Beef Wellington

Traditional holiday meals usually involve some form of turkey or ham. Sure, they’re good and all, but ham is a salt bomb and turkey needs a salt bath (aka a brine) to be edible. Because the traditional meats are… well… sub-par (sorry, but they are), we rely on side dishes. Honestly, the sides are always better than the “main” dish.

So that’s good and all, but not for me. In my house, the traditional holiday meal is beef wellington. I say it’s “traditional,” but we’ve only actually done it for three years (counting this one). But I can tell already that it’s THE holiday meal for us, hands down.

Wellingtons are… intimidating. I get it. Not everyone wants to blow a bunch of cash on a meal they may have never even tried before that they don’t feel confident in pulling off correctly. Because I’m overconfident (go big or go home), I jumped right in a couple of years ago and haven’t looked back. That said, the number of recipe variations out there are seriously overwhelming. The average person would throw up their hands and decide that they’d rather have a mediocre bird with overplayed sides and a store-bought pie. You know I’m not an average person.

After extensive recipe searching, combining, and tweaking, I finally have MY recipe for beef wellington. It. Is. Glorious. There are two ways you can do this – all on the day of, and have a frantic day that starts early and doesn’t stop until dinner, or my way. It takes around 3 days, but it’s leisurely. Simple. Beautiful. You should try it.

My family is going on vacation this year for Christmas (our usual wellington holiday), so I made it for Thanksgiving instead. Rejoice! My early holiday feast means that you have this recipe for YOUR Christmas dinner!

Before we get into it, I’ll preface by saying that there are three major steps to making the perfect wellington. I’m going to over-explain everything with a ton of pictures, so don’t worry, I’ve got your back. These steps are all simple when you break them down, made easier by doing them on different days, and combine on the plate to make something otherworldly:
The duxelle – the most amazing mushroom mixture you’ve ever tasted
The “wellington” itself – everything rolled up in puff pastry
The sauce – you never knew red wine could be so delicious (if you’re not into wine, or just aren’t into sauces, then this is optional)

Duxelle:

  • 1 pound mushrooms (any will do, but a variety is best)
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves (discard stems)
  • 1/2 c. minced shallot
  • 1/2 c. brandy
  • 1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 2 tsp soy sauce

Start this process 2 -3 days before your meal if you want this to be as easy as possible (or the morning of if you really like being stressed out). This year, I cleaned and chopped the mushrooms 3 days out, and cooked them 2 days out.

For my mushrooms, I like to use a base of white button mushrooms accented with cremini, oyster and shiitake. White mushrooms are good, but they have a pretty flat “mushroom” taste. Good, but adding in some variety really amps it up and gives it a more complex flavor.

Begin by cleaning your mushrooms. I like to just brush them off with a pastry brush, but if you’re a “scrub under water” type person, just make sure they are nice and dry before cooking. Moisture is not your friend here. This is another reason for choosing some fancy mushrooms – the really nice ones don’t grow very close to the ground, so there’s not much to clean.

That’s a lot of mushrooms!

Once they’re all ready to go, finely chop them all. If you don’t fancy finely chopping a pound of mushrooms by hand, feel free to use a food processor (just don’t go crazy and make a mushroom smoothie).

Seriously, that’s so many mushrooms. Feel free to chop them finer, but definitely not bigger than you see here.

Heat a bit of olive oil in a pan over medium-high heat, and when it’s shimmering add the mushrooms, shallots and thyme leaves. The mushrooms will go through a few phases during the cooking process – sweating, wet, “looks done,” and “actually done.”

We’re aiming for that final stage, where almost all of the moisture has evaporated and brown bits start sticking to the bottom of the pan.

When you’ve reached this stage, deglaze with your brandy (if you have a gas stove, add it off the heat – we’re not flambeing anything today). If you’re not familiar with the term, adding liquid to a pan that has brown bits stuck to the bottom is called “deglazing” the pan. Make sure that you’re scraping the bottom of the pan – the brown bits are where your flavor comes from. If you don’t do this before the brandy evaporates, your flavor will be trapped on your pan.

When the brandy is almost completely evaporated, add your cream and soy sauce. Stir continuously until the duxelle is thick and clumps together when you shake your pan. Remove from heat, season to taste with salt and pepper, and then transfer to a bowl, cover, and put it in the fridge.

Take a break. Your work for today is done.

Wellington:

  • beef tenderloin, 1.5 – 2 lbs
  • 1 – 3 sheets frozen filo dough
  • 3 – 4 oz thinly sliced prosciutto
  • 1 sheet frozen puff pastry
  • 1 egg yolk
  • dijon mustard
  • duxelle from the previous step

Start this process either the day before (my preference) or the morning of the big meal. Or right after you finish your duxelle if you like being rushed. This step is the most labor intensive, but please don’t be intimidated. We can do this together.

So I’ll start this by saying, yes, if you’re me you’re probably wondering “Why aren’t you making your own dough?” And yes, I’m aware that I’m probably one of the only people (besides my sister) thinking that right now. The reason? You’ve got enough going on. Frozen filo and puff pastry come in a box with several sheets, and you can use the extra for some delightful appetizers while you’re waiting on your wellington to be ready. Spend your extra time working on that if you’ve got time on your hands and a hungry crowd.

That said, frozen puff and filo (or phyllo – nobody seems to know how it should be spelled) take a while to thaw before they’re usable. Take the filo out of the freezer now, and set it on the counter. Don’t worry if you’re thawing the whole box and only need 1 sheet – you can re-freeze whatever you don’t use. The puff pastry will be used a little later on, so we’ll leave it frozen for now.

We begin the tenderloin prep by looking at it. If your tenderloin looks pretty much the same size all the way down, you’re in good shape. If you notice that your tenderloin is narrower at one end, you’re going to need to fix that with some butcher’s twine. You basically want to fold the narrow end back on itself so that the meat is approximately the same diameter for its entire length.

Next, you’ll want to look at how round it is. The ideal tenderloin would be a perfect cylinder. If it’s flattened in some parts, or at all uneven, that will impact how evenly it gets cooked. You don’t want it medium in some spots and rare in others. Bring out the butcher’s twine again and tie it up nice and tight every inch or two. When it’s all tied up, and as close to a perfect cylinder as you’re going to get, you have two options. If it looks great, then proceed to the next step. If it’s still looking a little “meh,” then wrap it up TIGHTLY in plastic wrap and leave it in the fridge for a few hours, up to overnight, to set its shape. If you decide to refrigerate it for more than 30 minutes or so, put your filo back in the freezer – it should come out about 30 minutes before you move on to the next step

Next, you’re going to season the entire loin, string and all, with salt and pepper (dry it with a paper towel first if needed). Then put it in the fridge, uncovered, for the next few minutes while you heat your pan. This is going to seem strange, because the perfect steaks are cooked from room temperature, but we do NOT want to cook anything today. We’re just trying to brown the outside while keeping the inside raw.

Heat a pan (cast iron if you have it) on high with a little olive oil. When the oil is seriously hot (we’re talking just shy of smoking, here), you’re going to put your tenderloin in the pan. Cook each side for about 60 seconds, up to 2 minutes, until each side is nicely browned. If it’s sticking to the pan, it’s not brown enough yet. The meat will release the pan when it’s ready to be turned. The twine should stay in place throughout this process.

So what’s up with that? Why are we pretending to cook it, knowing full well that the inside is still completely raw? Flavor. It’s all about flavor. Searing the outside develops a flavorful crust on the meat that both locks in moisture and tastes amaaaazing.

The Maillard reaction at its finest

When your tenderloin is sufficiently browned, remove it from the pan and let it cool. When it’s cool enough to handle, REMOVE THE TWINE (seriously, you don’t want to take a bite of that) and brush the entire loin with a layer of dijon mustard. You don’t want it to be too thick, but it should definitely be visible.

It might seem weird, but I promise it’ll be good.

Put your dijon’d tenderloin back in the fridge, uncovered, to chill (the fridge is your friend when it comes to a wellington), and to dry out the mustard a bit. Too much moisture in the layers will cause the pastry to be soggy.

Now is a good time to take your puff pastry out of the freezer.

Next, prepare a double layer of plastic wrap. Why a double layer? Because if it tears at any point then you’re in trouble. So please, double it up. Learn from my mistakes. You want your plastic wrap to be roughly 2 feet long. It’s better to error on the side of being too long than too short. Position it in front of you with the short end facing you.

Take 1 sheet of filo dough (it’s like holding wet tissue paper, and will tear if you look at it sideways – make sure it’s completely thawed, and be gentle) and place it on your plastic wrap with the short end closest to you (do what I say, not what I do – I put it down sideways) about 6 inches from the end in front of you. If you tear it, go ahead and put another sheet of filo on top of it. If it tears a lot, let it thaw a bit more and/or add another layer. Don’t go more than 2 or 3 deep, though.

So what’s the purpose of a painfully delicate layer of super thin dough? What possible purpose could it serve? The filo pastry will act as a moisture barrier for your wellington. It doesn’t interfere with cooking times since it’s so thin, it won’t impact the taste or texture (you’ll barely notice it’s there), but it will keep your puff pastry nice and crisp. No soggy dough here.

As I mentioned, I put mine down the wrong way. If you’re wondering if filo actually makes a difference, scroll to the very bottom of this post to see what happened to mine. It’s fine, but the puff pastry burst near the bottom at the exact point where my filo didn’t make it all the way around. The moisture barrier is real.

Next, shingle your prosciutto on top of the filo dough. Make sure that each piece overlaps with its neighbor, and keep about a 2″ border of filo ham-free on the top and bottom, but go right up to the sides. I forgot to do this myself, and don’t forget that mine is sideways (I’ll try to remember to fix my pictures next year). If nothing else, we’re learning today that it’s okay if you mess something up, because it’ll still turn out delicious.

Take your duxelle out of the fridge, and spread it evenly on your prosciutto. Try to be as neat as possible, and make sure it all stays contained within the filo.

It’s really more “squashing with the back of a spoon” than spreading, but you get the idea. This is one reason why we leave a bit of filo dough exposed, because now the filo has no way of sticking to itself when you roll it up. Oops.

Now, take your dijon’d tenderloin from the fridge and place it on the bottom edge of the prosciutto/mushroom layer. Carefully roll it up, using the plastic wrap to tighten as you go, until the entire thing is wrapped up. Take another (yes, this would be your third) piece of plastic wrap and wrap it up again very tightly, twisting the ends to hold it in place. Put it back in the fridge.

At this point, you should have your seared tenderloin, smothered in a thin layer of dijon, followed by an even layer of duxelle, prosciutto, and finally a layer of filo. If the filo doesn’t seem to be staying together very well, that’s okay. The important part is that it’s on there. Keep it in the fridge for about a half hour (longer is okay) to give it time to stick together and hold its shape.

If you plan on cooking today, JUMP AHEAD AND START YOUR SAUCE. Seriously. This sauce can finish early, but you do NOT want it still cooking when your wellington is finished. If you’re cooking tomorrow, then keep reading.

While it’s chilling (and your sauce is going if you’re cooking today), check your puff pastry. It should be cold but pliable. Don’t fight with your pastry – if it doesn’t want to listen to the rolling pin, stop trying and just let it sit. A frozen puff will break if you try to unfold it too early (if it does crack, it can be mended once it’s thawed). If it seems warm or super soft, pop it in the freezer for a few minutes. The cold butter in the dough is what makes it puff, so don’t let it get too warm. Put a sprinkle of flour on your work space, and get out one sheet of puff pastry. The other one can go back in the freezer if you don’t have other plans for it. Use a rolling pin to roll it out into a size that looks like it could hold your tenderloin. If you need to get it out of the fridge to play around and make sure the size is right, go ahead. Keep in mind that it’s ok to make it too big, but you’re in trouble if it’s too small.

Make sure it’s the right size before you take off the plastic.

When your tenderloin is sufficiently cold (let it cool for at least 30 minutes), beat one egg yolk with about a teaspoon of water in a small bowl. SAVE YOUR EGG WHITE. With a pastry brush, brush the entire puff pastry dough with your egg wash. This will help it to stick to the filo without forming unseemly air bubbles. Carefully begin to unwrap the tenderloin from the plastic, leaving around half of it still wrapped. Be gentle with it – that filo is a fickle beast. Speak soothing words of encouragement to it.

Next, carefully roll your duxelle-prosciutto-filo-wrapped tenderloin from the remainder of your plastic onto your puff pastry (you only get one chance, so center it the best you can) and roll it up. The seam should be on the bottom of the roll. Leave enough pastry to have a slight overlap (we don’t want it coming apart), but cut off any excess. One layer of puff pastry is plenty. On the ends, fold the sides of the puff pastry into the middle, and then fold the top and bottom flaps in like you’re wrapping a present. Cut off any excess, and feel free to use more egg wash to glue it together.

When you’re done, PUT THE EGG WHITE BACK WITH THE YOLK and save the egg wash in the fridge for later (cover if you’re not cooking until tomorrow).

Now, if you’re doing this on the day of, you’re just about ready to cook – hop ahead to the next step. If you’re not eating until tomorrow, then wrap it in plastic wrap (no need to be quite as aggressively tight as before) and pop it in the fridge.

All wrapped up for tomorrow

If you’re stopping here and waiting until tomorrow to cook, then make sure you START YOUR SAUCE ON THE DAY OF YOUR MEAL AT LEAST THREE HOURS BEFORE THE NEXT STEP (unless you’re skipping the sauce) – remember, it’s okay for the sauce to finish early, but you do NOT want your wellington getting cold while you’re waiting for the sauce to finish.

If you’re ready to cook, then put it back in the fridge while you preheat the oven to 450℉ (unwrap and put back in the fridge if you made it yesterday). When the oven is the proper temperature, remove the wellington from the fridge and paint the entire pastry with the egg wash you saved from before. Use a sharp knife to lightly score the pastry (cut lines in the surface of the dough, but do not cut through it – don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world if you do cut through it).

The burrito is ready.

So why did we use just the yolk with water before, and now we’re using both the remaining yolk and the white? The egg yolk/water mixture is super sticky and helps the puff pastry hold together. When applied to the outside of the pastry, the yolk helps it to brown and the white makes it shiny and beautiful.

Bake until the center of the wellington registers 130℉ on a digital thermometer for medium rare (the temp will continue to rise as it rests). This can take anywhere from 30 – 50 minutes, depending on how cold it was when it went in the oven. Either invest in a thermometer that you can leave in the oven, or check it every few minutes once you reach the 30 minute mark. The final product should be puffed and golden brown.

Tasty. And when photographed from this angle, you can’t even see where my filo didn’t line up on the other side. Oops.

Let it rest for 10 – 15 minutes before cutting. The ends will have too much dough (some of which might be undercooked), and overcooked meat. That’s fine, and can’t be avoided. Start cutting from the middle, and discard the ends when you get to a part that’s overcooked (usually only an inch or so on each side). Yum!

SAUCE:

  • 1/2 lb beef trimmings (ask your butcher – they keep it in the back)
  • 1/2 c. minced shallot
  • 6 black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 – 3 fresh thyme sprigs (1 big one with branches, or 3 small “singles”)
  • a splash of red wine vinegar
  • a bottle of red wine
  • a box of beef stock (32 oz)

First off, let me say that this sauce is optional. I, as a red wine lover, love this sauce. My husband, not so much. He doesn’t think it’s bad (he poured it over both helpings of his dinner), but he’s not in love with it like I am.

Beef trimmings are the only ingredient you might have trouble with. My local grocery store doesn’t technically sell it (because throwing it away is easier), and once it hits the garbage you’re SOL. You may have luck calling ahead and asking them to save you some, or, if they don’t have any at the moment and you don’t feel like waiting until they cut up another cow, then you can do what I did this time and buy a “beef bone for soup.” It’s basically the same concept, if a bit more clunky to work with. Just make sure there’s a decent amount of “good stuff” on it (fat, a little meat, some connective tissue – nothing you’d want to eat, but that’s where the flavor is).

Well that looks… unappetizing

The red wine is the next hurtle. It seems easy enough – just buy a bottle of red wine. But here’s the problem – we’re going to be cooking it down for a long time, which will concentrate all the flavor. This sounds like a good thing, and it is (that’s why we’re doing it), but reducing a wine tends to bring all its worst qualities to the forefront. Too bitter, too sweet, too tart, too dry. In general, I’d recommend avoiding anything that’s been aged in oak, because they tend to turn bitter when cooked for a long period. If a wine is boring to drink, it’s going to make a boring sauce. My favorite? Côtes du Rhône. It’s a blended wine that typically contains several types of grapes (all from the same region of France), meaning that it’s balanced and well rounded. It makes a fantastic sauce.

Strangely enough, I don’t actually think this is a good drinking wine (for me). But it makes a damn good sauce.

Okay, so let’s get into this! First, you need to heat some olive oil in a large sauce pan over high heat. When the oil is shimmering, add your beef trimmings (or bone) and get it nice and brown all over. We’re looking for a good sear, because that’s where all the rich, beefy flavor comes from. Next, turn the heat down to medium and add your shallots, peppercorns, bay leaf, and thyme sprig. Stir until shallots are golden brown.

Deglaze your pan with a splash of red wine vinegar. Just enough to scrape up all the tasty bits from the bottom of your pan. When it’s almost dry, pour in your red wine. If your pan isn’t big enough for the entire bottle, you can add half and add more as it reduces. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer.

Here’s the tricky bit about this sauce – you’re going to be tempted to crank up the heat and boil the living snot out of it until it’s reduced. Don’t do that. Wine will literally change flavor as it cooks. At low temperatures, the taste change is minimal and can be pleasant. At prolonged high temperatures, such as when you’re boiling it for an extended period, it will turn bitter. Real bad. Just don’t do it. We want a nice, happy simmer, but you should not have anything going on in this pan that you might call a “boil.”

When the entire bottle of red wine has almost completely reduced (around a cup remaining, or less if you’re more patient than me), add in your box of beef stock. Again, if there’s not room in the pan for the whole box, feel free to add the rest once you have room in the pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer. We’re still worried about the wine turning bitter if it boils for too long, so keep the temperature low. We’re going to simmer this for about an hour, or until it’s reduced to about 1 cup of liquid.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but you may, at some point, see something floating at the top of your pot that resembles… how shall I say… scum. This is not uncommon whenever you’re cooking with trimmings or bones. It’s fine. I have no idea what it is, but it happens. Skim it off the surface, throw it out, and keep at it.

At this point, you can strain your sauce (a mesh colander is easiest), taste it, and season with salt and/or pepper if needed. If you’re not happy with the consistency, you can put it back on the heat and thicken it with a little corn starch (about a teaspoon of starch dissolved in an ounce of cold water). The final sauce should have the consistency of a thin gravy. I also like to finish my sauce with a pat of butter, but this is entirely optional.

Make sure the sauce is nice and hot when you’re serving it over the wellington. Seriously, so good.

Was it worth it?

Yes.

And a stunner like this doesn’t need any fancy sides. I went with roasted Brussels sprouts and a potato and parsnip puree. Magic.

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