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My holiday tradition: Making a whole bunch of beef Wellington

By Kathy Saunders, Times Correspondent
SCOTT KEELER | Times Cook Kathy Saunders, St. Petersburg, assembles individual beef Wellingtons in her kitchen before baking them at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

For the past 20 years, my family has looked forward to a boat parade party hosted by some of our dearest friends. The hostess provides cocktails, appetizers, dinner, desserts and a trombone choir to perform from a balcony overlooking her pool. My favorite part of the evening, though, is always the tray of mini, homemade beef Wellingtons served before the main meal.

They are bite-sized bits of pure bliss.

My friend makes her own pastry for the hors díoeuvres, substituting traditional puff pastry for regular, savory pie dough. The beef is tender and the duxelles (a mushroom mixture) has just the right balance of flavors.

Beef Wellington is one of those show-stopping entrees that often looks harder to make it than it actually is. And while I love to eat food prepared by good cooks, the pastry-wrapped tenderloin of beef is one of my own favorite, go-to holiday meals. Maybe itís in my DNA, being born in England, where meat cooked inside pastry is a staple. Either way, itís a definite contender for Christmas Eve.

I first learned to prepare the dish while taking a yearlong cooking class in 2003. Even though we were taught the difficult regime of making puff pastry by layering thin sheets of butter and pastry and rolling and folding dough for what seemed like an eternity, our chef instructor gave us permission to substitute storebought pastry.

I have never felt guilty about continuing that practice. Our Tasterís Choice judges recently sampled four brands of puff pastry ranging in price from $3.24 to $9.99 for two sheets. All four would work for beef Wellington, and all four are available at local grocery stores. I generally use Pepperidge Farmís option (usually about $5.99 for a 17.3-ounce box of two sheets) because itís the easiest brand to find in the freezer at all my regular shopping spots.

Many companies also offer frozen beef Wellingtons online. I have ordered them from Williams-Sonoma and HoneyBaked Ham. But they are pricey. HoneyBaked Hamís three-pound Wellington sells for $94.95, not including shipping. At Omaha Steaks, individual 7-ounce beef Wellingtons sell for $24.75 each before shipping. And, Williams-Sonoma offers four 8-ounce portions for $99.95 plus shipping.

For my most recent beef Wellingtons, I bought a whole tenderloin (about 5 pounds) from Publix for $73.31. I walked up to the meat counter on a routine grocery run and asked the butcher to trim and tie the loin. Within 15 minutes, the beautifully wrapped package was waiting for me on the counter along with a pound and a half of ground beef from the trimmings. In the end, that tenderloin gave me three dinner entrees and a large tray of appetizers. (I used the ground beef in my homemade spaghetti sauce).

When I prepare my beef Wellingtons, I like to get everything ready and then do the assembling. First step is to make the duxelles ó a French-inspired mushroom mixture that coats the Wellingtons and offers a layer of texture between the meat and the pastry dough. In general, the duxelles is a blend of mushrooms (I use whatever looks good on the produce aisle, usually button mushrooms); onions or shallots (I prefer shallots because of the more intense flavor); garlic (1 to 2 cloves); butter; and fresh herbs (I usually use flat parsley or thyme). These are easy enough to chop by hand, but I use a food processor to make sure the pieces are minced because some members of my family arenít fans of mushrooms. Once I am finished with the duxelles, my relatives donít even realize they are eating mushrooms.

I saute the ingredients in a lot of butter and usually throw in a splash of white wine along with plenty of salt and pepper. When itís reduced into an almost paste-like texture, I set the pan aside. (Some fancier duxelles are made with spinach, duck liver or prosciutto.)

The puff pastry comes frozen but thaws easily if left in the refrigerator overnight. I roll it out on my stone countertops with plenty of flour to prevent it from sticking. For this latest cooking day, I made one whole beef Wellington with about 2.5 pounds from the center of the tenderloin. I also cut six (approximately 5-ounce) steaks from both sides of the center cut. All of the leftovers were chopped into bite-sized pieces for mini Wellington appetizers.

Before I start the assembly, I sear each piece of meat in a very hot pan on the stove. I use a little butter or cooking oil. I make sure I sear each side to give the meat a good color when itís cut and more flavor and crust on the outside of the steaks.

The assembly goes like this: I wrap one pastry sheet around the larger tenderloin, usually folding the pastry around the meat and tucking it in on the sides. I use an egg wash to hold the pastry together, like glue. I save all the trimmings from the pastry. The scraps of leftover pastry are perfect for making cutouts to decorate the Wellingtons. In cooking class, we learned how to roll the scraps into rosettes. These days, I use tiny cookie cutters (available at most cooking supply stores) to add leaves, stars, pumpkins or other seasonal decorations. I dip the entire cutout in egg wash to attach it to the tops of the steaks.

Next, I roll out the second sheet to give me enough pastry for the six individual steaks. You can use a pattern such as a small plate or biscuit cutter, but I just eyeball it. Sometimes, I cut off any huge bulges of pastry on the bottom, but you need enough to make sure the entire steak is covered by the pastry. I do the same routine with the mini beef Wellingtons, searing the steak pieces and using a dab of duxelles in each little bundle.

Wellingtons can be made a day ahead of time and baked off just before guests arrive. On this baking day, I decided to freeze the mini Wellingtons and save them for a holiday cocktail party. They can be baked from frozen in a 400-degree oven in about 15 to 20 minutes.

A couple things to remember: When making the individual Wellingtons, be sure to watch the portion size. I have made some with larger steaks and watched my guests labor to finish them or end up having to take half home. Wellington is a very rich and filling dish. Itís also sometimes difficult to get the appetizer Wellingtons just the right size for eating in one bite. I consulted my boat parade party host for her advice because Iíve made them too big for a single bite and too small to taste the steak. We both agreed a 4- to 5-ounce steak is ideal for individual servings, and soup-size cubes are better than stew-sized pieces for the mini appetizers.

Also, I prefer to cook the Wellingtons to medium rare. Thatís very easy with the individual portions ó they are usually ready when the pastry turns light brown and a little juice starts to bubble on the edges. But the larger tenderloin may take a bit longer. Definitely use a meat thermometer. I take the Wellingtons out of the oven at 140 degrees and let the meat rest a bit before slicing the larger loin or serving the individual steaks.

I usually serve the calorie-laden pastry with steamed vegetables and a fruity dessert.