbsp melted butter (the rest of the butter will be used to grease the frying pan) and the chopped thyme.
- Heat a small frying pan (around 18cm in diameter) over a medium heat and coat the base with a little melted butter. I find the easiest way to do this is to take a couple of sheets of folded kitchen towel, dip them into the butter then wipe this over the base of the pan. Pour enough of the batter into the pan to just coat the base. After a minute or so flip or turn the pancake over to finish cooking it. Place it on a plate and cover it with a small piece of greaseproof paper. Repeat this process until you have used up all of the batter stirring the batter regularly to ensure the thyme is evenly distributed. This will give you more pancakes than you need but you can always freeze them for another day.
For the Madeira sauce
- Fry the onion in the butter until soft but not coloured.
- Add the thyme and Madiera. Bring to the boil and let it rapidly bubble until it had reduced by half.
- Add the stock. Bring to the boil and let it rapidly bubble until it had reduced by half again.
- Strain the sauce into a jug or saucepan and season according to taste. This can be made a day or two in advance. Gently reheat to boiling point before serving.
To finish the wellington
- Rub a little vegetable oil over the beef. Season all over with salt and pepper.
- Heat a frying pan or griddle until it is very hot. Sear the beef all over then remove from the pan and allow to cool while you prepare the pastry.
- Roll the pastry on a floured board into a rectangle that will generously cover the beef. Some people find it useful to do this on a very large piece of cling film to make it easier to roll the wellington later. The size of the rectangle will very much depend on the size of your beef fillet. Bear in mind that you will be coating the beef in the duxelles and the pancakes before you encase it in pastry. Brush the entire rectangle with a little beaten egg.
- Place 3-4 pancakes onto the pastry overlapping them as you go. The pancakes should stop your pastry from becoming soggy when the wellington is baked. Then spread around two thirds of the duxelles mix on top of the pancakes.
- Place the beef in the centre of the rectangle. Spoon the remaining duxelles on top of the beef then lay 2-3 pancakes on top of the duxelles.
- Carefully bring one side of the pastry rectangle up and over one of the long sides of the beef. Repeat with the other long side, creating a fairly tight parcel and ensure the pastry is sealed firmly on top. Flip the wellington over so that the seal is underneath the wellington now and seal the short sides. Don’t worry about how they look as you will be removing the pastry ends before you serve it. The important thing here is to ensure the meat is completely enclosed within the pastry parcel. At this point you could wrap the parcel in cling film and refrigerate for several hours before cooking it.
- When ready to cook pre-heat the oven to 200°C. Place the wellington on a baking tray lined with greasproof paper. Brush the wellington with beaten egg. I baked mine for 50 minutes and let it rest for around 15-20 minutes. This produced a wellington which was medium rare. If you prefer your meat rarer I would aim for a 40-45 minute cooking time but leave it to rest for the same amount of time. If you think the pastry is getting too brown during the cooking time reduce the oven temperature to 180°C.
- To serve, cut off the short ends of the wellington to reveal the meal. Slice into 4-6 portions and serve with the Madiera sauce and vegetables of your choice.