The prime rib might be the King of the holiday table, but if I had to nominate one roast for the triple threat of Dictator-For-Life, President, and First Tiger, it'd be the Beef Wellington. Surely, there is no more decadent roast in the history of the post-Roman canon.
The origin of the dish is not exactly known, and there's not much primary research I can add to the wealth of theories that aren't already aptly covered by the Wikipedia article on the subject (tl;dr it might be named after the 1st Duke of Wellington, it might be a patriotic English name for a French dish, it might be named after a pair of shoes, or it may be from the land of Hobbits and Nelwyns). But we're not after pedagogical discussions of origin or etymology. We're interested in one thing, and one thing only: Deliciousness.
There's no doubt that Beef Wellington is delicious. How can it not be? The exterior is a light, crisp, buttery crust, glazed a deep, shiny golden brown, twinkling with crystals of sea salt. You slice through it to reveal layers of the finest ingredients in the Western world: slivers of prosciutto, a duxelles of wild mushrooms bound with cream, and finally foie gras, all encasing a core of medium-rare, buttery-soft beef tenderloin.
As the be-all-end-all to decadent roasts and as an absolute classic, is there really much we can do by way of improving the recipe? What exactly is there left to explore?
Well not all recipes need overhauls. Sometimes, a few tweaks here and there to bring out the best in each ingredient is all it takes. Let's go through the Wellington from the outside in.
What can we do with the beef? After all, tenderloin is tenderloin, right? And that's pretty much true. Of all the cuts on the cow, the tenderloin is perhaps the one that is least affected by grading and the varying levels of marbling (intra-muscular fat) that come with it.
See, with a rich cut like a ribeye or a flatiron steak, its flavor, juiciness, and tenderness are linked closely to their USDA grade. Prime beef will have more fat, be more tender, and (at least to most palates) be more tasty. Choice or Select meat, on the other hand, will be less juicy, tougher, and less flavorful.
A tenderloin, on the other hand, is a *very* lean cut no matter which steer it comes from. A tenderloin from a Prime-graded steer will not have significantly more fat than that from a Select-graded steer, thus the variance in quality in tenderloin is not that wide. That's OK. Tenderloin is emphatically not about fat and flavor. It's about tenderness. As one of the least utilized muscles on the steer, the psoas major remains small, underdeveloped, and tender throughout the steers life. This translates to a buttery tenderness on the plate.
It also translates to blandness. There's no two ways about it. A tenderloin is a bland cut. That's one of the reasons that Beef Wellington exists—take a bland but tender cut of beef, and try and pack as much flavor and fat around it as possible.
The start of this process is to sear it. Browning develops tons of new flavorful compounds that don't exist naturally in beef, giving it complexity and meaty depth. Tying the tenderloin at regular intervals with twine will help it keep a nice round shape as it sears, which improves both the appearance of the final dish, as well as leading to more even cooking.
How else can we add flavor? Well we'll get to the mushrooms and foie gras, but for now I'm going to employ an idea I got from Gordon Ramsay's version of Wellington: Mustard.
I'm not a fan of the angry chef, but when he's right, he's right, and mustard adds another dimension to the flavor of the final dish—acidity, lightness, and heat—that enhances and draws attention to its overtly rich primary flavors in a way that I find particularly appealing. I cut my mustard with a ton of horseradish to increase its bite.
Let's move on to the mushrooms. A duxelles is one of the oldest common preparations in the modern French cookbook—the original recipe goes back to the early 17th century. At its simplest, it consists of finely chopped mushrooms cooked down in butter with shallots into a thick, flavor-packed mass. It fills tarts and stuffs chickens, and in the case of a Wellington, completely surrounds our beef.
Again, at this stage, we're all about adding complexity and luxury to what is already a pretty luxuriously complex dish. How do we do it? Let's start by using a variety of mushrooms. As any mycophile or plumber from Brooklyn with a fetish for royalty can tell you, the variations of flavor in the Mushroom Kingdom are vast. Why settle for just one?
At a very minimum, I like to use three: button mushrooms, shiitake, and portobello. All are easily found in any supermarket, and all bring a little something to the party. If you want to get extra fancy, go ahead and use those oysters, chanterelles, morels, lobster, giant powderpuff, mousseron, or whatever else strikes your fancy. If you've got it in the budget, some chopped truffles stirred into the duxelles at the very end would not be unwelcome in this dish.
With the exception of using a food processor to chop the 'shrooms, our duxelles starts just like the classic. Mushrooms cooked in butter until they give up their moisture, then a handful of chopped shallots and chopped thyme that get cooked until soft. From here, let's move on.
We're already using tenderloin, mushrooms, and foie gras, why not throw in a bit more luxury? Some booze will do nicely.
I deglaze the pan with Cognac, though any high-proof, dry, barrel-aged spirit will do. Armagnac, applejack, bourbon, Scotch, even a dark rum, if that's what you'd like.
After adding some heavy cream (which reduces down and binds the mushrooms into a thick paste—the better to adhere to the meat with—I add a dash of soy sauce. Soy sauce, with its high levels of glutamic acid, is a natural umami-bomb. It makes things taste meatier, more savory. It makes the mushrooms taste more like mushrooms, if you will, and the tenderloin more like an entire steer and all of its flavor compressed down into a single tenderloin-sized package.
The Foie Gras
Traditional Beef Wellington recipes call for a pâté—often a foie gras pâté—of some sort to be smothered over the beef to add fat and flavor as it bakes. How can we improve upon this?
How about instead of using a pâté, we use real pieces of fresh seared foie gras? I sear off a few ounces of foie gras in a hot skillet, slice the slabs in half lengthwise, then layer them over the beef. As the dish bakes, the foie fat slowly renders, basting the beef in its juices so that when you slice into the finished Wellington, it oozes more juice than even a fatty prime rib roast.
And that rendered fat in the skillet you seared the foie gras in? Don't waste it! Into the mushroom duxelles it goes.
With all our elements in place, it's time to move on to the assembly phase.
For all its steps and ingredients, a Beef Wellington is really not a difficult dish technique-wise. There are only two real major problems that arise when you bake it. The first is keeping the puff pastry from turning soggy. What with all the fatty ingredients—the foie gras, the duxelles— there are plenty of juices that are trying to escape from within their puff pastry enclosure. These juices need to be contained to prevent the pastry from leaking.
The second problem is one of timing. Puff pastry takes at least half an hour to 40 minutes to properly brown and puff—more than enough time for a tenderloin to overcook.
Let's start with tackling the first problem: the moisture barrier.
The Moisture Barrier
There are a few common solutions to the problem, but I don't find either of them to be particularly attractive. The first is to wrap the beef in shingled layers of a raw cured ham (generally prosciutto). From a flavor standpoint, this idea is top notch. The ham melds very nicely into the foie and duxelles, and it does make wrapping the beef relatively simply. Thin sliced ham is like nature's Velcro in that way.
The problem is it doesn't really prevent moisture from leaking out. Indeed, as it cooks, it renders its own moisture, actually adding to the problem.
The other method is to make a thin crepe, then using that crepe to wrap the whole shebang. Again, the problem here is that it doesn't work all that well—the crepe dissolves, turns soggy, and on top of that, who wants to bother making a crepe when you're already committed to an hour + in the kitchen?
I suggest a much simpler, more effective, and time-saving alternative: A sheet of fillo dough.
It's pretty much custom made for the job. Fillo dough is ultra-thin (thus doesn't distract us with any unwanted flavors or textures), but quite strong, designed to wrap moist fillings without leaking. It's also available inexpensively in any supermarket.
I use a single sheet of fillo, shingle on my prosciutto, spread my duxelles over that, and we're good to go.
So long as your duxelles have cooled to a paste-like consistency, wrapping is relatively easy. The trick is to use a double layer of plastic wrap to help you out, exactly the same way you'd use a bamboo mat to make makizushi (sushi rolls). Indeed, the process is pretty much identical. The fillo/ham layer is your nori, the duxelles are your rice, and the beef/foie gras are your fish and vegetables. It's only the scale that's different.
I place the beef along the lower edge of the mushroom-covered fillo/ham, shingle the foie on top, then roll.
Once rolled, I re-wrap the whole thing as tightly as I possibly can in clingfilm, using several layers and twisting the ends. This step is absolutely vital, as it's what will determine the shape of the Wellington in its final form.
This is where we now address the second problem—not overcooking the meat while finishing off the pastry properly. To solve this problem, it's a simple as making sure that the beef is completely chilled before it gets wrapped. At this stage, the whole roll should go back into the fridge for at least half an hour, and up to a couple days to get it thoroughly chilled.
If you want to be a true food hero, you could make your own puff pastry (you overachiever, you). But I don't find it necessary when there are some excellent frozen puff pastry brands on the market.
Puff pastry (like pie dough) happens to be one of the foods that freezes best, losing none of its flavor or puffing ability during its stay in the freezer. The key to finding a good brand is to check the ingredients—the only fat in there should be butter, and there should be no artificial or natural flavorings of any kind. Butter provides enough flavor on its own, thanks.
I use Dufour brand puff pastry, which is pretty widely available.
Once the beef is chilled, it'll hold its shape very well, making wrapping it a snap. I roll out my puff pastry dough so that it extends a couple inches beyond either end of the beef roll, then brush it with egg wash. The key here is to make sure that the foie gras ends up on top and that the puff pastry seam ends up on bottom.
You can do this by laying the beef roll along the very bottom edge of the pastry with the foie on top, or by laying it in the position seen above with the foie on the bottom. Roll the pastry away from you until the seams meet, then trim them off with a knife.
If you've ever wrapped a present before, you know how to seal puff pastry dough. I start by folding in the sides, then folding down the top flap before using a knife to trim off the bottom flap. After repeating on both sides, I flip the whole thing over and tuck the flaps over, pressing them down so they adhere. The whole thing gets flipped back over again, then placed in the refrigerator for its final chill before baking. Again, it can be stored in the fridge at this stage for a couple of days, making Beef Wellington one of the more party-friendly dishes I know.
Just before it goes in the oven, I paint it with more egg wash (this will help give it a glossy sheen and deeper color), score it with a paring knife (for looks!), and sprinkle it with plenty of coarse crunchy sea salt to add some pretzel-like crunch to the pastry.
Baking and Carving
There's nothing worse than undercooked puff pastry—gummy and bland—to get good results, you must use a relatively high heat. This initial blast of high heat causes the moisture in the layers of butter within the pastry to suddenly expand, forcing the layers of pastry apart, and giving it its light, flaky texture.
You may think that what with our overcooked beef problem, high heat is not the way to go, but in fact, using higher heat will help cook the meat slower than a more moderate heat. How so?
Vapor makes a great insulator. That's why wooden houses have spaces within their walls, or how a Thermos manages to conserve its temperature so well. By causing the puff pastry to quickly expand, you introduce plenty of air space within its structure, which will in turn give it better insulative properties, allowing the beef within to cook more gently.
At 425°F, a chilled tenderloin will take between 30 and 40 minutes to reach an internal temperature of 110 to 120°F (rare to medium-rare, and you *are* using a thermometer, aren't you?), which is precisely how long you need to properly brown your puff pastry. Serendipity? I think not. Try careful planning and sound science!
As with any roast, you should let it rest a bit after coming out of the oven in order to help it retain its juices better when you slice it. And believe me, there will be juices. Precious juices.
Complex, beefy, buttery, oozing with juices, and packed with flavor, it's hard to get more decadent than this, my friends. But after all, isn't overindulgence, decadence, and a desire to shove everything you see into your gut before the New Year's resolutions roll around the whole point of the holidays?
Well that and family. Don't forget your family.