Russian winter looks here to stay, so it is time to bring out the hearty, stick-to-your-ribs recipes, if only as an excuse to stay in the warm kitchen with an absorbing culinary project.

Kurnik, Russia’s chicken potpie, is certainly absorbing: using rice and hard-boiled eggs as coagulants for its rich chicken and vegetables in sauce.

Kurnik, which means “chicken coop” is a pirog, or filled pastry taken to the highest level of the art form. Chicken, eggs and mushrooms are layered in a thick dough and baked until the fillings are piping hot and wafting appetizing steam as the kurnik is brought to the table.

Its round or oval shape and the inclusion of eggs make it a potent symbol of eternity, wholeness and fertility, which is why kurnik often takes center stage at major festivals and weddings, where the bride and groom are each presented with their own decorated pie.

I initially found kurnik daunting. Nineteenth century recipes call for a layer of blini at the bottom and top of the pie. I don’t mind an absorbing afternoon in the kitchen, but a week? Not so much.

Ingredients:

Pastry:

12 oz. of cream cheese

1-1/2 cups of butter

3 cups of flour

2 tsp. of baking powder

1 table of salt

¼ tsp. of cayenne pepper

Filling(s)

½ cup of heavy cream

2 Tbl of flour

4 Tbl of butter, divided into two batches

2 Tbl of olive oil

2 lbs of boneless, skinless chicken thighs

1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped

5 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely minced

1 lb of fresh mushrooms

1 cup of dried mushrooms

2 cups of uncooked rice, boiled in 4 cups of water

1 cup of Madeira or dry white wine

2 cups of dry white wine

2 cups of diced carrots

6 hard boiled eggs, peeled and halved

1 raw egg and cold water

1 small bunch of parsley

3 celery ribs

2 Tbl of fresh chopped tarragon

So I leave out the blini, but I keep the hard-boiled eggs, which initially seemed all wrong, somehow, until I happened upon one inside a savory pie in Spain and was pleasantly surprised to find that whole hard-boiled eggs work very well.

These small adjustments dealt with, all that was left was to overcome my pastry phobia. Fortunately, Darra Goldstein’s cream cheese pastry is the most forgiving of doughs, as is her soothing tip that you don’t always have to go the traditional route and make the pie in a spring form pan if you are in a rush, a layer of pastry on top is sufficient to keep it in the pie family without the nail biting agony of wondering if your encased pie has cracks in the bottom.

As ever with classic Russian dishes, the real challenge is to spice up the rather basic and bland flavors of the traditional recipe.

I started by substituting chicken thighs, which have more flavor than breasts, and infused more flavor by poaching them in white wine and herbs.

Instead of sour cream, I made a white sauce with the poaching juices, spiked with Cayenne pepper. Dried mushrooms reconstituted in Madeira added depth to the mushroom layer. Fresh tarragon added just the right finishing note.

Kurnik is a fun dish to assemble with children, who will enjoy constructing the layers and cutting out pastry shapes to decorate the top of the pie! 

Kurnik:

Pastry:

Cream the butter and cream cheese in a standing mixer fitted with a paddle. Add the dry ingredients. Form into 2 disks and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Fillings:

1. Rinse the dried mushrooms then submerge them in the Madeira, topped up with 1 cup of hot water. Let stand for at least 20 minutes. Strain the juice through a paper towel and reserve the liquid.

2. Sauté the fresh mushrooms in 1 Tbl of butter and a lug of Madeira wine until they leach their liquid and re-absorb it. Add a pinch of salt and 2 Tbl of heavy cream. Toss with the reconstituted dried mushrooms.

3. Sauté the chopped onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in olive oil until soft. Set aside.

4. Bring the white wine, 2 cups of water, one celery rib and parsley to a simmer, then poach the chicken thighs for 9 to 11 minutes. Reserve the liquid.

Place the chicken inside the standing mixer with the paddle attachment and process on medium to shred the chicken. Combine the chicken with the onions/carrot mixture and toss with tarragon.

5. Make a white sauce with the combined poaching and mushroom liquids, adding heavy cream and a pinch of cayenne pepper to finish. Toss with the chicken mixture.

6. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

7. Butter a spring form pan and line with dough. Layer the ingredients, beginning with the rice, then chicken, then mushroom. Repeat until you reach the top of the pan.

Insert the hard-boiled eggs, yolk side up in a decorative pattern on the top. Cover the pie with the remaining dough. Decorate the top with the extra pastry. 

Cut a slit in the top to let steam escape. Brush with egg and cold water. Bake at 400°F for 25 minutes, then reduce heat to 350°F and continue until the crust is golden brown. Let stand for 20 minutes then serve.

Priyatnogo Appetita!

Jennifer Eremeeva is an American writer and longtime resident of Moscow. She is the creator of award-winning humor blog, Russia Lite, and The Moscovore about all things food in Moscow. Her first full-length book, Lenin Lives Next Door is scheduled for publication in January 2014.