Puff pastry is one of the most versatile ingredients available for making appetizers. It is often shaped into small, hollow pastry shells, called patty shells or vol-au-vents. The French name, which translates as "puff of wind," accurately conveys their light and airy nature. The shells can be purchased baked or unbaked, or you can make enough in one afternoon for several months' entertaining.
Quiches and Custards
Quiche or custard fillings are a quick, easy way to make appetizers for a crowd, even on short notice. The two fillings are very similar, with a quiche filling having more eggs than cream and a custard filling having more cream than eggs. To prepare the vol-au-vents, fill the shells loosely with savory ingredients, such as ham, crumbled bacon, sauteed spinach, fresh herbs or toasted nuts. Add a dash of dry dressing and seasoning powder to enhance flavors. Cover them with your egg and cream mixture, and then bake until set. Serve warm, garnished with fresh herbs or shredded cheese.
Vol-au-vents are an excellent vehicle for small portions of intensely flavored seafoods. Shellfish such as crab, lobster and shrimp in cream sauce make tasty hot appetizers, or they can be chopped with herbs and creamy salad dressing for cold appetizers. In either case, fill the vol-au-vents and garnish with a suitable herb. Vol-au-vents can also be filled with your favorite hot dip, made with crab, shrimp or smoked salmon. Other smoked fish can also be used to fill the pastry shells, either as a creamy dip or flaked into a salad with fresh vegetables.
Mushrooms and crisp pastry are a perfect appetizer. Saute your mushrooms in butter with shallots, and then make a sauce with beef broth or, for a vegetarian-friendly option, vegetable broth, seasoned with dry dressing and seasoning mix. Spoon the hot mushrooms into your vol-au-vents. For a memorable variation on the theme, add fresh or reconstituted wild mushrooms to the mixture. Just a few morels, shiitake or porcini can make the whole dish more elegant. If wild mushrooms aren't available, add a few drops of truffle oil to your mushrooms at the end of cooking, when you remove them from the heat.
Cheese is another natural ingredient for vol-au-vents, either as the featured ingredient or as a rich, strongly flavored supporting player for other foods. Fill your vol-au-vents with a savory cheesecake mixture, substituting a strong cheese for the usual cream cheese and leaving out the sweeteners. Complement the cheese with dried fruit, toasted nuts or fresh herbs. Fill a small vol-au-vent with quiche mixture, a light sprinkle of dry dressing and seasoning mix, and then top it with a small wedge of Brie or Camembert. The rich cheese can also be paired with a spicy fruit chutney, for a more adventurous combination.