Doctor Zhivago: Choulibiac


This is my "go-to" dish when I'm cooking to impress. Choulibiac is like a layer cake made of fish! Alternating layers of fish, mushroom duxelles, & salmon mousse are cooked in puff pastry shaped like a fish.

Koulibiac, as it was known in Russia, was known as the dish of the Czars. It was a salmon stuffed with mushrooms and chopped egg backed in brioche. I've followed the original recipe several times and have found that most of my guests didn't care for it. The egg and fish was a bit "foreign", and the overall reaction was that it was a bit "heavy" and "too rich".

Year's ago I discovered Julia Child's reinvention of the dish; she called it Choulibiac because she made it with lighter puff (or "choux") pastry instead of brioche. I've modified the dish, adding more color to the slices of pastry wrapped fish through the use of a salmon mousse.

It makes for a breathtaking presentaton that serves four to six people, depending on how you slice it.

Perhaps no other dish uses so many pans, bowls, and pots. I find it usefull to clean as I go, reusing the same bowls over and over. Otherwise, things quickly get out of hand, as in the Sorcerer's Apprentice!

Although there are a lot of steps to making choulibiac, none of them are too difficult taken on their own. So don't be daunted by the length of the recipe. Just take things a step at a time.

To make it easier to keep track of the steps, I've broken down the recipe into sections. You can use these as a "road-map" to your progress.

  1. The crepe for the bottom layer
  2. Preparing the fish
  3. The Choux Pastry
  4. The Salmon Mousse
  5. The Mushroom Duxelles
  6. Final Preparation



  • 1/2 C Wondra instant dissolving flour
  • 1 C White Flour
  • 1/2 cup of milk
  • 1 egg
  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 sticks of butter
  • 2 lbs of sole filets
  • 1/2 lb of boneless salmon
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 lb. fresh mushrooms
  • 5 shallots
  • 1/3 C port
  • 1/3 C Cognac or Brandy
  • 8 eggs
  • Salt, Pepper, Nutmeg
  • Parsley (for plating)
  • Hollandaise sauce (Optional)

Make sure you have on hand:

  • Food Processor
  • A pastry brush
  • At least three mixing bowls
  • Wooden Spoon
  • Spatula
  • A pastry bag
  • Electric mixer
  • Aluminum foil
  • Cheese Cloth
  • No-stick Cookie sheet with a lip all the way around
  • No-stick Cookie Sheet with no side lip


Make the bottom layer crepe:

Into a mixing bowl add:

  • 1/2 C Wondra flour
  • 1 T oil
  • 1/2t salt
Add 1/2 C milk.
Add 1 egg.
Blend the contents of the bowl and set aside for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Select a non-stick cookie sheet with a lip that runs around the entire pan. Using a softened tablespoon of butter, grease a baking sheet.
Sprinkle 2-3 T of flour over the buttered pan.
Now, tip the pan back and forth so that the entire surface is more or less evenly dusted with flour. (Using this picture as an example, I would keep rocking the pan until the center is well dusted. This flour will help keep our crepe from sticking.) Discard the excess flour by turning the pan upside down over the sink.
Pour the batter we made previously starting at the middle of the pan. Tip the pan so that it spreads to nearly the entire sheet. We want the crepe to be at least 12-13" long and the width of the pan.
Put the pan under a broiler for about 3 minutes. We want it to cook, but not completely brown. After three minutes test to see if you can slip a spatula under the crepe. If not, turn off the broiler and cook the crepe for another couple of minutes in the 400 degree oven.

This crepe cooked a bit too long, and is burnt on the edges. Not a problem, we'll just trim the edges.

Carefully roll the crepe on a sheet of wax paper and refrigerate.

Marinate the fish:

We're going to need about 5-6 shallots for this dish, so let's do them all at once.
First cut off the tops and bottoms of the shallots and then peel off the outer layer.
Finely chop them in a food processor or by knife.
Put about a T of chopped shallots in a large bowl.
Put a layer of fish in the bowl. Then add more shallots.
Alternate fish and shallots using about 1/2 of the chopped shallots. (We'll use the rest later, when we make the mushrooms.)
Pour 2-3 T of cognac or brandy over the fish. Cover and refrigerate.

Making the puff pastry:

We're going to make the puff pastry batter now, because we need it for the salmon mousse in the next step.

Before we get too far, let's make sure that we have the ingredients and tools that we're going to need close at hand. Be sure you have an electric mixer or wooden spoon handy, the food processor should be ready and clean.

Premeasure 1C of white flour.

Cut up 1 and 1/2 sticks of butter into 1/2" pieces.


Crack six eggs into a bowl.
Put 1 and 1/2 C water into a sauce pot.
Add the butter to the pot. Bring the water to a boil.
As soon as the water comes to a boil take the pot of the heat and pour all of the flour into the water.
Immediately, beat the mixture with a wooden spoon or electric mixer. The pastry will have more moisture in it than we'd like, so we're now going to put the pot back on a medium heat and continue to beat it until it begins to leave a bit of a film on the bottom of the pan. As the pastry dough is heated, it becomes more "dry".
The pastry will have more moisture in it than we'd like, so we're now going to put the pot back on a medium heat and continue to push it around the pot until it begins to leave a bit of a film. As the batter is heated, it becomes more "dry".
Put the batter into a food processor and turn it on.
With the processor running, add the five eggs. Run the processor until the ingredients are blended into a thick mayonnaise-looking paste.

Spoon out a half cup of the paste and hold it covered in the refrigerator until we're ready to make the salmon mousse.

The remainder of the pastry dough goes into the saucepan, covered. The saucepan, in turn, should sit in a larger bowl of warm (not hot) water. Don't let any water get into our precious choux pastry!

Don't bother to clean out the food processor just yet. We're going to use it in the next steps.

The Salmon Mousse

Cut 1/2 lb. skinned, boneless salmon into 1" cubes.

Put the cubes of fish into the processor.
Put the following into the food processor:
  • The cut up salmon
  • 3/4 cup of cream
  • the reserved 1/2 cup of choux pastry that we've had on ice
  • 1/2 t of salt
  • 1/8 t of fresh pepper
  • 1/8 t of nutmeg

Now pulse the food processor until the ingredients have been chopped into an even paste. Put the mousse in a bowl; scrape the sides of the food processor - you really want all the mousse you can get out of it. Cover, and refrigerate.

Before preparing the Mushroom Duxelles, clean the food processor well. We don't want the salmon to color and flavor the mushrooms.

Making the Mushroom Duxelles:

Mushrooms give our dish another colorful, flavorful layer. However, if we're not careful, the water content of the mushrooms will make our pastry soggy. So, we need to do two things to our mushrooms, infuse them with flavor and pull out much of their water content.

You'll start with about a pound of fresh mushrooms. Working in batches, pulse a handful of the mushrooms in the food processor until the pieces are about an eighth of an inch large. Remove them to a separate bowl and repeat until all of the mushrooms are chopped.

Put about a half a cup of the chopped mushrooms into a bit of cheesecloth or clean towel and squeeze of the sink until the mushrooms yield up their water.
Here are all the "golf balls" made of mushrooms.
Remember the shallots we chopped before? Heat a frying pan with 1T butter, and saute the shallots. You want to cook over a medium heat for a minute or two, stirring as you go with a wooden spoon.
Now, add the mushrooms, chopping the balls into an even layer in the an. We're both "browning" and getting more moisture out of the mushrooms. The amount of time you'll need to cook depends on the heat and your pan, but figure about 5 minutes.
Keep stirring with a wooden spoon until the mushrooms don't leave behind a puddle of water when you move them around the pan.

Add 3 T Port to the pan, stirring, until the liquid evaporates.

Congratulations! You've finished all of the preparatory steps. Put the mushrooms in a covered bowl until you're ready to proceed to final assembly.

Final Preparation

"Bit by bit, putting it together", just like that great song from Stephen Sondheim's Company, we're now ready to bring all the pieces of this magnificent dish to stardom! Let's get everything lined up in the kitchen so everything will go smoothly once we're ready to go. You'll want to preheat the oven now to 425 degrees.

Next, let's make the egg glaze that's going to give our pastry a beautiful look:

  • Crack an egg into a cup and beat with
  • 1/3 cup of water.


Mix it together with a fork and

set it to one side along with a cooking brush.Now, we'll set everything out in order as we'll need it for assembly:
  • Re-grease the baking pan and put the crepe on it.
  • Line up the fish, bowl of mousse, bowl of mushrooms in a row.

It will make your life easier if you have a non-stick cookie sheet for this next step, one that doesn't have sides. This will make it much easier to plate the fish when it is cooked. However, on the day I cooked, I didn't have one.

Regardless, grease the pan with either 1T softened butter or some spray on olive oil (as shown here).

Place the crepe onto the pan.


Place a layer of sole onto the center of the crepe so that you have a more-or-less rectangle about 5"x10".

Now, use a rubber spatula or spoon to put down a layer of the salmon mousse. You'll want to use about half of the mousse.

Sprinkle on an even layer of about 1/2 the mushroom mix.
Place another layer of sole onto the mushrooms.
Repeat the process. Add the rest of the mousse and then the mushrooms.

Top off the "cake" with the rest of the sole.

Finally, trim the crepe so that it extends about an inch around the fish.

Now we are going to spoon on the puff pastry batter, working from the top down.

Using a rubber spatula, "ice" the layers of fish with the choux pastry. You want the entire thing to be covered with about a quarter inch or more of pastry. Try not to press it down too hard or mix it with the duxelles and mousse which should stay beneath the pastry.

You should reserve a half cup of the choux paste, for final decoration.

As you reach the sides of the fish, fold the crepe so that it "wraps" part way up the side of the fish. Keep it in place by pasting over it with the puff pastry.

You can dress the dish with some "fish eyes" made out of orange or olives, decorations from mushroom slices. I made a little fish tail out of extra puff pastry. You can also put extra choux in a pastry bag and "paint" decorations on like fins.
We need to make four funnels out of aluminum foil to go into each corner of the bottom of the fish to channel out the liquid from the cooking dish. Take a bit of aluminum foil and wrap it around a chopstick so that it fans out from the narrow point near the end of the stick. Insert the end of the stick into each corner of the bottom of the fish, puncturing the crepe. Leave the funnels in place, removing stick, and thereby creating a way for juices to "escape" as they cook.
The last bit of preparation needs to be done relatively fast and with a gentle touch. You're going to stir up the water and egg mixture, and gently, coat the pastry with it. I say use a light touch because you don't want the dough to slide down the sides of the fish. Just glaze it a bit, and then...

Place the entire dinner in the preheated, 425 degree oven. Cook for about 15 - 20 minutes until the pastry beings to puff and brown. Turn down the heat to 375 degrees and bake for another 20 minutes.

This would be the time to prepare the optional Hollandaise Sauce.

If the pastry looks like it is cooking to fast, you can put a bit of aluminum foil over the top to protect it.

Remove the fish from the oven. It will look phenomenal, but is somewhat fragile. Loosen the bottom of the choulibiac from the pan and carefully slide it onto a serving platter. It sometimes helps to have extra hands for this step. The important thing is to work gently, so as not to crack the crust. Decorate with a bit of parsley.
Bring the fish to the table. Slice it into cross-sections, and serve on warmed plates with a bit of hollandaise sauce.

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