Coulibiac is probably one of the best fish pies ever! I was introduced to the wonderful world of Eastern European food in the mid 90s when some of my closest friends were from that region. My first truly Russian feast was at a celebration dinner hosted by a friend’s parents for 2 of my friends and me for doing the London Marathon! That started me on a journey of discovering the foods of that region, a journey I’m still on.
Over the years, I am pleased to say that my repertoire has grown from the original stroganoff and goulash to include the lesser known dishes of the area. Coulibiac (or Coulibiak) is a marvellous Russian pie made with salmon, eggs, rice and puff pastry. My first taste of it was at a friend’s Christmas party in the mid 90s – I had a wonderful mix of friends while in London (actually, I still do!) – in my immediate circle of friends, there was a Russian, Pole, Italian, French, American, Spaniard, German, Indian, Lebanese and a couple of English girls! How lucky were we?! We used to have so much fun together and, as we shared a passion for food, spent so much of our time scouring London and sometimes beyond, for new and wonderful places to eat. As we were all in our 20s or early 30s and into fitness, we could eat till the cows came home! Thankfully!
Russian cuisine is, as one can imagine, greatly influenced by its climate and sheer size. Even after the break up of the Soviet Union, Russia still covers over 17 million square kilometres, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the West to the Bering Sea and Sea of Japan, in the East. Of course, a large part of Northern Russia is a land of Permafrost and not viable for any form of crops or animal rearing. South of that and to the West however, where it starts to get milder, you’ll find game and freshwater fish and and as you go further south, you find all forms of crops and animals for local consumption. The variety of grain crops, wheat being the most common now, gives rise to a huge potential for the production of various breads (a staple), cereal and of course, vodka.
Caviar anyone? Well, Russia’s coastline is the 4th largest in the world, with access to 12 seas in 3 oceans. I find that totally amazing, and if you’re talking about its freshwater fish, it has over 2 million rivers! Blows your mind, doesn’t it?
The Coulibiak/c owes its origins to Kulebyaka, a closed pie with layers of pancake separating the filling which could contain meat, fish, potatoes, eggs, cabbage, etc, depending on the cook, the region and the season. The modern Coulibiac is usually a salmon pie as mentioned above, some of my Russian friends insist that it refers to only salmon filled, while others say it encompasses any meat used with the other ingredients! I have only on one occasion had it where chicken was used instead of fish.
These days, more often than not, the pie is made from fresh salmon, I personally prefer to use some cured or smoked salmon for it – gravadlax is perfect, I find the rich taste of cured salmon complements the eggs, rice and cream perfectly. Generally, the rice used is just lightly flavoured rice but from my very first couple of bites, I have always felt that a flavoured rice would do so much better. To that end, I have always made a quick risotto type rice to go with my coulibiac.
In Eastern European cuisine, you’ll fine many recipes calling for smetana, a type of soured creme. Many substitute it with creme fraiche but I think a proper soured cream is a much better match to the original, unless of course, you have a Russian/Polish grocer/deli around the corner, like I do!
Quite often, all the ingredients are mixed up and put in the pie altogether but I prefer layering them, as not only is this more aesthetically pleasing but it also allows you to savour each ingredient as a part of the whole! I finish it off by sprinkling some breadcrumbs over the pastry, a new trick a friend of mine taught me recently, but you can leave it plain or decorated with pastry shapes.
So, here’s my recipe for Coulibiak, perfected over a decade! Made easier with shop bought puff pastry! Less than 100 days to Christmas, apparently (!) – perfect Christmas main course for non meat eaters!
- 1 portion of risotto bianco (recipe below)
- 300g/10.5 oz salmon (about 2 fillets)
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 3 sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 x 320g/11oz pack all butter puff pastry
- 3 boiled eggs
- 3 Tbsp soured cream
- 2 Tbsp fresh dill, chopped
- 200g/7 oz smoked salmon
- 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten, for glazing
- freshly ground black pepper
- 120g/4 oz risotto rice
- 1 Tbsp butter
- half EV olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- 500ml – 750ml/2 -3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- handful fresh parsley, chopped
- freshly ground black pepper
- Heat the butter and olive oil on medium heat in a frying pan and sauté the onions until translucent,about a couple of minutes.
- Add the garlic, sauté for 30 seconds.
- Add the rice, stir to coat and keep stirring for a minute until slightly translucent.
- Add the stock, 2 ladles at a time and cook until each addition is dried up before adding the next 2 ladles. You don’t have to stir continuously, 2-3 times with each addition should do. Cook the salmon while you’re doing the risotto and save time.
- Keep adding the stock until the rice looks cooked, after about 20 - 25 minutes. You may not need all of it, it does depend on the rice. Take a bite and the rice should taste and feel cooked with just a bite to it, like al dente pasta. If not quite cooked, add more stock.
- Season with some freshly ground black pepper and stir in the parsley.
- Turn out onto a plate to cool down while you continue with the pie.
- While cooking the risotto, let’s also attend to the salmon fillets. Season the salmon with the lemon juice, a pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Either cook it under a medium hot grill for about 5 minutes each side or cook it in a frying pan, with a teaspoon of olive oil, on the stovetop, for about 3 minutes each side. It’s fine for the salmon to be slightly pink on the inside.
- Transfer to a plate and using 2 forks, break the salmon up into shreds.
- Mash the boiled eggs with a fork in a roomy bowl.
- Add the dill, soured cream, a pinch of salt and some pepper and mix thoroughly.
- Set aside.
- Unpack the smoked salmon and set aside.
- Roll out your pastry on a lightly floured surface. We are aiming for a square that measures about 36cm x 36cm (14 in). Use a ruler. If you’ve gone for ready rolled pastry, using a rolling pin to roll out to the desired size. A rough estimate is fine, a little short here and there is not a problem.
- Now, cut the pastry into 2, with one being larger than the other (for the top of the pastry. Make one about 20cm (7.7 in), and the other 16cm (6.3 in).
- Let the pastry rest for 5 minutes. Place the larger pastry on a lightly floured baking sheet and place in the fridge.
- Grease a second baking sheet.
- This is the fun bit, we are going for layers that will go like this: risotto, salmon, smoked salmon, eggs, smoked salmon, salmon, risotto.
- Place the smaller pastry on your greased baking sheet.
- Spread half the risotto on the pastry, leaving a clear 2.5cm (1 in) border all around.
- Follow by half the shredded salmon.
- Lay down half the smoked salmon, it’s perfectly fine to overlap as you will have more than enough for a single layer.
- Follow the smoked salmon with all of the boiled eggs.
- Then reverse the layers: smoked salmon, salmon pieces and finally the risotto.
- Brush the empty edges of the pastry with the beaten egg yolk. If the egg yolk is too thick, just lighten it with a teaspoon of milk or water.
- Now gently cover everything with the larger sheet of pastry that’s been resting in the fridge. Press the pastry down with your fingers, packing the filling in, leaving no space between the filling and the side of the top pastry.
- Press down all around with your fingers to seal.
- Then, take a fork and stand it upright against the edge of the pastry and push back into the pie, creating a scallop pattern and sealing the pastry further.
- Get a pair of kitchen scissors and just cut about 4-5 vents in the top of the pastry.
- Angle the scissors at 45˚ and snip.
- Brush the pie all over with the egg yolk.
- Preheat the oven to 220˚C (425˚F).
- Place the assembled pie in the fridge for 30 minutes for the pastry to firm up. This will give you beautifully flaky pastry.
- Bake in the preheated oven for 20 - 25 minutes until it’s a beautiful golden brown.
- Let it rest for 5 minutes then serve as suggested above.