In the long list of reasons why you should consider making your own puff pastry, vol-au-vent may not be number one (that distinction goes to cheese straws), number two (tarte tatin) or even three (Gâteau St. Honoré), but it’s definitely in the top five. It makes a killer first course to a dinner: light, buttery, crunchy and lovely to look at. Made with your own pastry it’s almost as light as “a waft of wind”…which is what the name means in French.
Start by securing some of that pastry stuff. A pound will make between six and eight vols-au-vent depending on the size. You can make one big one if you wish. I happen to think individual ones are both more fun and more impressive. You can even make teeny tiny ones if you want for appetizers (bouchées I believe they’re called) the process is more or less the same. Roll your pastry out to somewhere between a third and half an inch in thickness. About like so:
You can use fluted cutters or plain cutters if you wish. This one is at 3 1/2″ fluted model. Dip it in a little vegetable oil to lubricate it for the cuts. You don’t want to crush the layers of the pastry more than you must.
Press straight down, no twisting.
Once you’ve cut about six of those, cut out the centers. This is a 2″ circular cutter. Dip that.
Cut as close to the center as you can…
…and you’re done with that step.
Put the rings in the refrigerator to rest while you work on the bases and tops.
Assemble all your scraps, mash them together and roll them out into a very thin sheet. I’m sorry Joe, did you say mash them up? I did. The reason is because you don’t want the bases and tops to rise especially much. I realize it may pain you to destroy all those layers you worked so hard to create. All I can say is that sometimes one must suffer for one’s art. Man up and do it. Roll the pastry out very thin, about 1/8″. Using the same fluted cutter, cutter out six bases.
Cut out some tops as well, but make them bigger than these. My first batch was too small. You want the tops extremely thin and quite wide to allow for oven shrinkage. Use the 2 3/4″ cutter from your set.
Now dock the bases with a fork to discourage puffing. Do it I tell you — do it! Then paint it with egg wash and drop and give me twenty!
Lay the rings down on the egg wash-painted bases, being careful to line up the flutes so they match. Here I should insert that if you don’t have a fluted cutter and don’t want to buy one, you can simply use a round cutter for both the tops and bottoms. Once the vols are put together you can make indentations in the edges with the back of a knife as you do with a galette des rois.
Now very daintily — because you don’t want to stick your precious layers together — brush the top lip with egg wash. Use very short strokes, going from the inner rim outward. It takes a very liquid wash to pull this off without dripping strings of egg white down the side, so spend a good 60 seconds scrambling that raw egg with a fork. It should flow like water. Paint the tops with egg wash as well, then rest everything in the refrigerator for an hour. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Or, you can refrigerate them for up to several days (covered) or freeze them for up to several months (thaw in the fridge overnight before baking).
So OK, next you need some, er…items. These are pastry rings about two inches high. They are going to help me make my mold so that the vols don’t tip as they bake. I’ll show you what I mean. Oh, and see those tops down there below? That’s the size and thinness you want.
Place one…whatever….as long as it’s two inches high or so and can take the heat of an oven, in each corner.
Lay on an inverted cooling rack that’s been lightly oiled.
Place the whole contraption in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. At that point the vols will have risen to touch the rack and the tops will be done. Remove the tops to a plate, then turn the oven down to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and return the pan to the heat. When the tops are cool split them so you have a flat bottom, like so:
Fifteen or so minutes more baking and the vols themselves will be nicely browned (check the oven after ten…and take care not to burn the bottoms).
Remove the rack to inspect your handiwork. Your vols will be of slightly differing shapes. That’s how your guests will know they’re homemade (inconsistency is a stealth praise strategy). Every so often you’ll get one that will flop over completely before it ever reaches the rack, which is why I suggest you make a couple more of these than you actually need.
And that’s pretty much it! Cool them, fill them with whatever you want and eat! These are a knockout with savory foods but can also hold sweet fillings. Here I have a fairly conventional chicken salad (I didn’t have time to do anything too creative — I’m a working man!): diced leftover chicken with some red grape halves, slivered almonds, tarragon and salt and pepper. Still not a half-bad lunch, friends.
These can be baked many hours ahead of time. Truth be told they’ll keep for a couple of days in an airtight container, but I think they’re much better the day they’re made. Readers, please feel free to post your filling ideas once again here, so they’ll stand for posterity.