Choulibiac: A ridiculously fun fish pastry

As you can tell from this site, I love to bake and cook.  So when Alex found a preview for Julie and Julia he was determined that I should see it the weekend it came out.  He even checked out Julia Child’s My Life in France for me to read as background.  I read the book at a feverish pace and finished it just hours before we went to see the movie.  The book is just fantastic.  My favorite part is the begining where she describes how she feel in love with French food.  The descriptions are just so full of love and wonder.  It resonated with me and inspired me to want to cook more and try and take my cooking up a notch.  I am job searching at the moment and so I even had a few days where I decided that I might go to culinary degree.  This quickly ended by realizing that it cost $50,000 for a year and half and I really have no desire to work in the craziness of a professional kitchen.  So instead I decided that I am going to cook something very hard sounding at least once a week as way to teach myself to be a better cook and save $50,000.  Then, because I have this lovely blog, I will write about it.

So back to the library we went for a Julia cookbook.  I got Julia’s Breakfasts, Lunches, and Suppers.  Flipping through the pages, I found the recipes for a “VIP Lunch” which included the recipe for the choulibiac, a watercress salad and pear sherbet.  Not having an ice cream maker, I decided that I would just make the choulibiac and the watercress salad: mainly because it just looked ridiculous and hard and I wanted something just like that.  Choulibiac is a french fish pastry.  It requires 5 different recipes before you can actually assemble the pastry and bake it.  It also has 5 pages of instructions, including a discussion on the use of white peppercorns (mature and used on fish and white sauces) versus black peppercorns (immature and used in heavier sauces and meat).

Yesterday at about 3:30 p.m. I began the first step: making a giant crepe.  Now crepes and I have never really gotten along because they are picky and delicate and I detest non-stick pans which are practically required to make them.  So I was a wee bit nervous.  I read the instructions and the ingredients.  They looked simple enough until I got to the part about leveling the oven.  You see, this crepe will be the size of a cookie sheet and about 1/8 and inch thick.  Therefore, Julia admonishes not to use a pan that is not absolutely level and to make sure that our oven is level.  I checked my pan and it looked level (although not non-stick) and hoped for the best with the oven.  I mixed up the crepe batter and buttered and floured my pan.  Then in it went to oven for several minutes and then under the broiler for several more.  During this process I was supposed to make sure the crepe didn’t “stiffen.”  What this meant was beyond me.  However, as I pulled the crepe out from the broiler and tried to gently pull it out of the pan, I abruptly realized: I let it stiffen and since it was stiff, there was no way I was getting it off the pan without breaking it.  Doh!  Fail on the crepe.  So I ripped it out with some frustration, tried it (tasty!) and threw it in the garbage and cleaned out the pan for try #2.  I mixed up another set of batter and waited and watched it in the oven very carefully.  I pulled it out and it started to come away from the sides.  I could get all of it off except for one side which was thinner and crispy.  No good.  It seemed either my pan or oven was not level. 😦  However, I managed to save a good chunk of the crepe, decide it was good enough and move on to the next step.

At this point, I notice the sweat dripping down my neck and realize just how hot it has gotten in my kitchen.  I found out later that it had reached 94 that afternoon, which was quite hot in my un-air-conditioned house!  Nevertheless, I was going to persevere.  I chopped up the shallots and seasoned the fish and put it in the fridge.  Then I started to work on the pate a choux, which is a pastry paste.  This seemed to go well and I finished, put it and the pan it was in a bowl of warm water and moved on to the fish mousse.  The mousse seemed to go well.  In fact it looked so much like white chocolate mousse that I had a hard time convincing myself that it was really mostly cut up raw fish and that I should not taste it.  Then it was on to the mushroom duxelles.  They are very finely chopped (thank goodness for the Cuisinart!) mushrooms and more shallots.  The interesting thing about them is that after I put them through the Cuisinart, Julia instructed that you should wring the water out of them by putting them in a cloth dish towel and squeezing to get the water out.  I was very dubious of this because the mushrooms looked pretty dry to me.  Sure enough though, I put them in the dish towel, squeezed and water came out.  Then when I open the towel there was a very compact sphere of mushrooms in it.  Then the mushrooms went into some butter to saute until they “begin to separate from each other.” Did I mention this woman might love cream and butter more than I do?

Finally I was ready for the final assembly.  I looked at the clock and realized that it was already 5:45 p.m.  I couldn’t believe the time had passed so quickly; I had been completely absorbed in the recipe.  There were detailed photos in the book and I began to assemble per the instructions.  I even managed to use my damaged crepe in a way that no one could tell the difference.  As I finished off putting the last of the choux on top, I realized two things: I had forgotten to put in the second layer of mushrooms and my choux was way too runny.  Julia’s looked like frosting and mine was not holding its shape and falling all over the place.  I began to panic a bit.  Had I missed something else?  Was it going to turn out ok?  I reminded myself that there was little I could do at this point and that I might as well put it in the oven and hope for the best.  So into the oven it went and I started on the sauce.

The sauce required that I make a fish broth first.  I had procured “fish trimmings” from the fish person at Whole Foods and was now staring at a fish head and skeleton in my sauce pan.  This was a wee bit gross.  So I piled in the required veggies and then a cup of water and a cup of vermouth.  Have you ever used a cup of vermouth in anything?  I quite enjoy my dirty martinis, but never before I had used quite this much vermouth.  It was oddly satisfying.  Once the broth had simmered, out came the junk and in went the cream and a bit of choux (this stuff is very multi-purpose!).  As it thickened, I tasted it to see what spices it might need.  I was a bit suspicious, but the sauce was just delicious!  The flavor was very subtle and with the taste of fish without being fishy.  The sauce also seemed to have the cream almost layered over the broth as a secondary taste.  I was quite impressed.

At this point Alex walked in.  It was close to 7 p.m. and I realized that I was about to fall over.  I recruited him to help me finish up the salad while the choulibiac finished cooking.  Once I “began to smell a delicious odor of pastry, fish and mushrooms” I knew it was done.  I pulled it out and plated two pieces with the sauce and Alex delivered the salad to the table. We tasted it and it was unlike anything I have ever tasted before.  It was quite delicate and flaky.  Alex pronounced it a masterpiece and we commenced the eating of it.  I went to bed exhausted, but very satisfied that I had succeeded in some real ridiculous many-stepped cooking.

Here are some pictures.

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