Funny how memory works! You make a dish which has been a family favorite for many many years and suddenly all of those who ever shared it with you show up in your mind and heart as if they were ready for a chat and a hug.
The recipe was given to me by my friend Cricri who lives in a village near Paris in a tiny yellow house with blue shutters. Her small kitchen opens onto a walled old garden where the scent of her baking mixes with the fragrance of the nodding lilac. My friend Nicole, who also lives near Paris, likes it so much that the year she turned 50, I made sure our yearly trip to France coincided with her birthday celebration and I baked two of them for her party: I still remember the assembly line she created on her dining room table (her kitchen was way too small) and the arriving guests milling around us, glasses of sangria in hand. My friend Do (who lives in a 17th century house in Versailles and whose father was Russian-born) bakes a mean koulibiac too but she uses fresh salmon fillet and I always liked the smoked salmon version better. Sorry, Do !
My mother-in-law (who hailed from Denmark but whose mother was Russian and who grew up in St-Petersbug) loved it because it brought her back to her early years in czarist Russia: the swishing noise of the sleds in the street below, the jingling of the bells, her niania (nanny) with her towering bonnet and her grandpa sitting at the head of the table, a large white napkin tucked under his flowing beard. Magic tales of yesteryear to one who had been brought up on Russian novels!
Before Cricri baked this recipe with me, my own most memorable experiences with koulibiac were with the ones my parents ordered for very special occasions from the Italian caterer on Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris, near our home. It was shaped like a log, not like a fish and the hard-boiled eggs were always left whole and lined up in a single file in the middle of the spinach filling, so that each slice of the koulibiac featured a beautiful yellow sun against a dark green background. Lovely! Personnally, however, I still think the fish shape is more spectacular but if you decide to stick to more traditional koulibiac shapes, just google the term and dozens will appear.
I don’t make the dish very often (usually only once a year for New Year’s Eve) because the process is rather time-consuming. Even when all the ingredients are ready, it usually takes me two and a half hours to assemble it. But it is creative and fun and I get to visit in my mind with all the people I ever baked it with or for and that’s a big plus.
I wasn’t planning to blog the recipe so I wasn’t set up to take any pictures. But almost half-way through, I though, why not? Maybe some of you would enjoy making it as much as I do and starting a new family holiday tradition. So here we are. The pictures are from my phone and they are not very good. Also since I thought of taking pictures kind of late in the game, I don’t have any from the beginning of the process. Still I think they give a good idea of the assembly process, don’t they? Happy New Year!
Ingredients (for 8 people):
- 735 g puff pastry (3 frozen puff pastry sheets)
- 340 g smoked salmon, sliced
- 8 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
- 1 big bunch of parsley, chopped
- 4 shallots, minced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 250 g cooked rice (I use brown basmati rice)
- 750 g leafy greens, steamed and squeezed dry (I use a mix of spinach and Swiss chard leaves)
- Egg yolks (for egg wash)
- For the sauce:
- 450 g sour cream (you want the regular one, not a low fat or no-fat one containing thickening agents)
- 2 lemons (if they are juicy, you actually only need one and a half)
- 30 minutes before starting, take the dough out of the freezer
- Flatten the dough (patching one whole sheet and a half-one together) using a rolling pin and cut out the shape of a fish (remembering to leave a 2-cm border all around). This will form the bottom crust
- Using the bottom sheet as a template, cut out the other sheet and a half, leaving a wider border (at least 4 cm) to provide for the filling. This will form the top crust. Do not throw away the leftover scraps of dough as you will need them for the fins, the eyes and any other decoration you might wish to use
- Incorporate the chopped eggs in the rice
- Incorporate the minced shallot and garlic in the chopped parsley
- Place the bottom fish crust on a semolina-dusted parchment-lined half-sheet baking pan (I forgot to do that one year and had to transfer the assembled koulibiac from the countertop where I had rolled out the dough to the baking sheet without the assistance of any paper or liner. Not a mistake I am likely to make twice!)
- Keeping 2-cm away from the edge on the bottom sheet, start building the different layers spreading half of the rice and egg mixture first, then the greens, then the salmon, then the shallot-garlic-parsley mixture, then the remaining rice, making sure the fish is entirely covered save for the border
- Salt and pepper to taste (be careful with the salt since the salmon might be rather salty)
- Make sure the edges are clear of rice, egg or parsley and paint them all around with egg wash
- Carefully position the top sheet of dough over the bottom and press all around the edges so that the top and the bottom fish are firmly stuck together
- Add fins, eyes (when there are little girls around, I like to make it a she-fish with long eyelashes, mouth, etc.)
- Paint all over with eggwash, draw scales and tail as desired and crimp the edges all around
- Bake in preheated 350°F/177°C oven for about an hour, checking frequently to make sure it is baking evenly. You may need to tent foil over it at some point to prevent overbrowning.
- While it is baking, squeeze the lemons and, using a fork, incorporate the juice into the sour cream until the cream liquefies a bit
- When the koulibiac is ready, bring to the table to slice so that your guests can decide whether they want a piece of the tail, or the eye, or a fin. My oldest grandchildren – who were always adventurous and appreciative eaters – liked to be able to choose.
- Serve hot with the sauce on the side. (Over the years I have found that the best way to pair the sauce with the fish is for each guest to gently lift the crust on his or her slice of koulibiac, pour a generous tablespoonful of sauce over the steaming filling and fold the crust back over the whole thing.) Blissful!
The Salmon Koulibiac is going to Susan for Yeastspotting, her weekly roundup of breads and other baked goodies.