Steak Au Poivre -
February 11, 2021
This year, perhaps more than usual, many of us are planning Valentine's date nights at home. Beautifully sauced steaks served with a nice bottle of wine will surely impress while not trapping you in the kitchen. In this classic French recipe, pepper-crusted steaks are pan-seared in butter, then finished with a velvety cognac sauce, which gives a slightly sweet balance to the pepper's robustness. There is much lore behind the origins of this dish, but one version dates back to 19th century Normandy, where its popularity in late-night bistros was tied to the belief that black pepper was an aphrodisiac. Ooh la la!
2 6-8oz tenderloin steaks (1 ½" thickness)
2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns
2 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ½ tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced shallot
½ cup beef stock
⅓ cup cognac or brandy
3 tablespoons unsalted butter softened
1-2 tablespoons heavy cream (optional for extra richness)
Pull steaks out of the refrigerator and allow them to come to room temperature. Coarsely crush the peppercorns (see notes). Evenly coat both sides of the steaks with crushed pepper and use the heel of your hand to gently press into the meat. Allow peppered steaks to rest for at least one hour before cooking.
Heat 1 ½ tablespoons of the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan over moderate-high heat. While the pan heats, generously salt both sides of the steaks. The oil is ready when the butter foam dissipates and is shimmering but not smoking. Don't let it burn! Place steaks in the pan and gently swirl the butter around as the meat sears. Cook for 3 minutes and then flip, cooking 3 minutes on the other side. Reduce the heat to medium and flip the steaks again. Cook another 3 minutes on each side. Start checking for doneness after the last flip. Six total minutes per side should get you to medium-rare; 8 minutes per side will be closer to medium. A digital meat thermometer can be helpful; for medium-rare, the steaks should be taken from the heat when the internal temperature reaches 128-130, the temp will continue to rise to 130-135 as it rests. When finished, place steaks to rest on a warm platter and tent with foil.
Drain the excess fat from the pan, but don't wipe clean; leave the browned bits stuck to the pan. Add 1 tablespoon of butter and the shallots and cook for a minute or two over medium heat. Add the stock and raise the heat to moderate-high. Scrape all the browned bits from the bottom and incorporate them with shallots. When slightly reduced, add the cognac and boil off the alcohol. When reduced to a good sauce consistency, take off the heat and whisk in the softened butter, one tablespoon at a time. Taste and add more salt if needed. If using heavy cream, whisk in and return pan to low heat and gently heat through. Serve sauce generously poured over tops of steaks. See below for pairing ideas.
Peppercorns should be crushed coarser than most peppermills will allow; use a mortar and pestle if you have one. Or place the peppercorns in between two pieces of parchment paper and smash with a heavy pan or mallet. I used the smooth side of a meat tenderizer.
If using a gas range, use caution when adding the cognac or risk losing your eyebrows. Flambé is a technique best kept in a professional vented kitchen.
For this special occasion, I opted for pricey tenderloin steaks, but you could also use boneless New York strip or top sirloin steaks. The above recipe is for two, double or triple it for an elegant dinner party. Lucky guests.
Pair this rich peppery dish with a lush fruit forward red wine, such as cabernet, syrah or gamay. I served it with a 2016 Morgon "Vieilles Vignes" by Jean-Paul Thevénet, and it was sublime.