It usually goes something like this: You've mastered vinaigrette and finally know how to produce a perfect omelet. You know how to roast a duck and make mayonnaise, and ge'noise is a sure thing. You might even have mastered puff pastry.
Then you get it in your head that you want to make pa te'. You dream about the little pa te' de campagne you ate in that heartbreakingly picturesque village in Burgundy. You want to reproduce the elegant vegetable terrine you had at an expensive nouvelle cuisine restaurant. Or you just love meat loaf and want to carry it one giant step further.
Pa te's and terrines are wonderful summer food because they are usually served cold. They don't have to be heavy, fat-laden affairs, either. Many modern vegetable terrines are bound together with a relatively light "mousse" made of white meat of chicken.
Whether to call what you have produced a pa te' or a terrine is one of the fine points on which connoisseurs of culinary detail love to discourse. Technically speaking, the word pa te' implies that there is a crust surrounding the meat or vegetable mixture that is the main event. The same mixture without the crust would therefore be a terrine. In a stunning departure from the usually sure-footed French approach to food, however, even the authoritative "Livre des Terrines et Pa te's" admits a certain confusion in current usage of the two terms and, in fact, they are often used interchangeably.
In order to produce pa te's or terrines, you'll probably need both a meat grinder and a food processor, and in some cases a fine-meshed tamis, or drum sieve.
You'll also need something to bake your creation in, and here the possibilities begin to multiply.
Well-equipped kitchenware stores will have three main types of molds in which to produce pa te's or terrines: those made of earthenware, which are usually oval but sometimes round or rectangular; the long, narrow terrines made of enameled cast iron; and the metal molds in which you produce pa te's that include fairly elaborate pastry crusts.
The latter are beautiful in themselves, but they are relatively expensive and can't be used to make a crustless pa te'. They come in two shapes, a long rectangle and a sort of pointed oval. The rectangles will leave a fine herringbone pattern on the sides of the crust; the pointed ovals, a fluted pattern.
Either version requires a pastry top that can be as elaborately designed as a persian rug, or as simple as a few little pastry flowers laid on the main pastry blanket. For cooks with artistic or theatrical tendencies, these molds provide lots of nice opportunities.
The earthenware and enameled cast-iron molds can be used for pa te's with or without crusts, and the shape you buy depends mainly on what looks more inviting to you. The cast-iron terrines will always come with a top, and to be the most versatile, so should the earthenware version.
The enameled cast-iron rectangles seem to lend themselves to more elaboration in the design of the pa te' itself, which often includes symmetrically arranged layers that reveal themselves when the pa te' is sliced.
Pa te's made in earthenware terrines are often more rustic, rougher types, and they are often served directly from the terrine. But truffles and foie gras are not strangers to earthenware terrines, which can be used to encase pa te' in a crust, too, if you want to.
One of the treasures of traditional French cookware, in fact, is an elaborate version of this earthenware terrine with tops formed and painted to look like ducks, hares or mushrooms. These are priced like art, usually over $100, and hard to find. Williams-Sonoma has a hare version made by Apilco now on sale, the Coffee Connection has a few decorated with duck heads, and several classic versions made by Pillivuyt can be ordered through La Cuisine.
A fourth version of terrine, in white porcelain, is sometimes encountered. It will do anything an earthenware terrine will do and the pa te' will stand out beautifully against the white when served from it, but the terrine will tend to get irreversibly grungy faster.
Why can't you make your pa te' in a plain aluminum loaf pan? You can, particularly if it is protected with a crust. But most pa te's require long, slow cooking in a water bath, and crustless pa te' baked in a thin pan will often have a harder, thicker outer layer than desired.
All versions of these molds come in different sizes, and some of the smaller earthenware versions are especially enticing. Enticing also would be a whole stair-stepped collection displayed somewhere in the kitchen. But if you can only have one, choose one somewhere in the range of four to six cups.
Finally, a couple of books: An English version of "Le Livre de Pa te's et Terrines" is available at La Cuisine, and it is a magnificent treatise on the subject. It would be useful for anyone interested in making pa te's and terrines, from the novice to the expert. Another thorough but less beautiful book is Jane Grigson's "The Art of Making Sausages, Pa te's and other Charcuterie," which is widely available.