Last spring, when I set out to cook sixty individual beef Wellingtons for a wedding, I realized that this classic dish of beef in pastry is the ultimate example of how to meld a juicy filling with crisp, flaky pastry. If you think of how delicious classic pastry dishes like chicken pot pie, apple pie, and turnovers are, you realize just how important the balance of juices and pastry is. With all of these dishes, and especially beef Wellington, the trick is to avoid a soggy crust, but to also make sure that some of the tasty juices do blend with the flaky pastry.
With this in mind, I set up my goals for the perfect beef Wellington: first, to achieve a crisp, flaky pastry rather than a soggy one; second, to meld the juices and flavors of the filling with the pastry; third, to cook the beef to a perfect medium rare; and finally, to have time for a cocktail with my guests. This last goal—time—is a crucial factor for home cooks, especially around the holidays. As luck would have it, when I developed my recipe for individual Wellingtons at the restaurant, I discovered a terrific way to make them ahead that also produces superior results. These mini Wellingtons (each serves one person) are assembled days ahead and kept frozen; they go straight from the freezer to the oven. The post-freeze cooking time is about 55 minutes, but you don’t have to do anything—you can even have two cocktails with your guests (or a nice leisurely first course).
A frozen Wellington cooks slowly to the perfect degree of doneness
Although I am not a proponent of frozen food in general, there are some dishes that do just fine when properly handled and packaged for freezing. This beef Wellington is a great example. The freezing technique achieves all the goals: I cook the frozen Wellingtons using high heat at first, which sets the pastry. Puff pastry must go from a very cold to a very hot environment for the “puff” to take place. (The puff comes from the steam released from melting butter.) After a short time, I lower the heat, which allows those juices to meld and crisps the pastry without overcoloring it. Meanwhile, the well-protected piece of beef in the center is happily coming just to temperature.
These terrific results start with good pastry. Traditionally, beef Wellington used to be wrapped in brioche, a rich, yeasty dough. But a more modern version uses puff pastry, which is a bit lighter. I am lucky enough to have the luxury of a brilliant pastry chef who makes gorgeous puff pastry. And you can, of course, make your own puff pastry, too (for a good recipe, see A Shortcut to Flaky Puff Pastry). But the great news is that this recipe works well with store-bought frozen puff pastry. Fine Cooking tested my recipe using frozen puff pastry, so the recipe below calls for it. The most important thing to remember when working with puff pastry is to keep it cold at all times, so that the butter doesn’t melt before it goes into the oven.
It’s also important to choose good beef and to sear it before it goes into the Wellington. To begin with, buy equal-sized 5- to 6-ounce portions of beef tenderloin. Ask your butcher to cut them from the center of the tenderloin (or buy a whole tenderloin and cut them yourself, reserving the rest for other uses). To prepare the filets for the Wellingtons, you’ll sear them in a very hot frying pan. First, season them very generously (don’t be afraid to rub in the salt and pepper) and be sure your pan is hot before you start cooking. Cook the filets in batches so that you don’t overcrowd the pan. Searing over high heat can be a bit messy, with oil sizzling all around the kitchen, but it’s worth it. The filets will get a rich brown crust (which adds flavor to the final product and also prevents too much juice from escaping into the pastry), and the center will still be rare (it will come up to medium rare in the oven).
I’ve chosen to be creative with the filling for my Wellingtons. A classic filling (really a layering over or under the beef ) for beef Wellington is a mushroom duxelles or foie gras, or both. For my filling, I decided on a combination of bold and fresh flavors—I started with portabella mushrooms and added caramelized onions, Maytag blue cheese, and fresh spinach for color, flavor, and texture. You can prepare all of these ingredients a day ahead of time to make the task of assembling the Wellingtons even easier.
Though it isn’t necessary, you can serve the Wellingtons with a sauce if you like. I like to make a fortified Cabernet sauce, because I think the high acid level helps to cut some richness and enhance the flavor of the beef and the cheese while balancing the sweetness of the onions. But this type of sauce is based on a veal reduction—much easier to make in a restaurant kitchen—and since the melting cheese and the beef juices tend to make their own sauce, you really don’t need anything else. If you do want to make a wine sauce, I recommend the Sauce Périgueux in The Joy of Cooking (older editions), or you can consult any classic French cookbook.
Get organized and assembly will go smoothly
After making so many Wellingtons, I realized that planning ahead and getting organized was the real key. First, read the recipe through several times. Decide what you’ll do ahead of time and how far in advance you’ll start. Also, consider how many you’ll want to make. The recipe makes six, but if you’re planning for a big party, you can always make more since they freeze so well. For the best results, assemble and freeze the Wellingtons at least one day and up to seven days in advance.
On the day of assembly, have your mise en place ready. This is one time when having everything in its place really makes a difference. When you take a round of puff pastry out of the freezer, you’ll want to move relatively quickly to assemble the package so that the pastry doesn’t get too warm. So have all your ingredients—beef, onions, spinach, cheese, and mushrooms—divided into portions and arranged around your work area. Be sure that all your ingredients (not just the pastry) are well chilled. Once you start assembling, don’t fret too much about what the packages look like; each one will look better than the last, and they’ll all look gorgeous when they’re baked. You’re going to love them, and so will your guests.