Have you had enough beans yet? Feeling full? Nutritious beans may be, and delicious those recipes may be, but LIGHT they are not. So we are taking a break with an elegant French classic: the vol au vent. According to my Larousse Gastronomique, the dish was invented by the early 19th century chef Carême, who declared on serving it that it was so light it would fly away with the wind. Carême undoubtedly made his own puff pastry, as frozen ones were not available in the freezer section of your local market back then. But the beauty of a modern interpretation is two-fold: it's very quick and easy to make with store-bought pastry and it's a delicious way to use up leftover meat or seafood.
(I know that I declared in my New Year's Resolutions that I would attempt a home made puff pastry in 2006, but I didn't promise to do it on a work night and I still have a few months left to go. Cut me some slack, please.)
The timing of making your dish depends partly on the materials you have to hand. It shouldn't take more than half an hour from start to finish once your puff pastry is ready to go, though, no matter how you slice it up.
Defrost your puff pastry (if frozen) or rest it at room temperature for 10 minutes (if just refrigerated) before beginning. Preheat the oven to 200c/400f. Roll out the pastry and select a wide-brimmed bowl and small-brimmed bowl (or a wide jar, in my case), whatever you can find so that you have one circle 10-15 cm in diameter and one about 1 1/2 cm smaller. The 250 gram pastry I used (frozen) was enough for three vol au vents and a few puffy bits for topping. Cut out three large circles and place them on a sheet of baking parchement or waxed paper. Gather the remaining dough in a lump and roll it out again. Cut out another three large circles and use the smaller bowl or jar to cut a hole in the center, making rings the same circumference as the circles. Wet your finger (or use a pastry brush) and dampen the edges of the circles before carefully laying the rings over them. Be careful not to disturb the cut out holes from the rings, as they will make a jaunty hat for your vol au vent.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden and puffy.
In the meantime, prepare your filling.
2 cups shredded roasted chicken meat
1 leek or onion, thinly sliced
8-10 mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 Tbs fresh or 1 tsp dry tarragon
1/2 cup crème fraîche
1/4 cup sweet white wine or sherry
2 Tbs butter
1/2 cup toasted almond slivers
Melt the butter in a large pan and add the leek or onion. Saute until soft and then add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms have softened, add the tarragon. Stir for a few minutes and then add the wine. Stir in the chicken meat and the crème fraîche. Heat thoroughly. This should take about 15-20 minutes, just about right for those pastry shells in the oven.
As you'll notice in the above photos, they have a tendency to puff up everywhere, including the center of the shells. Fret not, once you start ladling the filling into the shells (which you should do immediately, while the pastries and the filling are both piping hot) the center will sink down, leaving the fluffy walls to support the filing. Top with the almonds and a lid and serve immediately.
These really are a lovely quick dinner: light but hot and satisfying. The Critic's only complaint was that I didn't make more. And that is quite a compliment, really!