Party season is upon us, and I for one am ready for it. Not for festive drinks that taste like Christingle candles. Not for the consequent hangovers. But for the canapés. I’m sure I’m not alone in loving canapés more than full-sized food. I can’t be the only one who positions themselves strategically near the kitchen at festive dos, so as to swoop on these delicious morsels as they leave the kitchen.
There are certain smells that take me back to the grown-up parties I was occasionally allowed to attend as a child. The smell of my mother’s perfume, and of fresh nail polish. And, of course, the smell of vol-au-vents.
Every party that my mother hosted, every Christmas, was marked by vol-au-vents. To me, they were the epitome of chic. Tiny little pastry cups filled with delectable morsels, eaten by elegant partygoers in frocks and suits. At Christmas, I would offer them round, of course, in a sort of token way. But once one or two had gone, I would quickly steal them away to ‘replenish’, which really meant eating as many as I could manage in one go.
My mother’s vol-au-vent fillings were particular and unchanging: tinned chicken curry, and condensed mushroom soup mixed with tuna fish. Both of which sound disgusting — and yet they would absolutely feature in my last meal on earth. It took me a long time to realise that these were, perhaps, not the elegant party snack I understood them to be. Turning up at a New Year’s Eve aged 19 with a large platter of rapidly cooling grey ovals, I was met with a dozen dismayed faces.
The creation of the vol-au-vent is usually attributed to the 19th-century celebrity chef Marie-Antonin Carême. Apparently he switched out a shortcrust shell for puff pastry, to create a snack so light ‘it flew away on the wind on coming out of the oven’. (This is where the name — ‘vol-au-vent’, French for ‘windblown’ — comes from.) I recognise my own view is tinged with nostalgia. Even so, I urge you to go along with me. Vol-au-vents have every ingredient required of a platonic canapé: flaky pastry, bitesize form, endless versatility. What’s not to love?
This vol-au-vent recipe is a little more modern than my mother’s, and gratifyingly simple to put together. The lamb is smeared with ready-made paste, and cooked low and slow until meltingly soft. In an ideal world, I’d probably use lamb shoulder, but it seems a nonsense to me to suggest using such a large and expensive cut for such tiny little bits. Instead, I cook the cheaper, leaner lamb neck in harissa until it falls apart. Once the lamb is cooked — filling your kitchen with the scent of rose and caraway — it’s essentially an assembly job, and a forgiving one at that: cool, garlicky hummus spooned into the pastry, then hot, spiced lamb, all sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and chopped coriander, the bright pink and green of the garnish subtly hinting at Christmas. So embrace the kitsch: this year, make vol-au-vents the star of your festive party.
MAKES 36 CANAPÉS
TAKES 15 MINUTES
BAKES 4 1/4 HOUR
• 36 VOL AU VENT CASES (FROZEN)
• 1 EGG YOLK
• 4 TABLESPOONS HARISSA PASTE
• 5OOG LAMB NECK
• 200G HUMMUS
• 1 POMEGRANATE
• 1 HANDFUL CORIANDER LEAVES
1. Preheat the oven to 130°C. Sprinkle the lamb neck with a pinch of salt, and smear with four tablespoons of harissa paste. Place into a small ovenproof dish with a lid so that the neck sits snugly. Pour 250ml of water into the dish. Place the lid on it and cook for four hours, checking at the halfway point and adding a splash more water if the bottom looks dry. Once the lamb is tender enough to break apart with a fork, shred it, and set to one side.
2. Turn the oven up to 200°C, break an egg yolk into a small bowl and add a tiny splash of water to loosen it. Space the vol-au-vent cases on a couple of lined baking trays, and brush their tops with egg yolk. Bake for 12–15 minutes, turning them once halfway through.
3. When the vol-au-vent cases are still hot but cool enough to touch, remove their middles with a sharp knife or by pressing them down with your thumb. Traditionally, you’d return the lids to the vol-au-vents once filled, perching them on top, but I like to be able to see what’s inside, especially when they’re as pretty as these.
4. To assemble, place a teaspoon of hummus in each vol-au-vent, creating a dip in it with the back of your spoon. Fill this dimple with a little heap of the warm lamb. Top with coriander leaves and a few pomegranate seeds.
Olivia Potts is the winner of the Young British Foodies’ ‘Fresh Voices in Food Writing’ 2017 award.