Updated: Dec 12, 2021
"[The vol-au-vent] is attractive and undoubtedly very good: it is almost always eaten with pleasure on account of its extreme delicacy and lightness."
Marie-Antoine Carême, accredited inventor of the vol-au-vent (1784-1833)
Yet again inspiration is harvested from Rick Stein - well, he is prolific in his recipe-writing, especially when it comes to seafood. In his "Seafood Lovers' Guide", a culinary adventure around the coasts of Britain, he devised a recipe for vol-au-vents filled with cockles and laverbread following his visit to the Gower peninsula in south Wales. Both are ingredients native to that region but, while cockles are available on the market stall much of the year round, I am not holding my breath to find the latter on it any time soon (though, incidentally, there are occasionally some sea vegetables on offer). At the same time, my peculiar appetite for a play-on-words is never fully satiated and the temptation of hijacking the name of the Scottish "Cock-a-Leekie" soup has long been hard to to resist. Leeks and Béchamel will always work with pastry and leeks and shellfish work superbly, so there wasn't much of a risk to take here - just finding the right balance.
In the process of developing the recipe I was intrigued to understand the difference between a vol-au-vent and a bouchée. Having consulted Auguste Escoffier's 1903 aide-mémoire, "Le Guide Culinaire", the culinary encyclopedia that is "Larousse Gastronomique", and Michel Roux's "Pastry: Savoury & Sweet", I was at first drawn to infer from the absence of the vol-au-vent in the former that the vol-au-vent must have been invented after 1903. However, reading through the recipes in "Larousse Gastronomique", I am compelled to understand that the vol-au-vent was in fact invented some time earlier and is typically around twice the size of the bouchée and should have a lid. It is probably, therefore, more correct for these to be called "Cockle-Leekie Bouchées". I doubt it would deter your diners - everyone loves a bit of puff pastry whatever it's called.
A word of thanks to my intrepid neighbour who, earlier today, braved both the elements and the current health risks to taste-test the final recipe for these with me on our respective balconies sat at a 3m distance of separation. Plates were washed in scorching hot soapy water, chef sang happy birthday three times and service was delivered with rubber gloves (well, freezer-bags). Not exactly the fine-dining silver service that such a delicate dish once commanded but, judging by her dispatching of two rather than her allocated one of the vol-au-vents, I conclude they were to her liking. I hope you find them to yours.
These vol-au-vents are far easier to make than it might first look. If using ready-prepared vol-au-vent cases the effort is more or less equivalent to that of making a creamy pie filling, for example, that of a traditional fish pie. The level of difficulty is barely raised much by making your own pastry cases (see Notes for a method), that is if you use ready-prepared puff pastry. My favourite rough puff is simply not light and flaky enough for this task and, having made puff pastry once under precise instruction at Leith's School of Food & Wine, I am clear that making it once is adequate enough achievement in that department of pâtisserie for me. Moreover, it is possible to do almost all of the work here well before the vol-au-vents are due to be served, and there is a guide in the Notes how to do this. Jus-Rol are one manufacturer of a range of ready-made puff pastry products widely available in supermarkets.
One thing that is important in a recipe which builds a sauce from a roux is to stick to the quantities prescribed. That is the relative quantities of flour, butter and liquid. In other words, if doubling or tripling the quantity of any one of these ingredients, the remaining ingredients need to be doubled or tripled as well.
I don't really have any particular idea in mind how, when or why these might be served. As written, the recipe is probably most suited to being served as a starter, perhaps with some salad leaves. An alternative, if not preferable, option is to serve them as bite-sized vol-au-vent canapés but, for this I'd lean towards ready-prepared cases, as making a large quantity of miniature puff-pastry artworks is invariably a test of patience.
Ingredients (Makes 4 vol-au-vents)
750g cockles, washed and scrubbed
50ml white wine (or water)
100g leek, cut lengthways in half then thinly sliced crossways into half-rings
10g butter, plus a couple of knobs extra
10g plain flour
125ml (approx) whole milk
3 tbsp very finely chopped curly parsley (or 2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley)
1-2 tbsp double cream (optional, or to taste)
1-2 tsp lemon juice
Salt and ground white pepper
Grated nutmeg (optional)
Vol-au-vent cases, 3" in diameter (see Notes if making from scratch)
If making your own vol-au-vent cases, do this first (see Notes). Otherwise follow packet instructions for ready-prepared cases.
In a frying pan, heat the couple knobs of butter and gently sweat the leeks, sprinkled with a little salt and white pepper, for about 10 minutes until they are very soft, but not coloured. Remove from the pan and set aside.
While the leeks are cooking, heat the wine (or water) in a saucepan large enough to take the cockles and for which you have a lid. Once boiling put the cockles in the saucepan, cover with the lid and bring back to the boil. Cook for 2-3 minutes, shaking a few times, until the cockles have just opened. Set a sieve over a bowl and strain the cockles and their cooking liquor through the sieve. Put the cockles to one side to cool, meanwhile strain the cooking liquor again, this time through a sieve lined with kitchen paper to extract any grit. When the cockles are cool enough to handle remove the meats from the shells and keep aside.
Put 4 tbsp of the cockle liquor in a measuring jug and make it up to the 180ml mark with the milk. Melt the 10g butter in a non-stick saucepan and stir in the flour. Once incorporated, allow to cook for a minute without colouring. Gradually beat in the cockle-liquor/milk mixture and then simmer gently for 5 minutes, stirring regularly, or a little longer until it has thickened to the point of coating the back of a spoon. Taste for seasoning and adjust to taste with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg (if using): it probably won’t need much, if any, salt. Add the cockles, leeks, chopped parsley and 1 tbsp double cream (if using), and warm through for a minute or so. Add 1 tsp of lemon juice and have a final check of seasoning. Adjust to taste, adding a little lemon juice if it needs to be a bit sharper or a dash of cream if it seems a little thick.
Heat the oven to 200°C and meanwhile fill the pastry cases with the cockle-leekie mixture, then carefully place them on a baking sheet. When the oven is hot, put the baking tray of vol-au-vents in and warm for about 5 minutes. They are now ready to be served.
Vol-au-vent pastry cases: Preheat the oven to 200°C. Roll out puff pastry on a floured surface to 5mm thickness (Jus-Rol ready-rolled all-butter puff pastry comes like that). Cut 4 discs of 3” diameter and put on a baking tray lined with lightly-buttered baking parchment, then brush them with egg-wash made from 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tbsp milk. Cut another 4 discs of 3” diameter, then use a 2” diameter pastry cutter to cut an inner circle in each. With a palette knife, lift these 4 discs (both the inner and outer) and place on top of each of the whole discs. Press the outer ring of the top disc gently onto the lower disc and brush the outer ring with the egg-wash (take care not to let any egg-wash drip down the side as this will prevent the pastry from rising evenly). Prick the inner disc once with a fork, going all the way through to the base. Put in the oven for about 15-20 minutes until risen and golden and crispy. Remove from the oven and carefully cut the inner disc off the vol-au-vent and then very carefully scoop the uncooked pastry in the centre out. Brush a little more egg-wash around the sides of the cases and return to the oven for a further 5 minutes to dry out the insides. The vol-au-vent cases can be kept in an air-proof container until ready to use.
Make-ahead: The recipe can be made ahead up to and including step 4 and both the pastry cases and the cockle-leekie mixture can be kept in a cool place for a few hours, or in the fridge if to be left for longer. The pastry cases can be put in the oven from cold, but the filling needs to be reheated and will most likely need a little thinning with a splash of milk, lemon juice, water or double cream, as preferred. At this point the recipe can be finished at Step 5.
"Rick Stein's Seafood Lovers' Guide", Rick Stein (2000), pp. 137: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rick-Steins-Seafood-Lovers-Guide/dp/0563488719
"Le Guide Culinaire, Aide-Mémoire de Cuisine Pratique", Auguste Escoffier (1903), pp. 98 (accessed 29 March 2020): https://archive.org/details/b21525730/mode/2up
"Larousse Gastronomique", Joël Robuchon et al (2000), pp. 141 & 1282: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Larousse-Gastronomique-Hamlyn/dp/0600620425
"Pastry: Savoury & Sweet", Michel Roux (2008), pp. 135: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pastry-Savoury-Sweet-Michel-Roux/dp/1844008274