The joy and sorrow of pâtés en croûte, Part II

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine who sings in Schola Magdalena, an ensemble that interprets and performs medieval music, asked me if I could contribute something to the buffet table for a post-concert reception taking place this Friday.  Still riding the high of our trip to France, I was looking for an opportunity to have a go at meat pâtés again.  So I said sure, I’d be happy to bring something, and went home to start researching what I might put together.

My recent experience with a fish pâté en croûte, which was mostly successful, suggested that doing a larger (3 inches wide) pâté in pastry was probably not a great idea.  It’s hard for reception-goers to take a small portion of one of these creations, as you might with, say, a spread or dip.  It’s either a whole slice or nothing at all.  Unless you want the pâté itself to start looking like hell on the serving platter.   And the smaller, 1-1/2 inch mini/canapé-sized pâté en croûte wasn’t going to be big enough for a large reception.  So I figured I’d do a pâté en croûte and a larger pâté en terrine, a pâté cooked in a terrine mould, which is the more common way of preparing, baking and serving meat pâtés. The crust-less terrine would be more easy for people to slice off whatever size piece they want.

I’ve tried making meat pâtés before.  The first one I made was shortly after buying my first food processor. I think I was about 15. Along with the machine, I had also picked up a soft-covered, colourful food processor cookbook; I can’t recall the name, but it organized the various sliced, grated, shredded, chopped and puréed dishes by country, which struck me as pandering to somewhat suburban tastes, as in: “Hey, honey, let’s have a theme party where we serve nothing but spreadable Peruvian foods!”  But food processors were still pretty new technology for the home, and there was little else out there. (Bonnie Stern’s excellent Food Processor Cuisine was another one of the few.)

Anyway, I was impressed enough by the chapter on Scandinavia that I though I’d like to try my hand at making a “traditional” liver pâté.  I hadn’t eaten a lot … any?  … liver pâté before, but my friend Colin, who’s father is Swedish had introduced me to liverwurst.  It was a favourite after-school snack at his house. We’d squeeze the slightly grainy paste out of a plastic tube onto some Kreamy brand white bread and top it with green relish.  I thought it was delicious.  

Anyway, the recipe I was going to follow was, as I recall, based largely on liver. I can’t recall whether it was pork or chicken. There wasn’t a lot of non-organ meat in it.  Though the mixture was wrapped entirely in whatever brand of bacon we had in the house (which I’m sure bore no resemblance to real Danish bacon). I also don’t remember whether the recipe called for added pork fat.  It may have, and I might have been dissuaded by my mother from using it for health reasons; or maybe it just wasn’t easily available.  But whatever the reason, the mixture, I recall, was quite, lean.

When I took the rather squat Corningware dish that I’d baked it in out of the oven, it didn’t look all that appetizing.  I’d baked it covered, so the protective layer of bacon on the top was rather limp and colourless. I forged ahead anyway, though, putting a weight on the top, and refrigerating it overnight.  The next day, I gingerly cut into it.  It had a solid, uniform texture, sort of like cheap cat food. It was an unappetizing shade of grey.  And it tasted awful. Disgusting, even.  It had a pure, unadulterated liver-y taste.  It was dry, too. Crumbly.  The lack of fat had rendered it inedible.  My mother pestered me about it for days: “Aren’t you going to eat that?  What a waste of good ingredients!”  After a week or so, it went into the trash.

Fast forward to a few days ago. Using a recipe for Pâté de Campagne from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing, I cranked out two finished dishes. One baked in a pastry crust, and one baked directly in a terrine. Oddly enough, the recipe didn’t call for added fat; I guess the assumption was that the ground pork (yes, pork – I am a shegetz, after all) had enough fat in it that none extra was required.  I seasoned the mixture aggressively, because flavours are muted in dishes when they are served cold.  I “garnished” the forcemeat with things that would add visual interest when it was served in slices, as well as extra flavour and texture: strips of ham and pork fat, a whole pork tenderloin, parsley, and pickled green peppercorns.

What goes into a pâté de campagne.

What I put into my pâté de campagne. Clockwise, from 12 o’clock: pork fat (for garnish), brandy, Madeira, onions, garlic, parsley, pork shoulder and liver, flour, black pepper, spices, ham (for garnish), eggs, salt. Not shown: heavy cream, pork tenderloin and pickled green peppercorns (for garnish).

I was pretty happy with how they turned out.

They were a little over-seasoned.  The distinct flavour of bay leaf seemed particularly prominent.  And they were a little salty.  But then those who would be eating these creations would be eating only small portions, so I didn’t think that was a big problem.

Once again, though, I wasn’t happy with the crust on the smaller pâté.  Whereas I’d used a peculiar cornmeal-basil dough for the salmon pâté last week, I used a standard, butter-based shortcrust pastry this time.  Because the mould is so small – the interior of the pate is only about an inch wide – the filling gets cooked before the pastry has had a chance to brown fully.   So while the pastry was cooked, it wasn’t as crisp as I wanted it to be.  I have an idea for how to improve this though … for the next time.

Sadly for me, these two dishes left the house shortly after I took the photos above. But I had quite a bit of pork left over, so I thought I’d whip up something for us to have and share with friends over the next week. I used basically the same approach, but scaled back the seasonings, and added some rabbit meat to the mixture, which lightens the texture and flavour. The results were delicious.

This is why, for the one or two times I year that I want to have some at home, I like making my own pâté.  The results are far superior to what you can ever buy at a supermarket. They’re not expensive, because they use cheap cuts (unless you go in for using game, like venison, rabbit or hare).  If you’re really thrifty, you could conceivably save scraps of meat in the freezer until you have enough (about 2 pounds) to make one. They’re not difficult; all you need is a good meat grinder.  If you can make a decent meatloaf, you can make a pâté.  But there are a few tips I’ll share with you which will help ensure success should you want to try making one:

  • Keep your ingredients COLD.  Before grinding my meat, I put it into the freezer on a plate for 15-20 minutes to firm it up.  I also freeze the parts of my meat grinder before using it.  Keeping things cold ensures that the fat doesn’t turn soft while you are mixing things up. This, in turn, helps prevent excess fat from melting out of the mixture, which makes for a dry, crumbly pâté.  If you need to interrupt the process, put everything into the fridge until you are ready to continue.
  • Don’t skimp on the amount of seasoning or fat called for in the recipe. Both are essential for good flavour and texture, especially because you eat these dishes cold. A good pâté is NOT diet food. If you’re concerned about your waistline, stick with poached chicken breast.  Or go at it extra hard at the gym.
  • If you’re making a pâté in a terrine mould (or a loaf pan), you need to put a weight on top of the pâté that will gently press the mixture down as it cools, which makes for a compact, easy-to-slice pâté.  I put a large can of tomatoes into a loaf pan, and set the pan on top of the pâté.
  • (Optional – check with your recipe to see what it says to do) When the weighted pâté is almost at room temperature, pour off any liquid that has accumulated around it.  If left in the dish, this liquid turns into a semi-soft, cloudy jelly which isn’t all that attractive. It tastes fine, but it doesn’t look so nice.  I prefer to pour this off, separate the fat from the liquid, add it to stock made from pig’s trotters, clarify it, and then pour it back into the terrine so that a clear aspic forms around the pâté to keep it from drying out.  But that’s just me.
  • Save the fat that you pour off. It’s great for cooking!  Use it in place of oil for sautéing onions or potatoes.   In some of my older cookbooks, I’ve seen pictures where the cook has used the fat (which is basically lard) to “frost” the top of the pâté to prevent it from drying out.  It looks terrific, and it probably tastes pretty good too. But I expect most people today would just scrape it off and leave it on their plates.

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