Vol-au-vent, which means "flying in the wind" in French, is a French puff pastry made by baking rings of pastry in such as way that a hollow cylinder is made when they rise. In most instances, vol-au-vent is served filled with ingredients that range from savory to sweet but generally contain cream or sit in a cream sauce. Depending on how the pastry is made, it can have a small disc of pastry as a bottom, creating a sealed area for food; it also can have a small piece of pastry on top, like a lid, so the inner contents are not seen when served. Although the most traditional shape is a cylinder, it also is possible to create square vol-au-vent and nearly any other shape. The size of the pastry can range from bite-size to cup- or bowl-like.
The key to making vol-au-vent is using chilled, properly made pastry dough so the rings of pastry rise evenly and predictably. Pastry dough is a basic flour dough that has a layer of butter rolled like a sheet into the center of the dough. Once the butter is encased in the sheet of dough, the sheet is folded and rolled repeatedly while it remains chilled so each fold allows more layers of butter to be distributed through the thickness of the dough. When starting to make the pastry rings, it is vital that the dough remain chilled up to the moment it is placed in the oven.
The first step in creating vol-au-vent is to roll out chilled pastry dough into a flat sheet. With either a knife or a round pastry cutter, circles are then cut from the dough. It is important to cut the dough straight down as simply as possible, because twisting or otherwise moving the cutter could cause the many layers of the dough to pinch together, preventing it from rising. If a bottom is desired on the shell, then two circles need to be cut for each shell that will be made.
To make the pastry rings, the insides of the circles are cut out. The inner circle of dough can be baked with the rings to form lids for the shells. The vol-au-vent is assembled by first placing a solid circle of dough on a baking sheet and coating it in egg wash. Next, a hollow ring of dough is placed on top of the base. If lids are being made, they are baked separately.
The baking sheet is placed into an oven and baked slowly while being constantly monitored to ensure that all of the rings are rising evenly and not burning. When the baking is done, the shells can be filled and served immediately. Some savory fillings include spinach and bacon in cream sauce, salmon or crab in cream sauce, or onions and roasted vegetables in sour cream. Sweet fillings can include whipped cream and fruit, chocolate ganache, or vanilla and liqueur custard.