I like to use fragrant jasmine rice in my coulibiac for the perfume, but you could use basmati or long-grain, which is more traditional.
I fell in love with this dish when I first saw its photograph and recipe in L'Art Culinaire Moderne by Henri-Paul Pellaprat, first published in 1935. I was attracted by the grandeur of Russian aristocratic life and coulibiac was one flamboyant element of it. My first attempt at it, in the '70s, sadly lacked fresh salmon - I substituted canned salmon. This may shock readers, but the result was exciting for a young, passionate cook with his naïve palate.
The history of this dish is somewhat obscure, but it came into the repertoire of French cuisine via the French chefs who were employed by the Russian aristocracy. Its origin appears to have been a pie made by peasants and cooked at the local bakery after the day's baking was finished. The ingredients of what was called kulebyaka consisted of cabbage, onions, dill, parsley and hard-boiled eggs bound with a porridge of grain (kasha in Russian), all encased in a bread dough and baked.
The grander version developed by the French chefs used sturgeon fillets and vesiga, the sturgeon's dried spinal cord, as well as hard-boiled eggs, dill, onions and rice, and was generally baked in brioche or a fish-shaped ceramic dish sealed with puff pastry; funnels were placed in the brioche or pastry so melted butter could be poured in - a far cry from the original humble offering.
I prefer to use brioche, as I have here, but this may present a problem for cooks who don't have a stand mixer. You can make the dough by hand, but it requires incredible effort to incorporate the butter. The alternative is to use puff pastry such as the Carême brand, which employs 100 per cent butter. Place a sheet of pastry on a double thickness of foil, then place the crêpe-wrapped package in the centre, leaving a gap of about 3cm-4cm on all sides. Brush the exposed pastry with eggwash and top with a larger sheet of pastry. Paint with eggwash, taking care that it doesn't run over the edges because this may inhibit the pastry raising. Rest for five to 10 minutes before baking to allow the pastry to relax and prevent shrinkage. I find, however, the effort involved in using brioche is certainly worthwhile, because it absorbs all the combined flavours.
Once the ingredients are assembled in the crêpes - which I include because they make assembly much easier - no time should be lost in wrapping the package in the brioche dough and slipping it into the loaf tin. Prove for just 10 minutes before baking since any longer may cause the brioche to separate from the crêpe package, creating a clumsy gap and making it harder to slice neatly.
Coulibiac has a delicious flavour, rich from the rare salmon, laced with hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms and dill, underscored by the rice, and all seasoning the brioche. I like it served quite alone - it's complete in itself - but I used to serve it with sour cream spiked with chopped chives at Sydney restaurants Claude's and Bistro Moncur. I offer a vegetable salad to start and finish with a fruit dessert. Why not strawberries Romanov?