As tasty as these little bites were, I have to confess that I probably won't make them again ... at least not this small. For the amount of time it took me to cut out all of the rounds, chill the dough, bake them, make the filling, stuff them, etc., I could have made three other things instead. I've used puff pastry in larger shapes for things like Asparagus Shortcakes, Strawberry Shortcakes, and Chicken Pot Pie, but never this small. For future bites, I'll stick to baking them into small shells. I had wanted to try something new to go along with our Christmas Eve appetizer tradition. My intention was to make my own puff pastry, but with everything else going on, I took the shortcut and bought the dough.
Vol-au-vents are layers of puff pastry stacked and baked together to form a sort of tube. You can also press puff pastry into little tartlet shells, but those are more shallow, so it really depends on what you plan to fill them with. I did two layers so they would be just a bite, but you could stack another layer to make them even deeper.
2 sheets puff pastry
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 oz diced pancetta
1 T white wine vinegar
3 shallots, diced
4c torn kale
1 can artichoke quarters, diced1/4 c ricotta cheese
1 T cream cheese
I think the biggest problem leading to my frustration was really that I need a set of Linzer cookie cutters. To cut the rounds, I used a small fluted biscuit cutter for the outer ring and a random kitchen tool cover to cut the inner rounds. I tried the bottom of a piping tip, but that was too small.
Let your dough thaw per the package instructions, then roll out on a lightly floured work surface to seal the seams.
You will be cutting the dough by creating three different shapes - the bottom layer, the rounds that will rise to form the sides, and the center pieces that can be stacked together and re-rolled, or baked along with the others and used as tops or as a garnish for another item. The ones I made with the piping tip ended up serving as croutons to accompany a Mushroom Stew that night.
Most instructions will tell you to cut out a bunch of the large circles, then go back and cut the centers out of half of those to create the sides and tops, but I had a problem with that. Maybe we were cooking/baking so much at the time it was just too hot in the kitchen, but when I made my first pass of cuts and went back to separate them and move them onto the tray, I found that many had managed to seal back together already. That was what I found so frustrating - having to go back and re-cut, which can affect your rise. You really need a clean cut. Unlike with some dough where you might wiggle the cutter around to loosen it, doing that with puff pastry will seal the layers together and prevent a nice rise.
For me, it worked best to cut a few of the base circles and remove them to the tray before continuing with their counterparts. You could also just remove the scraps from between them as you go along.
Regardless of how you manage to get the shapes onto the tray, you will want to prick the dough with the tines of a fork to "dock" it. This allows more of the moisture to escape, leaving you with nice a crisp bite.
Beat the egg in a small cup or bowl, and lightly brush just the tops of your shapes, then gently press the "empty" rings over the base pieces, lightly pressing to adhere.
Refrigerate the tray to give the dough a chance to firm up again while you preheat the oven to 400. Luckily for me, it was very cold outside that day, so I was able to set the tray out on the back deck without having to sacrifice fridge space.
OK, here's a confession that makes me laugh now but played a part in my frustration at the time. Almost every recipe I looked at for working with puff pastry said to bake it with a sheet of parchment or a silpat over the top so that they rise evenly. I was thinking who the heck cares if they're the same height?!? And how are they supposed to rise with something as heavy as a silpat over them?!?! I expressed that out loud and was met with agreement. It wasn't until I baked my first tray - without any kind of cover - that I realized what was meant by that instruction and we had a good chuckle. In the event you interpreted that the same way we did, it really meant the cover will help each puff rise straight, rather than crooked like mine. You will see that some of mine are tilted. I still can't imagine using a silpat, but I might use parchment next time.
Bake them at 400 for about 15" or so until they rise and start to lightly brown. Then you can remove the cover if you're using one, poke down any centers that may have risen too high (I used the handle of a wooden spoon so I wouldn't burn myself), then put them back in at 350 until nicely browned - another 15-20".
|See? Crooked. Oops!|
For the filling, cook the pancetta until crispy, then remove it from the pan and set aside. There shouldn't be a whole lot, but pour off or soak up with a paper towel most of the grease, and add the white wine vinegar to deglaze any crispy bits from the bottom of the pan.
Saute the shallots until they start to soften, then add in the kale and really stir it around to coat with the wine and pancetta flavor.
When the kale starts to wilt down a little, add in the diced artichokes and season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat and cover the pan to give the kale a chance to really wilt down, stirring occasionally.
When the kale is tender, stir in the ricotta and cream cheese, then remove from the heat.
When your puffs come out of the oven, fill them with the artichoke mixture and sprinkle the pancetta on top. As I mentioned recently when making Garlic and Herb Stuffed Peppadews, I like to use iced tea spoons for this sort of thing. They are small enough to fit into tight spaces and shallow enough for me to get in there to push the filling off.
In the past, when I have used puff pastry, I just cut out whatever shape I wanted, baked a single layer, then carved out the top when it finished baking. Doing this gave me the confidence to make FULL-SIZED vol-au-vents in the future for my asparagus shortcakes and other fillings. Even if I get the right cutters, I don't think I'll be making the minis again. They're cute, and tasty, but (for me at least) not worth the time spent.