When I first signed on as the charcutière at Formaggio Kitchen, I was excited to work with meat. “What does the position entail?” I asked Ihsan, the shop’s owner. “You’ll be making sausages, curing meat, breaking down whole pigs and rabbits. Stuff like that,” he said. “And pâtés. Lots of pâtés.” That stopped me in my tracks. Sausages, great. Butchery, no problem. How hard can meat curing be? But pâtés? This was another story.
Pâté was mysterious, classic and tricky-sounding. I accepted the position with a bit of apprehension. Now, entering my third holiday season at the shop, pâtés have become one of the items I particularly look forward to making. And we make a lot of them!
Pâté-making, once you get a few tricks up your sleeve, can be simultaneously simple and rewarding. I’ve tweaked some of the recipes that predated me and added a few new ones to our repertoire, and our house-made pâtés have become some of the shop’s most popular charcuterie offerings.
My colleagues and apprentices over these past few years have been intrigued and surprised by the amount of work that goes into each batch of pâté. From the meat sourcing and grinding to the garlic peeling and thyme stemming, pâté making is a labor-intensive process that takes several days from start to finish.
Every pâté recipe has three components: meat, a liver binder, and a defining garnish. We start with the best and freshest meat available. Our meat, predominantly pork, comes from local, small family farms. We bone our rabbits ourselves, and cut our pork butts into meat-grinder sized cubes. The meat is carefully weighed, then salted and frozen in a single layer so that it does not bruise. We grind the meat while it’s still about halfway frozen (secret trick #1), add fresh fatback and mix well.
The liver binder is the flavoring component of the pâté, and is the most labor-intensive of the three parts. Each pâté binder is a little different, and the ingredients in each vary to enhance the type of meat in the pâté. For example, our rabbit pâté is flavored with rum (for sweetness and depth) and lemon zest and fennel seed (to highlight the delicate flavor of Vermont rabbits).
The flavor components vary but all of the binders contain garlic, shallots, local eggs, cream, fresh herbs, our signature pâté spice blend, pork, chicken, or rabbit livers and some form of alcohol. The binder flavors the pâté but also provides the richness and density that are its defining qualities. We blend the binder until very smooth, then slowly combine it with the ground meat mixture.
The garnish is often the most fun part of pâté-making. This is the finishing touch that makes each pâté unique, whether it be the blend of fresh mushrooms and truffle salt in the Pâté Forestier or the delicious dried tart cherries that stud our Duck Pâté. The garnish allows the pâté-maker a little creative license, and maybe even a little whimsy. When I was developing our recipe for Pâté Grand-mère, I knew I wanted to make a pâté with a bacon lattice woven on top. But what to put inside to accent a rich, porky pâté? More bacon, of course! This time in the form of crispy little lardons. The interior garnish is prepared ahead, allowed to cool, and mixed into the pâté at the very end, “like chocolate chips in cookie dough,” I always tell my apprentices.
Then the pâté mix is packed away and stored in the refrigerator for at least one night to allow the flavors to develop (secret trick #2). The next morning we carefully pack the meat mixture into glass baking terrines, pressing and smoothing as we pack to avoid trapping air bubbles. We get to garnish each pâté again, this time on top, with caul fat or pancetta or bacon, or prosciutto in the case of our Rabbit Pâté, each of which is individually wrapped in Prosciutto di Parma before baking.
The pâtés are baked slowly in a water bath and checked frequently until they reach their desired temperature. Some are then baked uncovered for a short time so that their tops become golden brown. Next the pâtés are removed from the oven and basted with their own juices while they cool (secret #3). They go into the refrigerator in their terrines overnight to firm up, and then the next morning we slide them out, wrap them up, and distribute them among our three shops.
The following is our recipe for Pâté Grand-mère, adapted for the home kitchen:
Yield: 1 terrine (about 2 ½ pounds)
Special equipment: meat grinder, 1/2-quart glass terrine (Julie uses one that is 8 ½-inches long, 4 ½-inches wide and 2 ¾-inches deep)
- 2 pounds pork butt, trimmed of glands and cubed
- 1/2 pound pork fatback, cubed
- 1/8 pound pancetta, cubed
- 2 tbsps kosher salt
- ½ c pork liver, cleaned and diced
- 2 medium shallots, peeled and quartered
- 2 medium cloves garlic, halved
- 1 tbsp Italian parsley, roughly chopped
- 2 tsp fresh thyme, stemmed
- 2 tsp pâté spice blend
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tsp quatre épices
- 1/4 c brandy
- 1/4 c dry white wine
- 1 tbsp sherry
- 1 tbsp tawny port
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 c light cream
- ¼ pound slab bacon, diced into 1/2 inch cubes and sautéed for lardons
- 8 strips bacon, thinly sliced for wrapping tops of pâté
- Combine cubed meat, fatback and pancetta. Mix well with salt, spread on a sheet pan, and freeze until hard but not completely frozen.
- Meanwhile, sauté diced bacon until just crisp, then drain and cool.
- For binder, combine garlic, shallot, herbs, spices and alcohol. Pulse in food processor until roughly chopped. Add liver, eggs and cream. Blend well to emulsify. Mixture should be smooth.
- Grind partially frozen meat, then mix on low speed until well-combined. Finish immediately or keep well-chilled until ready to mix with binder and garnish.
- When you are ready to proceed, add binder to meat mixture and combine well, scraping down bottom and sides of bowl.
- Add lardons (bacon) and mix just until evenly incorporated.
- Spray a glass terrine with cooking spray and pack pâté mix into the terrine, pressing down with a rubber spatula as you go to eliminate any air bubbles. Top each terrine with finishing garnish of bacon strips. Trim bacon and tuck any loose ends into the sides.
- Spray a piece of tin foil with cooking spray and cover the pâté (sprayed side on the inside). Make sure foil is tented and does not touch the top of the pâté.
- Bake at 325°F in water bath that comes roughly half-way up the glass terrine. Bake until internal temperature reads 135°F, approximately* 1 hour and fifteen minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until internal temperature reaches 155°F, approximately* 15 more minutes. Let cool in water bath, basting occasionally, until room temp, then refrigerate overnight. Pop out and clean off any extra fat before serving.
*Please note that baking times will vary depending on the shape of your glass container and on fluctuations in oven temperature. The key thing is to hit the specified temperatures.
Julie Biggs is charcutière and a frequent classroom instructor at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.