Cooking Off The Cuff: Pirog Or Kulebiaka, It’s A Most Savory Pie

If I say that the fish pie Jackie and I and our guests ate last night was a Russian kulebiaka – or even more so a coulibiac with its Frenchified spelling – you might get the idea that it was a very fancy pre-1917 thing. That would be a spectacular, decorated pastry affair, filled with eye-pleasing discreet strata including salmon or sturgeon, rice or buckwheat, mushrooms and, of course, the spinal marrow of a sturgeon. The moisture of the filling would be contained by layers of crêpes.

What we ate was not that, but it had the same flavors, barring the sturgeon spinal marrow, which doesn’t have much flavor anyway. I’ll call it a pirog, a generic Russian word for a large covered pie. It had several elements, but all of them were prepared in advance, so last-minute activity was confined to rolling out the dough and wrapping it around the filling. I know it still sounds like a lot of work, but it isn’t so bad averaged out over two or three days. And it makes a good eight portions, so there’ll be delicious leftovers.

Element One, two days before (though it could have been earlier or later): Mushroom stock for cooking the rice and making the (optional) sauce. I used regular white mushrooms, a few fresh shiitakes and a small handful of dried porcini, all finely chopped. In a pressure cooker, I sweated an onion in butter, added the mushrooms and cooked them over medium-high heat until some of their moisture had evaporated. I added water and a sprig of thyme, covered the pressure cooker and cooked the stock for 25 minutes from the time it came up to pressure. If you do it in a regular saucepan, simmer it for an hour or so. I strained it and, when it had cooled, stowed it in the fridge.

Element Two, the day before: The pastry. This was the same yeast dough I use for little Russian pies, pirozhki, and I made it in the food processor, though a pair of strong hands or a stand mixer with a dough hook would be fine. A pound (450 g) of flour; 1-1/2 teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt (half that if you’re using fine-grain salt); a scant teaspoon instant yeast; enough liquid (in the proportion of 1/3 milk, 2/3 water, at warm room temperature) to form a moderately soft dough. Into this I kneaded (still in the machine) 3 ounces (85 g) unsalted butter at room temperature and ran the machine until the dough was homogeneous and smooth. When it had risen for an hour or so, I punched it down and refrigerated it in a tightly closed container.

Element Three, the day before (though it could be the day of serving): The rice. This was a mushroom pilaf: I sweated a shallot in butter, added 10 oz (280 g) roughly chopped white mushrooms and cooked them until much of the liquid had evaporated. To this I added a cup and a half (let’s say 300 g) long-grain rice, which I’d rinsed. I stirred it over medium heat for a minute or so, then added a mixture of mushroom stock (Element One above) and water, enough to cover the rice by about a centimeter (less than half an inch). I stirred in salt and added fresh dill wrapped in cheesecloth for easy removal. When it came to the boil, I reduced the heat, covered the pan and cooked it for 16 minutes; I then let it sit in the covered pan until it had cooled enough to transfer to a container for storage.

Element Four, the day of serving: The sauce, which is optional but highly desirable. Shallot sweated in butter; a tablespoon of flour to make a roux; white wine, reduced; a cup and a half (350 ml) of mushroom stock; dill; simmer uncovered for 20 minutes; strain. To finish the sauce at serving time, I adjusted the salt and added a little cream, plenty of chopped dill and the juice of a quarter lemon. There’s no reason, though, not to serve the pie plain or with melted butter.

A couple of hours before assembly, I took the rice out of the fridge to come to room temperature. If I’d forgotten to do this, I’d have hurried it along in the microwave. I stirred in a big handful of chopped dill and a chopped hard boiled egg (there was one in the fridge; I probably wouldn’t have bothered making one specially for the pie – though if I had, I’d have made two).

Ninety minutes before serving, I heated the oven to 400º F (205 C). Half an hour later, I seasoned a scant pound (425 g) of fish cut into chunks (size will depend on your fish) and sauteed it in butter until a little underdone; it would finish cooking in the pie. I used striped bass; fattier salmon would have been grand, but I don’t trust the salmon that’s for sale in my neck of the woods.

I rolled the dough (cold from the fridge, so it was easily handled) into a rectangle measuring roughly 11 by 16 inches (28 by 40 cm), set it on a piece of parchment paper, spooned on a strip of rice six or seven inches (15 or 18 cm) across, evened it up with my hands, pressed into it the par-cooked fish and added whatever butter and juices were in the skillet, then topped it with more rice, patted into a fairly even layer. The total depth of the filling should not exceed two or two inches (5 cm). I stretched and folded the dough over the filling, sealing it with beaten egg, then used the parchment paper to roll the pie onto a parchment-paper-lined sheet pan so the seam side was down. I covered it with a tea towel and let it rise for 20 minutes or half an hour; it won’t get notably bigger, but you will feel that the dough is puffy. Finally, I brushed it generously with the remaining beaten egg; I thought of attempting to decorate it by scoring it with a razor blade but knew that, aesthetically, this would come to naught. So I just slashed three steam-vents into the pie.

I baked it for 20 minutes, then turned the oven down a bit – to 375º F (190 C) or thereabouts – and continued baking for another 35 minutes, until the pie was beautifully brown and the filling hot (verified with a metal skewer or thin-bladed knife inserted into the center for ten seconds, then touched to my lips). Before serving, I covered it again with a tea towel and rested it for half an hour: this softened the outer crust, set the filling and made it easier to cut and eat. These pies taste best eaten not terribly hot, but even after 30 minutes the pirog was nice and warm.

We cut it into thick slices and ate it with sauce. The rice, mushrooms and fish were well integrated, and the crust had absorbed flavor from both. It tasted Russian. If you wanted a side dish, I guess you could serve a cucumber salad on a separate plate, but this really is a complete meal, as most savory pies are.

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Pirog or Kulebiaka, It’s a Savory Pie