70s throwback: vol-au-vents or mini puff pastry tartlets filled with delicious mixes are still a crowd-pleasing party staple.
Love the puff, don’t love making it
Puff pastry is party food rescue, the carb-rich solution everyone craves when they’ve had a couple of drinks in them. And it’s the fallback for when you can’t be bothered to make elaborate en croute dishes with meats or fish.
I’ve never tried making proper puff pastry at home, I’m ashamed to admit.
The experience of producing laminated dough which I have scored on my bedpost is traumatic enough.
Rolling out the butter. Encasing the butter in impossibly stiff dough. Rolling it out while butter happily peeks through the layers of pastry and sticks mainly to the worktop, rather than the dough. Folding and folding, pure Spinal Tap.
Trying to roll out the finished dough thinly only for it to maliciously spring back into a plump cushion.
Admittedly, my Danish pastries and croissants are divine but the work involved is soul-destroying.
It's all right to outsource puff pastry
Safe in the knowledge that even the great chefs say there’s nothing wrong in buying good quality puff, I use it for all kinds of lovely concoctions: sausage rolls, tarts and pies, sweet morsels or cheese puffs.
These little tartlets are cut out in rounds and baked in a mince pie tin. But of course, use individual pastry cases if you have plenty of them for your purpose.
I supply my favourite fillings below: prawn, spinach and cheese and bacon. They are usually the most popular with crowds. But there are plenty of variations you might want to consider.
Make a mushroom filling adopting my mushroom ragu recipe.
In the season, chop up some lightly cooked asparagus in butter.
Use the caramelised courgette recipe and fill the pastry cases with that – it will be a hit disproportional to the common popularity of the vegetable.
Piperade, red peppers cooked with mild chilli flakes is another fabulous option.
Or cook pork mince until crisp, like in the recipe for crispy mince and beans salad and top it in the pastry cases with grated cheese.
How to make the prawn pastry filling
You can use cooked prawns in the recipe, in which case just thaw them if frozen, chop them up and stir with some garlic sweated gently in a teaspoon of butter.
But raw prawns are sometimes much better value and if they are cooked lightly, they won’t turn rubbery when further baked in the pastries.
Just chop them up roughly, soften minced garlic in butter in a little skillet, then add the prawns and up the heat a little. They will only need a minute of tossing and turning in the pan before they turn pink.
Let them cool down before loading the pastry shells with them.
The same mix can be used to dress pasta, with gorgeous results.
How to make spinach filling
This is spinach filling 101, the go-to spinach recipe that can be a standalone side dish or a filling for anything you want, really.
Either fresh or frozen spinach can be used but in the latter case it’s good to let it thaw, so you can discard some moisture even before cooking it down.
A little butter, salt, black pepper and grated nutmeg are standard seasoning for spinach but a little blue cheese of your choice (nothing too pricey, obviously) will both thicken and liven up the spinach filling.
How to make bacon and cheese filling
The easy way: finely chop up the bacon and mix it with coarsely grated or shredded hard cheese: Cheddar, Gruyere or similar. Fill the pastry shells with the mix.
The super-easy way: crumble the cheese straight into the prepared tartlets, then arrange some bacon chunks on top.
How to handle puff pastry
Puff pastry requires a bit of toing and froing from the fridge. To roll it out (unless ready-rolled), it needs to be thawed to almost room temperature, otherwise it’ll crack.
But once cut and prepared, it needs to chill again before baking. Always bake puff pastry confections straight from the fridge, otherwise the butter in the pastry will melt too soon and leak out into puddles instead of staying put making the pastry flaky.
Unless you have dozens of individual tartlet cases, use a mini pie or Yorkshire pudding tin, any kind with shallow indents.
Cut your pastry rings with a cutter slightly larger than the diameter of the holes in the tin. Line them by pressing pastry discs in gently, then dispatch the tin into the fridge while you prepare the fillings or preheat the oven.
Before loading the fillings in, pierce the bottom of each case with a fork, to stop pastry puffing up in the wrong places. You can also brush the bottom with beaten egg, to prevent soggy bottoms.
Baking and serving
Baking takes all of fifteen minutes or thereabouts, until the pastry edges turn puffy and golden and whatever was raw in the fillings (bacon) is cooked.
They will need to stand for a minute before extracting from the tin and they can be served straight away or kept at room temperature until required.
More party food recipes
Bacon wrapped chicken chunks, grilled and served with pan fried mushrooms, are a wholesome main course. On their own, bacon chicken bites are a classic appetiser.
Brown sugar bacon - crispy bacon baked with brown sugar and mustard glaze, the best sweet and salty party hit. To make it, bake bacon until crispy, then bake it again with the glaze.
Corn tortilla chip nachos with easy homemade beef chilli, sweetcorn and cheese. Homemade nachos are the perfect recipe for a crowd-pleasing supper or snack.
More puff pastry recipes
Crunchy puff pastry bites sprinkled with cinnamon sugar – an irresistible way of using puff pastry offcuts.
Mini party rolls, filled with chipolata sausages or ham and cheese filling. They are easy to prepare and invariably the biggest hit with party people.
Burger wellington with mushrooms and shallots wrapped in puff pastry, an easy version of beef Wellington. It’s a fancy dish for dummies, it’s your Valentine’s Day dinner this year.