Sunday dinner was looming, and this was an important one, celebrating my lovely wife's birthday with a large contingent of family. I offered to prepare the feast. "What would you like?" I asked. "Beef Wellington," came the reply. At first it was a jest—this is a complex, difficult dish, a tenderloin of rare beef wrapped like a Christmas gift in a cloak of puff pastry, with treasures buried within. But I enjoy a challenge, and I like to cook. Game on.
To prepare Beef Wellington, one must first understand Beef Wellington, and at first glance it seems like an impossible dish, the meat version of a ship in a bottle. How do you get rare steak within crispy pastry? It's a famous dish, taught in culinary school, and its origins are contested. Some claim it was named for the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon in 1815. Others say that's bunk.
"The origin of this classic dish is hugely debated," says Chef Ashfer Biju, who added Beef Wellington to the menu at his Perrine restaurant at The Pierre Hotel in New York City. "Our recipe dates back to the early 1940s where this dish made its grand entrance on the New York food scene and was made very popular. I have repeatedly seen a statement that the dish has got nothing to do with Duke of Wellington."
There is even confusion over how it is made. The traditional Beef Wellington combines beef, a minced mushroom creation known as duxelles and paté with puff pastry, served with a rich sauce, while British chefs such as Gordon Ramsay prepare a version with prosciutto, which they dub "Parma ham." Ham and beef are odd bedmates in my book, so I stuck with tradition. My journey began.
My first step was preparing the duxelles, which are minced mushrooms that are squeezed dry of their water, then cooked long and slow with shallots and butter, resulting in a fine texture and intense flavor. It's not a quick process. After that, I seared the meat, an entire filet mignon. You just want a touch of color on the outside, and you must not overdo the meat; chef Biju recommends stopping at 110 degrees, which is quite rare. (It will be cooked more later.) The meat is then cooled to room temperature. While the meat is resting is a fine time to start your sauce; I opted for a classic French brown sauce from The Joy of Cooking, a decadent combination of shallot, butter and beef broth—make your own, it's not hard—which always is a hit. And don't worry about all the butter; Beef Wellington is definitely a cheat-day dish. Have salad the next day. Or for the next week perhaps.
When the beef is cool, you begin assembly. Roll out your puff pastry, place a thin layer of duxelles upon it and then put the beef on top. A smear of paté on the beef (chef Biju opts for mustard instead, giving it a lighter character), then a thicker layer of duxelles, followed by the wrapping of the pastry. Slice vents, like a loaf of bread, then pop into the oven (which you remembered to preheat) and cook for about 12 minutes at 375 degrees. You want medium rare meat and golden brown pastry.
Wellingtons made by pro chefs look gorgeous, perfectly pink and tender meat cloaked in a tightly fitting wrapping of pastry. "It sells out in no time," says Chef Biju.
And my amateur Wellington? The steak was properly pink, the flavors sublime, but the pastry looked a little deflated. It was a hit nonetheless, and my wife was suitably happy. While it wasn't a picture-perfect moment for my Wellington, with a little practice it's certain that this dish won't be your culinary Waterloo.