"Russians will stuff dough with anything that doesn’t stuff them first," writes Jon Fasman. He devotes his latest RePasts column to the layered fish pie kulebyaka ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, Winter 2008
“The kulebyaka should be appetising, shameless in its nakedness, a temptation to sin” ~ Anton Chekhov, “The Siren” (1887)
Russians will stuff dough with anything that doesn’t stuff them first (I once had a memorable meal in Moscow of home-made horseradish booze with bear dumplings), but of all their pies—pirogi, rasstegai, vatrushki or vareniki—the layered fish pie kulebyaka, or coulibiac, is the richest, most intricate and most special: the crowning glory of the classical Russian kitchen.
Most baked Russian pies use a basic shortcrust; coulibiac, testifying to centuries of Russian francophilia, begins with either brioche or puff-pastry, which should be made in advance and chilled. And because one layer of bread is never enough, the bottom of the pie is lined with blinchiki—thin, unleavened pancakes (blini are made with yeast and cream; blinchiki use only flour, milk, butter and eggs) cut into rectangles.
Atop the bread comes a thin layer of pre-cooked rice, sometimes spinach or another type of green, and then another of onions and vesiga—preserved sturgeon spine, which adds a delicate flavour and gelatinous texture. Following, in order, are sliced hard-boiled eggs, sautéed mushrooms and poached salmon. Then the layers are reversed, until the pie is topped with onion-vesiga-rice mixture.
As befits such a grand dish, opportunities for further ostentation abound. The pie can be baked in the shape of a fish, with scalloped pastry laid atop like scales. Gogol’s “Dead Souls” mentions a four-cornered coulibiac with sturgeon cheeks and vesiga, buckwheat groats, mushrooms and onions, and brains and milt (the semen sac of a fish, usually herring). Yet as Chekhov implies, coulibiac should not be served with an elaborate sauce, but with simple melted butter poured—shamelessly—over the whole thing.
Picture credit: Clifford Harper