A month ago, I lent my dining room and kitchen to one of my closest friends, a chef, for her 30th birthday. This turned out to be both an excellent decision on my part as I was effectively wined and dined in my own home, and also a very efficient way of having someone else clean my kitchen for me. Part of the feast was chicken liver pâté, smeared inside puff pastry, and topped with perfect chicken. It was glorious, and reminded me how much I love chicken liver pâté, and how much of a cinch it is to make.
There’s a good reason that chicken liver pâté is a classic, and why it has become a mainstay on so many restaurant menus: it’s easy and cheap to make, it’ll keep in the fridge under a layer of butter but, most importantly, it’s a complete crowd-pleaser.
I take the easy route here: no messing about with water baths or eggs, no cooking at all, in fact, instead letting the pâté set in the fridge, and then covering with butter to seal and slightly extend its shelf life. As fabulous as pâté en croûte is, it has no place here: smooth pâté shouldn’t be wrapped in pastry, it lacks the structure, and doesn’t need the adornment.
So, what are the non-negotiables of pâté? First, butter, and lots of it, emulsified into the pâté, and, in a nod towards the preservation, sitting as a lid on top, sealing it so it will sit happily in your fridge without discolouring. Second, a silken texture: there are pâtés which call for lumps and chunks, but this is not one of them; here I pass the pâté through a fine sieve or tamis to ensure the smoothest possible end result. Don’t overcook the livers, as they can become grainy, but rather leave them just pink in the centre of the lobe. And what else? Booze is a welcome addition, something sweet and fortified like madeira, or marsala wine works very well, reduced until sticky, and blitzed into the mixture. I like my butter lid with a little spice in it: mace is perfect here, aromatic and suitably medieval-tasting, without overwhelming the pâté itself.
Chicken liver pâté is, invariably, a starter dish, and that’s thanks to its richness: served in slim slices, or in little pots, it’s a glorious way to kick off a meal. Eat it, as is traditional, with points of toast, crustless, impossibly thin, and terribly elegant – or break from tradition and smear it thickly onto doorsteps of toast, smashing the mace butter in as you go. It goes like this…
Chicken Liver Pâté
Makes: Two large ramekins of pâté, or enough for starters for 4-6 people
Takes: 15 minutes, plus chilling
Bakes: No time at all
400g chicken livers
1 banana shallot
100ml marsala wine or madeira
50ml double cream
50-75g butter, depending on how many ramekins you use
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
1. Melt 15g of butter in a pan. Cook the chicken livers for a couple of minutes on each side over a medium heat, turning them over: they should change colour, but still retain a hint of pink within. Set to one side.
2. Dice the shallot as finely as you can and cook gently in the butter left in the pan, until soft. Add to the food processor with the chicken liver.
3. Reduce 100ml of madeira or marsala wine by half in the pan, scraping up any little bits that have stuck to the bottom. Pour this into the food processor along with the cream and a generous pinch of salt.
4. Whizz the whole mix together until smooth, and then add the butter in chunks, bit by bit.
5. Check for seasoning, and push through a fine sieve to ensure smoothness. Pour into large or individual ramekins and place in the fridge for 20 minutes.
6. Melt the ‘topping’ butter gently, sprinkle in the mace, and divide between the ramekins, forming a thin layer over the pâté on each. Chill for a couple of hours, until the butter is firm and the pâté completely cold.