Full disclosure: I was an off-again, on-again vegetarian during my college years, mostly subsisting on dishes like bean-and-cashew chili and spicy tofu. But, alas, times have changed and so have I. A post-graduation trip to Paris awakened my palate to meaty foods that are simply too good to ignore, and I have never looked back. At the top of my list is pâté. I’m talking about a break-out-all-the-stops masterpiece chock full of meat. And fat. And delight.
Ground pork and fat (lard or bacon) typically serve as the base for pâté, and “country-style” signifies a rustic texture. Although some cooks pass pork butt through a meat grinder, I have gotten terrific results using pre-ground meat. I like to combine 2 pounds of ground pork and with finely chopped bacon (chosen for its smokiness), and plenty of it: My recipe calls for 1½ pounds. That’s not a typo—good pâté requires lots of fat for richness and the proper dense texture.
If that doesn’t get your heart racing, consider this: If you can mix up a simple meatloaf, then you have the culinary chops to make a pâté to rival that of the finest charcuterie. Here’s how to do it.
I like to dive right in with my hands to mix the finely chopped bacon with the ground pork. Don’t forget to set aside 12 slices of bacon whole—we’ll get to them later.
From here, any number of meats, offal, or poultry can be mixed in. My choice: Chicken livers. I have it bad for their rich flavor and velvety smooth texture--they’re an absolute must in my pâté. Eight ounces, chopped into ½-inch pieces, is the right amount to stud the mixture with lots of succulent bits.
All of that meat needs to be bound together. In a bowl, whip 2 eggs with ⅓ cup heavy cream, the ideal ingredients for the job.
Now it’s time to break out the good stuff: Cognac. Don’t be shy. It’s important to add enough so that it can be tasted once the pâté is cooked. Pour ½ cup into the egg-cream mixture.
To the egg-cream mixture, stir in 3 minced garlic cloves and 1½ tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves along with a good dose of salt (2½ teaspoons). Next up: quatre épices. It sounds fancy, but au contraire—the term is simply French for “four spices.” Like pâté, quatre épices blends vary wildly from cook to cook. I make mine with a good amount of freshly ground black pepper plus touches of fresh grated nutmeg, ground cloves, and ground ginger. Whisk the spices into the egg-cream mixture instead of adding them directly to the meat to ensure even distribution.
Add this tasty concoction to the meats...
… and then get your hands back in there and mix it up again.
Now remember, this is an over-the-top, once-in-a-while recipe. To make it as decadent as possible, I like to finish it by stirring in green peppercorns and chopped pistachios. Pistachios contribute color and crunch, and spicy green peppercorns (underripe peppercorn berries packed in brine; look for them near the capers at the supermarket) brighten things up.
All that’s left to do is prepare the pan. An expensive terrine mold is completely unnecessary—I use an everyday 8½ by 4½-inch loaf pan. I like to arrange 3 fresh bay leaves greenside-down in the pan. They will scent the pâté as it cooks, as well as beautify the finished product.
Once the bay leaves are in place, line the pan with the 12 slices of reserved bacon. Some cooks use caul fat (the lacy lining of the intestinal cavity of the pig) or fatback (the unsmoked, unsalted layer of fat from the back of the pig) but neither is easy to find, and I think bacon tastes best anyway. Use six slices to line the bottom of the pan...
…and then use six more strips to line the sides, letting any excess flop over the sides of the pan.
Finally, scrape the pâté mixture into the lined pan. Don’t panic when it nearly overflows. There is a lot of fat in the mixture, and as it melts during baking, the pâté will shrink and settle into the pan. Use your hands to really pack the meat tightly.
Fold the bacon slices over the mixture so that all of its yummy fat can baste the pâté as it cooks.
Next, wrap the pan tightly in foil, place it in a 13 by 9-inch baking dish, and transfer the assembly to the lowest rack of a 350-degree oven. Pour boiling water into the baking pan to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. This setup, called a bain-marie, or water bath, will help the pâté cook gently and evenly. Bake the pâté until its center registers 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 2 hours 30 minutes.
Once the pâté has reached the proper temperature, remove the loaf pan from the baking pan and transfer it to a rimmed baking sheet, placing a heavy skillet on top of the pâté to weigh it down. This will ensure a nice compact texture. Let the pâté cool at room temperature for one hour, then transfer it to the refrigerator. It needs to chill for at least 8 hours, but you can leave it in the fridge for up to 5 days. The flavor of the pâté becomes more complex over time, so if you have more willpower than I do, wait a few days before you dig in.
On the day you plan to serve the pâté, remove it from refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature, about 1 hour. To free the pâté from the loaf pan, place it in a baking dish full of hot water for about 1 minute. Then, using paring knife, loosen the edges of the pâté from the pan.
To unmold the pâté, place a cutting board on top of it and invert the loaf pan.
Serving time! I like to serve the pâté with the traditional accompaniments of crusty French bread, cornichons, and Dijon mustard.