This recipe reaches us via two singular English food writers of divergent casts. Parson Woodforde neither cooked nor wrote about food, but did he eat, and he recorded what he ate in his diary over a period of twenty-five years. It is one of the most historically important sources of information about the foodways of the eighteenth century English gentry. Woodforde records not only the food but also the settings, and delineates the ritualized culture of reciprocal hospitality that he inhabited; “company to dinner meant a fine display of dishes. A lot of dishes.” ( Famous 12)
Jane Grigson may be, at least in the opinion of the Editor, the most gifted food writer of the twentieth century. All of her books sparkle with a humane curiosity; the recipes work too. She created this one from one of Woodforde’s descriptions, and along the way reminds us obliquely of just how much we had forgotten about the traditional foods of England by the 1970s. Mrs. Grigson admits that she
“had thought that steaks in pastry, en croute , were a fairly modern introduction from France, and that the name of Beef Wellington was a recent invention to try and nationalise a foreign dish. It seems that in the first instance at least, I was quite wrong. Parson Woodforde ate ‘Beef-stake tarts in turrets of paste’… in 1791.” ( Famous 52)
Our version of her adaptation of the parson’s turrets follows. Four individual pies; may be doubled as in the original recipe.
-2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
-about ½ lb coarsely chopped mushrooms
-a chopped onion
-salt and pepper
-a splash of hot sauce or pinch of cayenne
-4 one inch slices of filet mignon
-1 lb puff pastry ( see the Notes) divided into 4 squares
-a beaten egg
-2 teaspoons flour (preferably Wondra)
-1 cup beef stock
-2 teaspoons Worcestershire mixed with the stock
-4 Tablespoons Sercial or Verdelho (Rainwater in a pinch) Madeira
-another Tablespoon of unsalted butter
- Melt the butter over medium heat, stir the mushrooms and onions into the skillet and cook until they begin to weep; they should not brown, so you may need to reduce the heat.
- Once you see liquid in the pan, increase the heat to boil it off and continue cooking, regulating the heat as required, until you get a slurry.
- Season your slurry with salt, pepper and hot sauce or cayenne.
- Season your steaks generously with salt and pepper
- Melt the second Tablespoon of butter in a big heavy skillet and sear the steaks over the highest heat that you have for as short a time as possible; you want a little color on the steaks and a trace of debris in the pan, no more. Let the steaks cool.
Preheat the oven to 450°.
- Plop about two thirds of your slurry onto the steaks.
- Roll out the pastry so that it is big enough to envelop your steaks and their cargo.
- “The neat-fingered would emulate the raised-pie turret effect that Parson Woodforde noted; the less confident should be satisfied wit a neat pasty shape and a few chaste decorative leaves, which will taste just as good.” ( Famous 52-53)
- Cut a vent in each parcel of steak, brush the top with the egg and bake just until the pastry browns, with luck within 15 minutes; you may need a little more time but do not want to cremate your expensive little filets.
- While the pies bake, build your sauce by using the skillet in which you seaded your steaks to heating the remaining slurry, stirring in the flour until it loses its raw color and then slowly adding the stock to the pot.
- Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce it until it almost, but not quite, reaches the consistency that you like.
- Stir the Madeira into the sauce and boil it until it does reach the consistency that you like, then keep it warm at the merest hint of a simmer.
- When you remove the pies from the oven, whisk the last Tablespoon of butter into the sauce and boat it for service with your pies.
- Frozen puff pastry, as we tirelessly report, is a liberating product. Pepperidge Farms makes a good one (nearly everything they make is good). Dufour is richer--that does not necessarily mean better--and considerably more expensive.
- It is a truth universally accepted that old cookery books and manuscripts never specify what kind of Madeira to use in their recipes. The authors assumed a certain skill set amongst their readers, and at least during the eighteenth century their familiarity with Madeira, but since the wine, tragically it is important to add, has fallen from favor if not also from sight, we have selected alternative suggestions for our own readers. Sercial and Verdelho, like most Madeiras named for their grape, are relatively dry, but dryness is relative indeed; Madeiras obtain their considerable charms trough the interplay of sweetness and acid.
- Rainwater is the exception to the varietal rule; it is a blend, and therefore less interesting than the others, but dryish too and perfectly good. It is often all that you may be able to find.
- A smear of decent pate between steak and slurry takes you toward Wellington territory and tastes good too.
- Citations are to Food with the Famous by Jane Grigson. (London 1979) Our reference elsewhere in the Notes to Austin is not misplaced; she liked the kitchen and gets her own chapter from Mrs. Grigson along with the parson, Jefferson, Shaftesbury, our beloved Dumas and five others. Madeleines of course feature. An exemplary book laden with historical insight and culinary direction (that is, recipes).
- For a literary as opposed to culinary treatment of Proust, you could do worse than consult the work of Arnold Weinstein.
- What to serve with these Anglopies? We could extend the discussion of Proust to suggest asparagus, and (unrelated) Brussells sprouts of course; recipes appear in our recipes . Green is the asparagus associated with England, white with France and Germany. Go green.
- Recipes for asparagus do not appear in our recipes for good reason. The best way to serve it is barely braised in buttery white wine or even water, then painted in much butter and little lemon; not really a recipe at all. Forget not the salt.