The Great British Bake Off continues to mesmerise us with its gastric delights later tonight, with this week’s episode seeing the bakers rustle up pies and beef wellingtons for the judges. But is this bakery malarkey really that difficult? I decided to find out, spending Sunday afternoon baking a Wellington to eat with my parents, who kindly offered to purchase the ingredients. I’d never baked anything before in my life, let alone a beef wellington, but how hard could it be?
I set about searching online for a recipe but my mum insisted I use one found in Delia Smith’s 1978 tome, Complete Cookery Course. Dubious about the relevance of a dusty 34-year-old cookbook in the contemporary digital world, I was soon on YouTube watching videos of American chefs demonstrating how to cook “restaurant-worthy” beef wellingtons. But whereas they were using ready-made puff pastry from Wal-Mart, I made my own pastry from margarine and flour.
A crab-eating macaque could master pastry making. Just mix flour, margarine and water in a bowl and Bob’s yer uncle. After 15 minutes of doughy deliberations I switched my focus to the exotic duxelles, which sounds like a harem of French women, but is actually a garnish that is to be sandwiched between the beef and the pastry. I finely-chopped some onions and mushrooms with the speed and precision of a skin-graft surgeon on amphetamines, before cooking them in a saucepan of melted butter.
Though I was to be spared one of Paul Hollywood’s withering critiques, my major concern turned to appeasing my parents, both reeling after picking up the tab for a £30 slab of beef. “Why didn’t you offer to make a Victoria sponge instead?” challenged my dad, waving the receipt around in the air. I moved to reassure him, saying: “Think of it as an investment Dad… like a tuition fee or something.” This pissed him off even more. I was the ghost at my own feast.
I coated the beef in brandy and butter, before shoving it in the oven for 40 minutes. So far, so Ready Steady Cook, and Ainsley would have approved I’m sure. Once done, I proceeded to wrap the pastry around the beef like a carbohydrate parcel, which is far trickier than it sounds. I started to stress out as brandy-soaked mushroom garnish leaked from the base, threatening to put the kibosh on my pastry-n-beef nosh. Thankfully there was enough emergency excess pastry available to seal the holes up, and I put the wellington back in the oven for another half an hour. Before long it was ready to be dished up.
As a perfectionist, I’ll admit I felt a little crushed when the dish emerged from the cooker looking nothing like the photogenic gluttony evident in a beef wellington Google image search.
Thankfully my mum was on hand to assuage my anxieties, saying: “It may not look like it’s been cooked by an expert – but it tastes nice.” A backhanded compliment if ever there was one.
However, while it may have looked like a cow in a car-crash, we all went back for second helpings and none of us contracted salmonella, so in these respects it was an unheralded success. It seems to me that although any baking novice can bake a beef wellington that is edible and appetising, the true skill lies in the presentation, and being able to craft it to look like it was commissioned for display in the Harrods Food Hall.
After the experience, I don’t feel quite prepared to apply for series four of the show just yet, but I do have a new found respect for the contestants.