Beef Wellington is the sort of dish I like to serve for Christmas. For lack of a better word, it’s fancy.
It’s a beef tenderloin covered by a thin layer of sauteed mushrooms and shallots wrapped up and baked in a puff-pastry crust. The golden crust hides the succulent beef that is only revealed when you cut into it; it is a delightful culinary surprise that also pairs the buttery pastry with the rich and juicy meat.
So when I thought about what to serve for Easter, I had the idea of making essentially a lamb Wellington.
Lamb is closely associated with Easter for both religious and seasonal reasons. Baking it inside a puff-pastry crust makes it fancy.
Like beef Wellington, lamb in crust (the French call it agneau en croûte) is easier to make than your guests will assume. Or it should be. Maybe it is in France.
Traditionally, it is made with what is called the saddle of lamb, which is to say the loin. It is a lean and tender piece of meat that cooks relatively quickly. In other words, it is a perfect cut of meat to cook inside puff pastry.
But if there is a saddle of lamb to be found in St. Louis, I couldn’t find it. So I went with a cut that is more plentiful and also cheaper: boneless leg of lamb.
The leg, though, comes with a set of problems that are not found in the loin. It’s lumpy, which makes it challenging to cook it all to the same temperature at the same time. And it is denser than a loin, so it takes longer to cook. The longer it cooks, the more likely the puff pastry is to burn.
But if you take care, and you don’t mind a crust that is more rustic than elegant, you will be rewarded with a grand dish that will be warmly received at Easter or any dinner party or occasion.
About that crust: You can make it yourself, which I strongly encourage you to do. In fact, I made two versions to see which one was easier and faster and tasted better. As it turns out, they were virtually indistinguishable. And both were far superior to the stuff that comes in the box in the freezer section.
But the point is that you can get it from the freezer section, and it will be fine. It is not as flavorful or as impressive as the puff pastry you’d make yourself, but still — it’s puff pastry. Everybody loves puff pastry.
There are many ways to make it, and I chose a recipe that includes egg yolk, which creates a sturdier pastry. That’s another advantage to making it yourself; you can make it so the pastry isn’t too frail or delicate. It can stand up to the lamb’s heartiness and robust flavor.
A surprisingly delicate balance plays out between the pastry and the meat. The pastry dough is shockingly full of butter. It has half again as much butter as a similar recipe I use to make croissants — and they’re croissants. There is nothing more buttery than a croissant, or so I thought until I tried this puff pastry.
In fact, while I was making it I test-baked a small portion of both of the versions I was trying. Each rose impressively, with layers of delicate flakes, which is what I was looking for. But when I tried them, they were almost oppressively rich. I was downhearted, but I decided to press on and wrap the dough around the lamb to cook it.
In the context of encircling the lamb, the crust did not seem too buttery at all. Instead, it turned out to be the natural complement to the hearty meat.
Even so, the meat and the crust are both so opulent that they need something astringent to cut them, and that is where the remaining part of the dish comes in. In between the meat and the crust is a gorgeous layer of sautéed spinach that adds just the right sharp notes to the dish and holds it all together.
Along similar lines, I first smeared the meat with a mixture of Dijon mustard and rosemary. This combination also brings the soaring richness of the meat and the crust down to earth.
I love using Dijon and rosemary when I cook lamb. It makes it fancy.
LAMB IN CRUST
Yield: 12 to 14 servings
1 (5-pound) boneless leg of lamb
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
3/4 teaspoon pepper, divided
2 tablespoons shallots, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, crushed and finely chopped
2 pounds spinach, washed
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 Egg Yolk Puff Pastry (see recipe) or 1 box store-bought puff pastry
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk or cream for the wash
Note: The puff pastry can be made up to three days in advance and the spinach filling (step 3) can be made one day in advance.
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Remove all large pieces of fat from the lamb. Cut the lamb into 2 or 3 pieces, where each piece is more or less the same thickness (one piece will be larger and thicker than the others). Season meat generously with 1 teaspoon of the salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the pepper.
2. In your largest skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Brown lamb on both sides. Remove lamb to a roasting pan (you can keep it in the skillet if it is ovenproof) and place in oven 10 minutes. Remove from oven, and use tongs to place each piece of meat into a separate resealable plastic bag. Seal, and put each bag in the ice water. If you don’t have resealable bags, simply allow the meat to cool to room temperature.
3. Return skillet with lamb drippings to medium-high heat, and add shallots and garlic (if cooking filling in advance, use 2 tablespoons butter instead of lamb drippings). Cook until shallots are translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes, and add as much spinach as you can without spilling over the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until it has wilted enough to add another large amount of the spinach. Continue in this manner until all the spinach is cooked. Stir in remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
4. Mix together Dijon mustard and rosemary. Use a brush or your hands, which is more fun, to smear the mixture all over the meat.
5. Divide the puff pastry into 2 or 3 pieces, depending on the number of pieces of meat. If one piece of meat is significantly larger than the other, make one piece of puff pastry larger, too. Roll out the puff pastry into large rectangles about 1/8 inch thick. Slice off 6 (1/4-inch) strips of pastry for each piece of meat you have for decoration; you won’t need all of the puff pastry.
6. Place a piece of meat in the center of each rectangle of dough, and arrange the spinach underneath and on top of each piece. Brush the sides of the dough with egg wash and carefully fold one side over the meat. Bring the other side on top so it overlaps slightly.
7. Do the same with the other two sides of the pastry, overlapping in the center, so the meat is fully enclosed. Trim any excess pastry. Place each pastry-wrapped piece of meat, seam-side down, on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush again with egg wash and decorate with the reserved strips of dough in a criss-cross pattern. Brush the decorations with the egg wash and chill in refrigerator at least 1 hour before cooking or, if necessary, for 15 to 20 minutes in the freezer.
8. Cook in 425-degree oven for 20 minutes. Lower temperature to 375 degrees and cook for 35 to 45 minutes, until a meat thermometer inserted through the crust and into the thickest part of the meat reads 140 degrees for medium rare. If the pastry is turning too brown before it is done, cover with foil. If it is not turning brown enough, raise the temperature to 425 degrees. Remove to a platter and let rest at least 15 minutes before serving.
Per serving (based on 12): 650 calories; 37 fat; 20 g saturated fat; 235 mg cholesterol; 45 g protein; 32 g carbohydrate; 1 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 771 mg sodium; 113 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman, adapted from “La Methode” by Jacques Pepin