The culinary history of Beef Wellington is a bit of a mystery. Many theories exist as to its origin–all of them lacking hard evidence–but none support invention any earlier than the 20th Century. The earliest recipe found titled “Beef Wellington” was published in 1940 in The Palmer House Cook Book and is a much simpler version than the classic which came to prominence in the 1960s. Beef Wellington was the premier party dish of the time: it was rich, dramatic, expensive, and seemed difficult and time-consuming to prepare. As couples started engaging in culinarily keeping up with the Jones, dinner parties became elaborate as complicated recipes were prepared more frequently. Beef Wellington was considered difficult and expensive because it required puff pastry and pate de foie gras. It defined what a gourmet dish should be.
While it is not known exactly who invented Beef Wellington, there is a long Anglo-Irish-French tradition of meat cooked in pastry. The Wellington steak of England, the steig Wellington of Ireland, and the French dish known as Filet de Boeuf en Croute could all claim influence. Whether the English, the Irish, or the French first baked filet of beef in a crust we may never know, but I think we can be fairly sure the French would not have named it after Wellington.
The classic Beef Wellington is a fillet of beef tenderloin coated with pate de foie gras and a duxelles of mushrooms that are then all wrapped in a puff pastry crust. “Wellington” is sometimes informally used to describe other dishes in which meat is baked in a puff pastry; the most common variations use sausage, lamb, or salmon.
While watching the finale of The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, Chef Elizabeth Falkner chose Beef Wellington as one of her dishes. Both Renée and I thought it looked great and although I’d seen it before and knew of the dish, I couldn’t remember ever ordering it in a restaurant and I’d never prepared it before. A quiet Christmas Eve dinner with my bride seemed like the perfect time give it a go as part of the celebration.
Chef Falkner wrapped her tenderloin with prosciutto instead of pate and I liked that idea, so I decided to do the same.
For the Duxelles:
- 3 pints (1 1/2 pounds) white button mushrooms
- 2 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Duxelles is made with any cultivated or wild mushroom, depending on the recipe. Wild porcini mushrooms provide a much stronger flavored than white or brown mushrooms. Fresh is best but reconstituted dried varieties work, too. Leftover duxelles can be spread on toasted slices of baguette to make a crostini or can also be filled into a pocket of raw pastry and baked as a savory tart.
To make duxelles, add mushrooms, shallots, garlic, and thyme to a food processor and pulse until you get a finely chopped mixture. Add butter and olive oil to a large saute pan and set over medium heat. Add the mushroom and shallot mixture and saute for 8 to 10 minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. You want a paste-like consistency. Season with salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
For the Beef:
- 1 (3-pound) center cut beef tenderloin (filet mignon), trimmed
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 12 thin slices prosciutto
- 6 sprigs of fresh thyme, leaves only
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- Flour, for rolling out puff pastry
- 1 pound puff pastry, thawed if using frozen
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
- Minced chives, for garnish
If you choose to make your own puff pastry, there are plenty of recipes out there, but many of the frozen varieties are quite good and easy to work with. Depending on the tenderloin you get, you may have to tie the tenderloin in 4 places so it holds its cylindrical shape while cooking. Mine was pretty solid, so I didn’t tie it. Drizzle it with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper and sear all over, including the ends, in a hot, heavy-based skillet lightly coated with olive oil – about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Meanwhile set out your prosciutto on a sheet of plastic wrap on top of your cutting board. Make sure the plastic is about a foot and a half in length so you can wrap and tie the roast up in it. Lay the prosciutto in overlapping layers so it forms a rectangle that is big enough to encompass the entire filet of beef. Use a rubber spatula to cover the prosciutto evenly with a thin layer of duxelles. Season the surface of the duxelles with salt and pepper and sprinkle with fresh thyme leaves. When the beef is seared, remove from the heat, cut off the twine if you tied it and coat lightly all over with Dijon mustard. Allow to cool slightly, then roll up in the duxelles covered prosciutto using the plastic wrap to tie it up nice and tight. Tuck in the ends of the prosciutto as you roll to completely encompass the beef. Roll it up tightly in plastic wrap and twist the ends to seal it completely and hold it in a nice log shape. Set in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to ensure it maintains its shape.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. (See below for Fingerling Potatoes.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry out to about a 1/4-inch thickness. Depending on the size of your sheets you may have to overlap 2 sheets and press them together. Remove beef from refrigerator and unwrap the plastic. Set the beef in the center of the pastry and fold over the longer sides, brushing with egg wash to seal. Trim ends if necessary then brush with egg wash and fold over to completely seal the beef – saving ends to use as a decoration on top if desired. Top with coarse sea salt. Place the beef seam side down on a baking sheet.
Brush the top of the pastry with egg wash then make a couple of slits in the top of the pastry using the tip of a paring knife – this creates vents that will allow the steam to escape when cooking. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes OR until pastry is golden brown and beef registers 125 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from oven and rest before cutting into thick slices. Garnish with minced chives, and serve with Roasted Fingerling Potatoes.
- 2 pints fingerling potatoes
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 2 to 3 sprigs fresh sage
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 6 cloves garlic, left unpeeled
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus for sheet pan
- Salt and pepper
Add potatoes, rosemary, sage, thyme, and garlic to a medium bowl. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Remove sheet pan from oven, lightly coat with olive oil, and pour potatoes onto pan. Place potatoes in oven and reduce heat to 425 degrees F. Roast for 20 minutes, or until crispy on outside and tender on inside.
I preheated the oven to 500 F then lowered it to 425 F before putting the beef in. I planned to cook the beef for 15-20 minutes, then put the potatoes in until the beef reached the proper temperature. My tenderloin cooked in only about 25 minutes, so I put it in the microwave to rest until the potatoes were finished.
Renée and I really liked this dish. It was rich, flavorful, and complex. Besides the obvious upside of a nice beef tenderloin, this dish does have a certain elegance to it. I can appreciate why it was such a popular choice among dinner party hosts. Regardless of its reputation, this is not difficult to make. If does take some time, but good cooking is worth it. If nothing else, I think I found a new tradition for Christmas Eve at our house.