Beef Wellington for reformed romantics

The first time I cooked for show I went for broke: Beef Wellington with all the trimmings. The occasion provides vivid memories. I had just moved into an unfamiliar house, I had no idea how the oven worked, and would not have picked the difference between a beef fillet and a shoulder of lamb.

Such a bull-at-a-gate mentality has been my life’s burden. I thought it would be a good idea to build the dog a kennel. Much sawing and nailing later, I had concocted a shell. Problem (i) the dog didn’t like it; problem (ii) when we shifted house, the kennel fell apart. I don’t always maintain my enthusiasm. I set up a dark-room in the bathroom — once. 1 planted herbs in rows expecting an instant olde worlde herb garden. The dog dug them up and I gave up.

I am glad to know there are others like me, but generally the madness only grabs them when it comes to cooking. The vision of guests arriving for lunch or dinner seems to provoke some instinct in us to attempt the damned near impossible, and hope for the best. It is a rare dinner date when the host has not attempted a completely new recipe, one followed slavishly from a new cook book.

On this occasion I used the Beef Wellington from Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking I. It went for page after page, and suggested combinations of dux- elles, which I had never heard of, and duck livers, which the butcher did not have, and muslin cloth to wrap the beef, which was impossible to obtain. Was I KO’d? Of course not. I bought the pastry, dirtied more pots than you could imagine, and blustered on, praying all would be well.

By some miracle (or, more likely the genius of the cook book, as relevant today as it was when unveiled in 1961), it was. Or my guests were too darned polite to say it wasn’t. Of course we are all delighted when a host makes an obvious attempt to please, but I have learned since that you can please even more if you keep it simple, do plenty of pre-cooking, knock out hunger by trays of easy nibblies, and go for roasts or other old favourites which keep the host in the dining room and out of the kitchen.

What follows remains true to traditional Beef Wellington in flavour alone. It will take one tenth the effort, and one twentieth of the cooking talent.

500g puff pastry — If you haven’t your own handy, or haven’t the inclination to make it, go to the best pastry shop in your region and convince the proprietor to sell you some. They will do it if you ask.

an egg yolk, lightly beaten with a little milk, and a pastry brush

200g fresh duck livers

250g bacon, fat removed

2 onions, chopped finely

200g mushrooms, chopped finely

bunch of chives, chopped finely

the centre piece of a beef fillet, about 150g per person

salt pepper


Heat the oven to 200°C. Roll out the pastry until quite thin, about the thickness of two twenty cent pieces. Cut out diamonds, squares, circles, whatever takes your fancy, to about the area of the palm of your hand. Allow to rest in the fridge for 15 minutes, or in the freezer, briefly.


Remove the pastry from the fridge and paint the top with the yolk-milk mix. Grease a baking tray and bake the pastries for about 25 minutes, until the tops are a golden brown, the bases are firm and the layering has reached its peak. The beef will be cooked separately and slices will be placed into split pastry shapes (see step 6). Set aside the pastries to cool. Ideally this will be done just before the meal, but it can be done in advance — preferably within 3 hours.


In a hot pan, fry the livers until they just firm up. They should be still pink in the middle, but not rare. Set aside to cool. Heat the oven to flat out.


Fry the bacon until just cooked, then the onions in a little oil and butter until they soften. Add the mushrooms and cook slowly until they are quite soft. Remove from the heat, add the cooked livers, and chop the mix very finely. Stir the chives through. Set aside.


In a baking tray, roast the beef until it is done to your liking. I suggest it should be served very rare, cooked just enough for it to be warm to the touch in the middle. For the middle portion of a large fillet, that would be somewhere around 15 minutes in a hot oven. Just keep looking. When you reckon the beef is just short of cooked to your liking, remove from the heat and leave, covered, in a warm place.


Turn down the oven to 200°C and warm through the puff pastry diamonds etc. Cut through each one to provide a hat and a base. Rub some melted or softened butter over the lid to make it glisten.


Gently warm the mushrooms-liver-bacon-onions mix. Wipe some on the bottom of the pastry.


Slice the beef quite finely, season with salt and pepper, and lay the slices on top of the mushroom mix. Place the pastry lid on top. Best served with a simple beef stock sauce, or a wine sauce retrieved from the cooking pan.

WINE: This calls for one to crawl underneath the house about a day before the beef is to be served. Grab a hottle of old red and stand it up on the sideboard, just before the guests arrive, decant it — into a special decanter if you have one, or just transfer the wine carefully into another clean, empty bottle. You are ridding the wine of some sediment that might be in the bottom of the bottle.