French Puff Pastry Hand Pies with Rabbit (or Chicken)

recipe + photography by BILLY DOUKAS

Well… who can pronounce pâte feuilletée? This flaky, light puff pastry, filled with a savory meat filling of rabbit or chicken, often appears in French cuisine. French bistros serve rabbit (lapin) as a comfort food. Here in Maine, commercial rabbit is available, however snowshoe hare hunting season runs from late September to late March. (Cottontail rabbit does not have an open season since Maine is trying to restore their population.)

This recipe blends two of the five “mother sauces” of French cuisine—velouté and béchamel—with Gouda cheese (a meltable Dutch cheese) to create a mornay sauce, which combines beautifully with slow-cooked then sautéd rabbit meat for the puff pastry dough filling. When baked, it presents a wonderful hand pie “pâte feuilletée” that makes a superb appetizer, dinner main or brunch highlight.


Yield: 12 hand pies  
Time: 75 minutes (following 5 hours of Crockpot cooking)

NOTE: Rabbit has a stronger taste than chicken and is more tender.

Crockpot
1 whole rabbit (2 pounds) or 1 whole chicken (2½ to 3 pounds)
2 cups vegetable broth, preferably high quality
2 cups water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons dried dill
6 bay leaves, broken in half
1 whole dried or fresh hot pepper, of your choice (cayenne, habanero, chile, etc.)

Sauté
Pre-cooked, de-boned rabbit or chicken meat (from Crockpot)
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
4 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, or dried
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper

Mornay Sauce
1 cup broth (from Crockpot)
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 ounces roux: 2 ounces salted butter and ½ cup flour
2 ounces cheese: I use Gouda, Saint Andre, Fontina or Gruyere, in order of preference. These particular cheeses are great for melting.

Puff Pastry (Pie Dough)
2 packages Puff Pastry by Wewalka (a European-style bakery dough available at Hannaford’s and Shaws)
1 egg white, beaten with 1 ounce cold water

Crockpot:
Place thawed rabbit (or chicken) in a Crockpot with listed ingredients, set on high for an initial 1½ hours, then reduce to low setting for 3½ hours. Remove meat and set in a pan, and use small tongs and fork to separate meat from bones and set on a cutting board. Chop the meat coarsely and set aside in a bowl. (The meat yield will be approximately ¾ pound.)

Pour Crockpot broth through a strainer into a saucepot. Place on the stovetop over medium-high heat. Boil uncovered until 1 cup remains. (Initial cooked broth amount will be approximately 2½ cups.) Turn off the burner and move on to preparing the roux, sautéed veggies and cheese sauce.

In a small saucepan, prepare a roux, by melting butter, and stirring in flour over low heat until blended and smooth. Set aside.

Sauté:
Heat butter and olive oil on medium heat in a large cast-iron pan, add shallots, celery, parsley, salt and pepper and sauté for 10 minutes. Reduce to a very low simmer, add the Crockpot-cooked meat and move on to preparing your cheese sauce.

Mornay Sauce:
Add 1 cup milk to the broth in the saucepot. Set to medium-low heat, add salt and pepper and roux, 1 tablespoon at a time, and stir steadily (pause occasionally, but keep it going). After 10 to 15 minutes, the mixture will thicken to a gravy-like consistency. Add cheese, cut roughly into 1- x 1- x ½-inch pieces, stir and allow to melt, another 5 minutes.

Pour the sauce into the cast-iron pan over the meat mixture; gently stir to combine. This is a good time to taste test and adjust spices to your liking.

Voila! You now have your meat filling for the puff pastry. Here comes the fun part….

Pastry:

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (included in the pastry dough package).

Roll out the puff pastry dough on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut rectangular dough into 6 equal squares. Place 1 overflowing ice cream scoop of the meat filling in the center of the small pastry sheet, and gently mold with 2 index fingers into an oblong (football) shape, positioning the ends at opposite corners. Carefully lift 1 corner of the square, folding it over to the opposite corner and press together, creating a triangle. Line up the 2 edges and press together, first with fingers, then using the back of a fork, seal the triangle edges. (You will need to gently stretch the dough a tiny bit, and may have to poke a bit of the meat back into the puff.)

Slide the first 6 puffs onto a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet, brush the egg whites on top of the puff pastries and place on the center rack in the oven.

Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until golden brown on top. Monitor carefully as ovens differ!  Remove and serve hot.

Sides + Pairings

Hand puff pies are a terrific brunch pastry. I love to serve (and eat) them with a side of mango chutney or blackberry preserves on a plate with scrambled eggs. Add a sparkly fruity mimosa.

For lunch or dinner, a perfect accompaniment is a side dish of French green lentils with Swiss chard: sautéed with onion, garlic, thyme and lemon juice, and then simmered all together in water until tender. A split pea soup is a good accompaniment as well.

Pouilly-Fuisse ($29/750 ml: Louis Latour), a dry white wine made from Chardonnay grapes, which often has oak influence, will work very well. A delicate Pinot Noir, such as Bernier, Val De Loire ($12.50/750 ml) is also a good pairing.

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