AUTUMN has arrived with a vengeance, it seems.
I stepped off the plane at Leeds Bradford Airport a few days ago, having spent a cloud-free, sun-soaked few days at our beloved home-from-home in France, to feel the chilly blast of a proper Yorkshire October day.
The leaves are now definitely falling, as are the temperatures. All is back to normal, and I am perfectly content with this.
Autumn is, as many of you who read my articles regularly will know, my favourite time of year. I love the crisp, clear days, the colours of nature, and especially the food.
Now is the time to wheel the barbecue back into the shed, clean the salad drawer in the fridge and get out the big guns; the casserole pan, the roasting tin, the fondue set.
Autumn is a time for making pies, stews and braised dishes, for melting cheese. It’s a time for thicker sauces, jugs of custard, pickles and preserves, and the time when the word ‘dessert’ is less appropriate than the word ‘pudding’. The oven is about to put its shift in.
I love the days when one can walk in from a cold windy stroll into a warm, cosy kitchen, full of heavenly aromas. It just feels right. Comforting. And it was in such a mood that I thought of a nice thing to cook this week, twinned with the fact that I’d spent many happy hours last week wandering around French supermarkets, which is something I love doing on holiday wherever I go.
It’s always nice to surreptitiously gawp at what everybody buys for their weekly shop in France, Germany, the US or the Caribbean.
How does it differ? I’m fascinated. Anyway, on one particular trip to the local Leclerc, I noticed the pastry section had a colossal amount of part-baked puff pastry cases, and I thought of how long ago it was that I’d had a vol-au-vent.
Clearly they’re still a big deal over there, given the vast range of sizes and shapes, but here in the UK they appear to have been consigned to the past somewhat, along with the Party Seven and Advocaat. I love vol-au-vents; they’re perhaps THE retro classic.
No buffet was ever complete without at least a couple of silver doily-covered trays of these delicious puff-pastry nests, classically filled with prawns or chicken, but occasionally creamed mushrooms, and these were always a personal favourite.
Back when I was growing up, the tiny fresh button mushrooms one could get in any supermarket were rarely available, so one had to buy tinned. And that meant just one product. Even typing the word ‘Chesswood’ makes me tingle with nostalgic glee.
Chesswood packed amazingly wee mushrooms into their tins, either in a creamy white sauce or natural. Spooned into a light, crispy pastry case, they made for a quick, delightful little snack, and I remember many family occasions when plates of these little beauties would appear.
So I thought I’d make some of my own, with a slightly grown-up feel. Of course, any suitable wild mushrooms added to the mix would be amazing, as would a few darker chestnut or oyster mushrooms.
But I wanted to get those tiny mushrooms for this particular recipe, to satisfy the soul as well as the stomach.
You should, of course, feel free to play around.
500g ready-made puff pastry
400g very small button mushrooms
1 small onion, very finely chopped
A squeeze of lemon juice
2 tbsps plain flour
150ml double cream
A sprig of fresh thyme
1 fresh, free-range egg for glazing
Pastry cutters (ideally 9cm and 7cm)
First, make the vol-au-vent cases. On a wide, floured surface, roll out the pastry evenly to about 5mm thickness. Using cutters (or suitable sauces/ cups as a template) cut out 24 circles using the larger cutter first. You will need to fold and re-roll the pastry to use it all up. Then, cut a smaller circle in the centre of half of the cut discs. This should leave you with 12 large discs and 12 ‘rings’.
You can keep the centres of the rings for making lids, or discard them if you wish. Lightly whisk the egg, and brush this generously over the larger discs.
Lay the rings onto the discs, teasing them to the edges neatly, and brush with a little more egg.
Place on a baking tray, and chill while you prepare the filling.
Gently heat the cream and the milk in a saucepan. In another pan, sweat the onion in the butter until soft and translucent, then raise the heat and add the mushrooms, stirring frequently to get them nicely coloured. Tip in the flour and allow this to cook for a few seconds, then gently pour in the warm milk and cream. Stir all the time, bringing the sauce back to the boil. It should be nice and smooth. Simmer until the mushrooms are cooked through, then add some fresh thyme and a little lemon juice, plus salt and pepper to taste. Heat the oven to 200°C/Gas 6. Bake the vol-au-vent cases (and lids, if using) for about 10-15 minutes until risen, crunchy and golden.
If you’re serving immediately, which is preferable, spoon the warm mushrooms into the pastry cases (pop on the lids at a jaunty angle) and serve straight away, perhaps with a little bitter-leaved salad – chicory and radicchio would be great – but you can leave everything to cool at this stage and serve the vol-au-vents cold.