Kulebyaka: King of Russian Salmon Pies
I am completely smitten with a smashing new cookbook on Russian cooking, “T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks” (2018, University of North Texas Press), written by Sharon Hudgins, a Russian scholar and former University of Maryland professor. Sharon and I have known each other for many years, and I was thrilled when she sent me a copy of her book.
This is a book about the foods and people of Siberia and the Russian Far East, a region often given short shrift in other Russian cookbooks. And Russia’s Asian side is dear to my heart because my father was born there, in Irkutsk, and I grew up eating many dishes his mother, my Baba, cooked for us in Shanghai, where I grew up.
As I leafed through the book, my eyes widened when Kulebyaka popped up. As I read the recipe for this multi-layered Russian salmon pie with rice, mushrooms, onions, and hard-cooked eggs, all wrapped snugly in a crisp pastry crust, tasty memories came flooding back. I just had to have it again.
The Kulebyaka recipe in “T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks,” and in other sources, all say to bake the pie free-form. When my family made it after we emigrated to the United States, we baked it in a jelly-roll pan. Free-form is definitely the way to go because the pie is a celebration of both crust and filling, and free-form gives you lots of flaky, crispy, crust.
Sharon has generously allowed me to present the Kulebyaka recipe as written in her cookbook, which I’ve tweaked just a bit. Because the recipe involves several parts—all of which can be readied a day ahead—I am suggesting you make it easy on yourself by substituting store-bought Pepperidge Farm puff pastry (or any brand you like) for the homemade crust. I am sure that once you’ve made and eaten this glorious pie, you’ll be as crazy about it as I am.
“T-Bone Whacks and Caviar Snacks” is a treasure trove of Russian history, recipes, the places Sharon and her husband, Tom, have lived, and above all the personal relationships they created with the incredible people they met and cooked with in Russia.
Step by Step photos to a spectacular Kulebyaka
Pastry base rolled out and sprinkled with fine dry breadcrumbs. Note that all 1-inch margins are free of crumbs.
First cooked rice layer spread over the bread crumbs and drizzled with butter and lemon juice.
Cooked mushroom and rice is layered over the rice.
Poached salmon pieces and sliced hard-cooked egg layers arranged on top of the mushroom and onion layer. Eggs are seasoned with salt and pepper.
The egg layer is topped with another layer of mushroomd and onions and a final layer of rice. I place a sheet of plastic wrap on top and press all the layers together firmly to make a compact loaf.
The shaped Kulebyaka ready to be covered with the top sheet of pastry.
And here is the Kulebyaka ready to be baked. I’ve brushed the pastry all over with egg glaze and decorated the pie with random pastry cutouts. The central hole allows steam to excape during baking.
Here’s the Kulebyaka ready to serve. See how distinct the layers are? Making this is a real achievement.
Kulebyaka (pronounced koo lebYA-ka)I suggest you prepare all the components a day ahead and refrigerate them. This is an excellent party dish because on party day, simply roll out the pastry, assemble the kulebyaka a couple of hours before serving, and bake and serve the pie warm.
What does kulebyaka mean? One source I read says that the word comes from an old Russian verb – ‘kulebyachit’, which means to make with the hands, to shape, to bend and to knead. This makes sense because you press all the layers together into a compact loaf before covering with the top pastry sheet.
1 package (2 pastry sheets) frozen Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry OR your favorite pie dough formula using 4 cups of flour
1 pound boneless, skinless salmon or steelhead fillets, cut into 3-inch squares
3/4 cup water
3/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter (divided use)
3/4 cup raw medium-grain rice (such as Arborio)
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound fresh cremini or white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 large hard-boiled eggs
Glaze: 1 large egg beaten with 1tablespoon milk or cream
Optional: Bowl of crème fraiche or sour cream to serve with koulebyaka
- Thaw the pastry in its package in the refrigerator and keep it cold.
- For the filling, put the fish pieces in a single layer in a large (12-inch) skillet. Add the water, wine, and salt. Bring the liquid to a simmer over medium-low heat. After a minute or two, turn the fish over carefully and partially cover the skillet. Reduce the heat to low. Poach the fish for about 4 minutes in all, depending on its thickness, until it is just cooked. Slightly underdone is okay. Do not overcook. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the fish to a plate to cool. Pour the poaching liquid into a heatproof glass measure, measuring out 1-1/2 cups of liquid. If there is not enough, add more white wine.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat in a heavy-bottom saucepan. Add the raw rice and cook in the hot butter, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes. Pour in the 1-1/2 cups of poaching liquid and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to very low, cover the pan tightly, and cook for 20 to 25minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. Set aside, uncovered, to cool; stir in the dill, parsley, and black pepper.
- While the rice is cooking, heat 3 tablespoons of butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, sauté the sliced mushrooms, tossing and turning them, until they are tender and very little liquid is left in the skillet, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer the mushrooms to a bowl to cool.
- Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in the same skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, add the onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until soft and golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Combine with the mushrooms.
NOTE: At this point, all the ingredients can be used right away or refrigerated, covered, overnight.
6. To assemble the kulebyaka, remove the chilled pastry dough from the refrigerator and let it sit, still wrapped, at room temperature for 30 minutes. (If you’ve refrigerated all the cooked ingredients overnight, remove them from the refrigerator, too.) Line a large rimmed baking sheet (18 x 12 inches) with a sheet of cooking parchment.
7. Roll out one sheet of dough on a lightly floured surface, to form a rectangle measuring 8 x 16 inches, about 1/8-inch thick. Trim off the rough edges with a knife and save the dough scraps for decorating the kulebyaka. Roll up the dough over your rolling pin and unroll it onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly over the dough, leaving a border of 1 inch uncovered around the edges. Whisk together the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of melted butter.
8. Spread half the rice in an even layer over the breadcrumbs, leaving uncovered that 1-inch margin along the edges of the dough. Drizzle some of the lemon-butter mixture over the rice. Add an even layer of half the mushrooms and onions on top of the rice. Drizzle with some of the lemon butter. Place the fish in an even layer on top of the mushrooms and onions, and drizzle with the remainder of the lemon butter. (If some of the fish pieces are very thick, slice them in half horizontally.) Slice the hard-boiled eggs crosswise and arrange a layer on top of the fish. Now reverse the order, adding a layer of the remaining mushrooms and onions, then finishing with a layer of rice. Lay a sheet of plastic wrap lengthwise over the filling and press firmly all along its length and sides to compact the layers together into a loaf shape with a rounded top. Remove the plastic wrap and brush the exposed rim of dough with the egg-milk glaze.
9. Roll out the second pastry sheet to a rectangle measuring 10 x 18 inches, about 1/8-inch thick. Trim the edges with a knife and save the dough scraps. Roll up the dough over your rolling pin and unroll it over the filling. Press the top and bottom edges of the dough together well on each side of the kulebyaka, and seal the pie by crimping the dough with the tines of a fork or a pastry crimper, or by pleating them together with your finger.
10. Cut a 1-inch-diameter hole in the center of the top crust (like the blowhole of a whale) to let the steam escape as the pie bakes. Roll out the dough scraps and cut them into decorative shapes of your choice (flowers, leaves, mushrooms, fish, etc.). Moisten the backsides with water and arrange the decorations on the top crust, pressing them gently to adhere. Refrigerate the unbaked kulebyaka for 20 minutes while you pre-heat the oven to 400° F with a rack adjusted to the lower middle position.Brush the entire surface of the top crust with the egg-milk glaze.
11.Bake the kulebyaka for 50 to 60 minutes, until the pastry is a rich golden-brown. Turn the pan around about halfway through cooking to insure even browning. Let the kulebyaka cool on the pan for a few minutes, then carefully transfer it to a large serving platter. Serve hot or warm, using a serrated knife to cut it crosswise into 1 1/2-inch-thick slices
12. Serve accompanied by a green salad and dry white wine or ice-cold lemon vodka. Although Sharon doesn’t say to do this, I like to put a bowl of crème fraiche or sour cream on the table for diners to spoon onto their portions of koulebyaka if they wish.
Makes 8 large servings.
NOTE: This recipe makes a rectangular kulebyaka, but you can also cut the dough into a large oval or even a fish shape (and decorate it with pastry-dough “scales”).