I have had a tattered copy of the grandmother of this meat pie recipe since I first moved to New York – and I always read the faded title as Kulebvaka. Shared with me by an older Jewish woman who was very adventurous in exploring international flavors even in the 70s, the copy was covered in her handwritten notes. I assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that the vaka had something to do with beef, the main ingredient in this recipe. All those years of having the name wrong prevented me from making the connection to coulibiac, one of my earliest catering days’ fancy puffs. The coulibiac I made was filled with salmon and – oh yes – crammed full of eastern European flavors, like dill and sometimes horseradish. Coulibiac. Kulebyaka. “Yaka”, not “Vaka”. The name had nothing to do with the beef that fills the pie. Color me surprised – years and years later.
It turns out the word Kulebyaka comes from the Old Slav verb kulebyachit which means to make with hands – nothing to do with what was inside. It can be stuffed with fish, meat, mushrooms, rice, hard-boiled eggs and so much more. The traditional meat pie recipe calls for a yeast-based dough (I am just using a store bought pre-rolled pie crust), but it was elevated to haute cuisine status (and the pastry became more delicate) during the 19th century when French chefs started appearing in Russia. The tradition continues as the Hennin twin brother chefs that I trained under in Paris spent time in Russia. One showed up here with a vat of caviar as his carry on. Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!
That meat pie recipe I received so long ago did in fact have sieved hard-boiled eggs in it, and I kept that intact, making good use of one of my favorite tools, the potato ricer. It helps bind the mixture and is a nod to its Russian roots. I changed all the spices and added fresh dill and an entire bottle of prepared horseradish, because we like our flavors a bit more assertive here in ‘Murica.
There are no real secrets to make this a perfect party addition, and it’s also great for a cozy night at home, served with just a simple salad. Serve it cold, serve it hot; make it an app, make it an entrée. I used a springform pan here, but I have also made it in a scalloped-edge tart pan which gives it a great look. Take some of the extra dough scraps and create flowers or leaves to decorate the top. Just make sure you have a removable-bottom pan for easy removal. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think!
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