November 26, 2018
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Beef Wellington Isn’t Scary
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No, you’re not going to destroy an entire tenderloin. Yes, everything is better wrapped in puff pastry.

Beef tenderloin is one of the most luxurious hunks of meat that money can buy. Riding high on the cow, it’s a gentleman’s muscle. It’s soft and tender enough to cut with a butter knife, and it really needs no embellishment. But rolled in mushroom duxelles and wrapped up in golden puff pastry, the result is something even better: beef Wellington. And with a little bit of careful groundwork, it’s not quite so daunting as you might think.

The dish is likely named after the first Duke of Wellington, a long-nosed Irishman who conquered Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and apparently liked his roast dinners. It’s not entirely clear whether Wellington actually ate the dish or simply served as its inspiration. The duke also popularized some pretty dashing rain boots, and some claim the beef resembles the shape of the boot, which seems like a pretty big leap. The French also have a suspiciously similar filet de boeuf en croȗte. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first mention of the British counterpart in literature wasn’t made until the late 1930s, in New York.

Regardless of the exact origin, beef Wellington is quintessentially British and derives from a long history of wrapping meat in pastry. For centuries, the British have used pastry to store and transport meat, from medieval pies traveling long roads to Cornish miners trying to keep out the coal dust. Eventually, necessity turned into good eating, and today, pies are piping with nostalgia. “Every time you eat a savory pie, it transports you back to your family table,” says Calum Franklin, executive chef at the Holborn Dining Room in London. “It’s an ingrained part of our culture. To me, Wellington is one of the most important British dishes, the centerpiece of a celebration, intended for sharing, and quite comforting.”

Wellington may have a stiff reputation—military commanders, fancy hotels—but it’s actually worth making at home (and not as hard as you think) for a special occasion. The most daunting part is working with puff pastry, getting a tight roll, and achieving the golden crust without sabotaging your expensive steak. Most cooks either undercook the pastry or overcook the beef. But Franklin insists that you can handle this as long as you pace yourself.

A few words of wisdom, before going into battle: “Don’t expect to come home from work and knock it out for dinner,” cautions Franklin. “Give yourself two days.” On day one, prep the components, searing the steak, sautéing the mushrooms, steaming the spinach, and making the crepes. On day two, assemble, roast, rest, and carve.

For the beef, look for a trimmed center-cut fillet, season it well with salt and pepper and rub with vegetable oil, and then gently roll it through a smoking-hot pan for less than a hot minute, just to pick up a bit of color—you’re not cooking through. For the puff pastry, don’t be a hero. You can totally use store-bought. It doesn’t even have to be fancy and French, because all-butter pastry can be unpredictable, whereas a little bit of vegetable oil lends structure. Not all recipes agree on the fillings, and there are variations on both sides of the pond, with paté, wild mushrooms, even prosciutto.

Franklin is a purist, focusing on traditional English flavors, with a swipe of hot mustard and a bit of mushroom and spinach in every bite. Franklin rolls out steamed spinach between thin, absorbent kitchen towels (J-cloths), a brilliant maneuver that dries and flattens in one stroke. Above all, the pancake is your secret weapon. A savory crepe serves two purposes, wrapping as snugly as a burrito, as well as locking in moisture so that it doesn’t seep into the outer pastry and make it soggy.

Finally, let the mighty rest in peace. “The greatest disappointment is rushing in, cutting too soon, and watching the juice bleed out,” Franklin warns. “A big cut of meat needs to relax for at least half an hour. I promise, your beef will be pink throughout.” This would be an ideal moment to make a gin and tonic and sharpen your weapons. You want a very sharp serrated knife to slice through golden pastry and pink steak to victory.

Beef Wellington

Beef Wellington

4-5 servings

Ingredients

  • For the savory crepes:
  • 1 ⅓ cup low-fat milk
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • For the mushroom duxelles:
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 ½ pound button mushrooms, finely chopped
  • ½ cup Madeira
  • 2 shallots, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch thyme
  • 1 pound baby spinach
  • 2 pounds thick center-cut beef fillet, trimmed of any sinew
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 pound puff pastry
  • 2 tablespoons English mustard
  • 3 egg yolks beaten with 1 tablespoon water
  • Flaky sea salt for sprinkling

Welly recipes vary. Sometimes they include pȃté de foie gras, duxelles made from wild mushrooms or truffles, even prosciutto replacing the pancake. But Calum Franklin of the Holborn Dining Room is a pie purist. He focuses on traditional English flavors, with grassy beef, buttery pastry, a swipe of hot mustard, and a bit of mushroom and spinach in every bite. Serve with roast potatoes and a simple gravy of meat juices and red wine.

  1. To make the savory crepes, whisk together the milk, egg, and flour until smooth. Whisk in 1 tablespoon (20 g) of the melted butter and season with salt and pepper. In a large nonstick frying pan over medium-low heat, rub a little of the remaining butter around the pan. Carefully pour in just enough batter to make a thin crepe about 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Repeat until you have 4 crepes.
  2. To make the mushroom duxelles, return the pan to high heat, and warm 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Add the chopped mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Cook until there is no moisture left in the mushrooms. Add the Madeira and reduce to a gentle simmer. In a small pot over medium heat, warm 1 tablespoon vegetable oil, and sweat down the shallots, garlic, and thyme until soft. Add to the mushrooms. When the Madeira has completely reduced and the mixture is almost dry again, remove the pan from the heat and let cool.
  3. Put a thin, absorbent kitchen towel (J-cloth) onto a plate, and pile the raw spinach on top, building a rectangle about 6 by 8 inches (15 by 20 cm) and using about one-quarter of the spinach. Lay another lightly dampened towel on top, and microwave for 1 minute on full power. Remove from microwave, and roll out any excess moisture with a rolling pin. Repeat the process to steam, dry, and flatten all of the spinach.
  4. Generously season the beef fillet with salt and pepper, and then rub all over with the 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Preheat a frying pan over high heat. When pan is smoking hot, carefully add the beef fillet and sear all over for about 20 to 30 seconds, just to get a little color.
  5. The crepes, duxelles, spinach, and steak can be prepared a day in advance, and wrapped and refrigerated until ready to assemble.
  6. When ready to assemble, on a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff pastry to a rectangle about 12 by 16 inches by (30 by 40 cm). Transfer to a baking tray lined with parchment paper and let rest in the fridge. Save any remaining pastry in the fridge for decoration.
  7. On a clean, flat work surface, put down a large piece of plastic wrap, and push out any air bubbles with a cloth. Lay down the crepes, overlapping them and trimming the edges to make a rectangle about 10 by 14 inches (25 by 35 cm). Lay down the spinach, leaving a 1-inch (3-cm) border at the edge. Spread the mushroom duxelles on top and carefully pat down.
  8. Rub the beef fillet all over with the English mustard. Place the beef fillet on top of the mushroom duxelles, and lifting the plastic wrap along the front edge, roll everything like a burrito, tucking in the ends and using the plastic wrap to tightly seal. Once the package is secure, wrap tightly with several more layers of plastic wrap. Pop into the freezer for 10 minutes.
  9. Remove the pastry from the fridge. Gently dust off any excess flour, and brush liberally with egg yolk wash. Remove the Wellington from the freezer, and remove and discard the plastic wrap. Place it on top of the pastry, and roll the pastry upward, keeping it tight, until the seam crosses with about 1 inch (3 cm) of overlap. Trim off any excess. Crimp down the ends and trim so there’s just enough to tuck under. Brush the Wellington all over with the egg yolk wash.
  10. If you like, you can use the remaining pastry for decoration. Use a lattice roller-cutter or a paring knife to create any design you like and attach to the outside of the pastry. Brush all over with the egg yolk wash and sprinkle with flaky sea salt. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before cooking.
  11. Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C) on the convection setting. Bake until the pastry is golden and a thermometer inserted in the center reads 105°F (40°C), about 40 minutes. Slide the Wellington onto a cooling rack and rest for at least 25 minutes.
  12. Slice the Wellington with a sharp serrated knife, and serve with gravy and roast potatoes.

Becky Duffett

Becky Duffett is a writer, editor, and cook living in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in Eating Well, Healthyish, Taste, The Kitchn, and Eater SF. She was previously a Williams-Sonoma cookbook editor and the nutrition editor at Fitbit, and is currently a senior editor Good Eggs, developing dinner kits.

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