The joy and sorrow of pâtés en croûte, Part I

I have always loved a good pâté. From sturdy, coarse pâtés de campagne, to the ultra-luxurious, (if controversial) silken pâté de foie gras – if they’re on a menu, I’ll order them.  There’s something fascinating about how a chef can turn some of the more unappetizing parts of an animal into something wonderful to eat.  (I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to eat meat, you should make an attempt to use as much of the animal as possible.) I marvel at the ingenuity of the cooks – probably farmer’s wives – who decided they were going to take a bunch of liver and fat (and maybe some meat, if there was any left) and cook it up into something really tasty.  It’s alchemy to me.

While in France last month, I actually didn’t eat each much pâté. It just wasn’t featured on the menus of the places we ate at, as  we were with a friend who doesn’t eat meat, so many of the restaurants we ate at were fish restaurants, or restaurants with a more expansive vegetarian menu. Come to think of it, the only pâté I had was on the flight home.

But we did gaze appreciatively in the windows of many a traiteur, which is where most people buy their pâté and terrines to take home.  In the hands of these geniuses, liver and fat become works of art.

Slices of terrines, pâtés, and salmon in pastry at a Paris traiteur.
The art of a Paris traiteur.

Of the many varieties of pâtés and terrines that are made, my favourite, always, are the ones baked in a pastry crust.  It must the English and Scots in me: you could put tripe in a crust, and I’d probably eat it. (I have to say, I did once it tripe by accident in a bar-cafe in Barcelona, and it was marvelous.)   I’ve always had a thing for meat in pastry. I love tourtière, English pork pie, game pie, and even chicken pot pie, which isn’t really a pie at all. Maybe it’s how a crust tarts up something that’s kind of mundane?  Sort of like when Euro-guys don a scarf even when it’s not cold out; they can be wearing grubby sweater and jeans, but with the scarf, they’re suddenly chic and sexy.

My first memory of meat in pastry was from when I was a youngster. Our family used to go to the beaches of Sandbanks Provincial Park during the summer. The drive involved a ferry ride across the narrow stretch of water that separated Adolphustown and Glenora, in Prince Edward County. Anyway, as we waited for the ferry, my mother would trot over to one of the shops nearby and come back with beef pies for our lunch. I thought they were amazing. A juicy, meaty filling, and a melt-in-your mouth, tender crust.  Although I now suspect they might simply have been Schneider’s frozen pies that were reheated.

I make tourtières every Christmas, at least 4 or 5, some of which I give away. I rely on Mme. Benoit’s recipe from this cookbook (a classic), but I jazz it up a little with additional herbs and warm spices; I’ve tried a dozen times to get pork pies right; they’re annoyingly difficult to make, especially the pastry case, because, at least for Melton Mobray-style pork pies, you’re not supposed to use a mould.

But as wonderful as a tourtière or pork pie is, when you put a patè into a crust,  you’re going to a whole new level of “meat in pastry”.  Not only are they good to eat, they are beautiful to look at, almost a shame to cut into, if they’re well made. The forcemeat of liver, fat and maybe some meat is garnished with jewel-like chunks of pink ham, dark boiled tongue, pistachio nuts, cranberries, chunks of rare duck or pheasant,  lobes of foie gras, or, believe it or not, chunks of pork fat. (Yes, pork fat. It’s delicious. And I don’t want to hear “ew, gross!”.  If you eat any kind of cold cut, you’re eating pork fat. What do you think those white bits are in mortadella or salami?!?)

And then there’s the glistening aspic that surrounds the filling. If you look on Pinterest, you’ll see lots of people posting pictures of disgusting jellied concoctions. Many of them, like canned luncheon meat in a mould of lime jelly, grated carrots and olives, are revolting. But in my opinion, aspic has a bad rap.  A good aspic is an excellent meat, fowl or fish stock that has been concentrated, clarified to the point where it sparkles like crystal, and gelled only to the point where it’s sliceable, yet still melts instantly in your mouth.  Aspic adds moisture and intense flavour to the dishes it’s used in. Sure, I don’t want to eat a bowl of the stuff, but as a garnish for something, it’s fantastic.

An early attempt at a
An early attempt at one of my pâtés en croûte. This one is garnished with a whole pork tenderloin, boiled tongue, ham, pork fat and aspic.

The problem with living in Canada, or Toronto, at least, is that good meat in pastry of any kind is hard to find.  Sure, some of the better butchers and food shops have frozen pies of various kinds, but finding a pâté en croûte is almost impossible.  If you do find one, it’s likely been sitting in the shop so long that it has dried out or tastes like something that’s been in the fridge too long. I suppose they’re just not that popular, at least not compared to the “patés” you can buy any supermarket. You know, the ones that are shrink-wrapped in plastic, maybe with a layer of rubber disguised as aspic on top, with said aspic being embedded with black peppercorns so as to give the whole thing some semblance of flavour.  But for the most part, they’re horrid, ghastly concoctions, made spreadably smooth with emulsifiers, over-salted, and preserved with who knows what.

If you want a real pâté en croûte, and you live anywhere west of the Québec border, you’re probably going to have to make it yourself. I’ve done this once or twice in the past, but it was kind of frustrating. The seasoning wasn’t quite right; because they’re eaten cold, you need to season aggressively,  more than my cooking-to-eat-warm judgement allowed me to do. The crust, made from flour, lard and hot water, was heavy.  And there wasn’t quite enough fat in the mixture to make it luxurious and moist. (A good pâté, or even a sausage needs at least 30% fat content.)

Which brings me to the motivation for today’s posting on this blog: after seeing (and not tasting) all that was on offer in food shops in France, I felt compelled to have another go at making something pretty in pastry.  I had another reason, too.  I am part of a group hosting a birthday party in the country this September (for the same friend that we traveled to France with), and I have been tasked with preparing something for a “casual” buffet.   The whole concept of the party is basically this:Now doesn’t this scene just scream pâté en croûte? It does to me.  My friend, who is no slouch in the kitchen himself, also saw the same gorgeous examples of the traiteur’s craft, and is hoping to have me replicate one of the fish and seafood pâtés that we saw. So I thought I should do a trial run, given that there will be some forty people there, all who have been conditioned over the years to expect great things on the table at one of my friend’s parties!

I scrounged around in my collection of charcuterie recipes and came across one that looked suitable:  “Salmon Pâté in a Basil Cornmeal Crust” from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.  (I’m not going to repeat the recipe here … these two guys worked hard to write this book … if you want it, you’ll have to buy it!)  While there are a lot of steps, and a moderately long list of ingredients, it’s didn’t seem  that difficult to make. Almost everything is done in the food processor … no messy grinding of anything in a meat grinder, or dicing of stuff into uniform pieces.  Basically, you put salmon in the food processor, add some egg whites, salt and pepper, and then puree it for a minute or two, and then add some heavy cream. This is the standard method for making any fish mousse (except the egg white part).  The cream, which gives the mixture lightness of taste and texture, is suspended in the pureed fish; the egg whites help to firm the mixture up a bit for baking in a pastry case.  In this recipe, whole, peeled shrimp are folded into the mousse mixture,  and then everything gets spooned into a pastry-lined pâté en croûte tin (along with a strip of fresh salmon fillet),  baked, and cooled.  I had some fish stock in the freezer (as one does), which I reduced and clarified to turn it into aspic that was to be poured in after cooling to fill the spaces between the crust and the filling. Easy-peasy!

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Well, it was fairly easy, as these things go.  But I wasn’t that happy with the results.  First, the crust was, well, wierd.  Cornmeal in the list of ingredients should have been a red flag. As well as the lack of any leavening ingredient. When I’ve made these things before, I’ve used a pastry-style crust (where the butter or lard creates lightness in the pastry) or brioche dough (which uses butter, eggs and yeast to create a wonderful tasting, light, golden crust).  This crust was just sort of damp and chewy, and I wasn’t enamoured with it being turned green from the addition of herbs. I suppose against the pink of the filling, it looked nice on a plate, but I really didn’t like the mouth-feel of the crust.

Then there was the filling. Now, this might have been my fault, but it seemed dry.  The recipe said to bake it until an instant-read thermometer registered 140 degrees. I used the meat probe built into my oven, which I now suspect was a little off.  When the oven signaled that the thing was done, I took it out, and used my instant-read thermometer to test the temperature.  160 degrees. Oops.

Also, the crust burst open during baking. I’m not sure why .. the filling clearly expanded a bit, but the crust didn’t expand with it. Maybe I didn’t cut open a steam vent soon enough (the recipe said to do this after the first 20 minutes in the oven.) So, with a large tear in the crust, topping up with my delicious aspic wasn’t going to be possible.

And therein lies the sorrow of a pâté en croûte: when you make one, and it doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped. In this case, at least it was the easier, and less labour-intensive fish version. While I was disappointed, I wasn’t furious, as I might have been had I gone to the trouble of making a meat pâté that didn’t work out. This involves making brioche dough, grinding pork liver (which is a disgusting task), chopping pork fat and meat garnishes, making a panade, obsessively keeping everything as cold as possible during the mixing process, getting the complex mixture of herbs and spices right, and making pork-foot stock for aspic (which is also kind of gross).

So, I’ll mope around for a few days, at least until we finish eating the pâté, which is still good, if not perfect.  Then I’ll start planning for pâtés en croûte, Part II. The Real McCoy, with a brioche crust, liver, duck confit,  maybe some pistachios … after all, I am obsessed.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

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