It seems as though cooks just can’t stop fiddling with historical dishes. Here is a prime example. Coulibiac is a very fancy and labour-intensive fish pie from Russia. So fancy, in fact, that Escoffier made it popular in France in the late 19th century.
I have made the traditional version in two fine restaurants in my time. This involves a large roll of puff pastry or brioche or blini that is filled with layers of buckwheat or buckwheat crepes, mushroom duxelles, rice pilaf, fish velouté, hard-boiled eggs and salmon or sturgeon.
It is a monster of construction and flavours and textures. There are so many textures and flavours, in fact, that I think, if deconstructed, each would make a worthy course on a fancy degustation menu.
But I actually find coulibiac’s grandness a little overwhelming and not terribly modern. So here is a lighter pared-back 21st-century version. It’s very pretty, not overly onerous to make, absolutely delicious and a very good recipe to squirrel away, or practise, for the festive table. The batter for the crepes, brioche dough and fish should all be prepared a day ahead.
– 500g ocean trout, pinboned and skin removed, then rubbed with 1 tsp each of salt, sugar and dill the day before and refrigerated
– 1 cup (240ml) full cream milk
– 1 tsp sugar
– pinch sea salt
– 40g butter, salted or unsalted, melted
– 35g buckwheat flour
– 60g all-purpose, or plain, flour
– 2 eggs
– 1 tsp chopped dill
In a blender, or with a whisk, mix all the ingredients until smooth, then cover and let chill overnight. To fry the crepes, remove the batter from the refrigerator and let come to room temperature (allow about an hour). Stir the batter briskly; it should be the consistency of heavy cream (if not, you can add a tablespoon of milk). Make 10 crepes, stirring the mixture between batches, as the flour tends to sink to the bottom.
– 5g castor sugar
– 200g strong white bread flour, plus extra to dust
– ½ tsp salt
– 3g fast-action dried yeast
– 35ml warm milk
– 2 large free-range eggs, beaten
– 125g unsalted butter, softened
– 1 extra egg, beaten, to glaze
For the brioche, stir the sugar, flour and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large mixing bowl). In a small bowl, mix the yeast and the warm milk together. Let sit for two to three minutes and then add the two beaten eggs. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in the milk mix, then use the dough hook attachment on the mixer to knead the dough for eight to 10 minutes until smooth and stretchy. At this point, add the butter, a chunk at a time, mixing well to incorporate each piece before adding the next. You should end up with a very soft, glossy dough. Cover and chill overnight and return to room temperature for one hour before rolling out.
– 65g unsalted butter
– 1 onion, finely chopped
– 1 small leek, trimmed and finely sliced
– 120g Swiss brown mushrooms, finely chopped
– splash vermouth
– splash white wine
– 100g spinach
Melt 25 grams of the butter in a large sauté pan or frying pan. Add the onion and leek with some salt and cook over a medium heat for six to seven minutes until softened but not coloured. Add the remaining butter to the pan and turn up the heat, then add the chopped mushrooms with more salt and fry for two to three minutes. Give the onions and mushrooms a stir. Leave to fry for another two to three minutes until softened and coloured. Splash in the vermouth and wine, reduce a little, then remove from heat and leave to cool.
Wilt down the spinach in a pan and leave to cool.
Punch down the brioche dough to knock out any air, then roll out on a lightly floured surface to a rough 35-centimetre square the thickness of a $1 coin. Cut a strip off to use as the lid.
Grease and line a log tin with paper and arrange the rolled-out dough in the tin, with the excess hanging over the sides. Carefully line the brioche with a single layer of crepes, then half the spinach, then half the mushroom mixture. Cut the fish to fit, lay in the tin, then repeat the mushroom and spinach layers and finish with crepes. Attach the dough lid to the sides, brush with the extra beaten egg, then prove in the fridge for 40 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180ºC, or 160ºC fan-forced.
Once the coulibiac is slightly puffed and firm, glaze the top again. Then, using the tip of a very sharp knife or scalpel, score a pattern into the top, making sure you don’t cut completely through the dough. Bake for 40 minutes until the brioche is deep golden and crisp. Remove from the oven, leave to cool for five minutes, then take out of the tin and slice. Serve with a lemon beurre blanc and a bitter leaf salad.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 2, 2019 as "My cheating art". Subscribe here.