Zander Walewska


No, it's not a cinematic lethal Eastern European double agent with impossibly shiny L'Oreal hair, muscular thighs with which she strangles men for a pastime and immaculate make-up which stays immaculate throughout the two hours of thigh-strangling, but a deliciously creamy fish dish with Duchess potatoes and a Bechalmel-type sauce with mushrooms. Or you can leave out the mushrooms if they're not your thing. You can make this dish with any white fish, but in Finland it's most often made with Zander / Sander / Pikeperch. It's one of those funny retro-cool (=uncool) dishes that can be quite festive somehow.

Baked white fish with duchess potatoes and a bechamel and chanterelle sauce

There's a story about Napoleons mistress Countess Walewska that has something to do with this recipe, well clearly the name, and the Finnish independence hero Baron C.G.E Mannerheim, Marshal of Finland, is somehow involved. I think it was one of his favourite meals or something. A bit poncey our C.G.E, and quite the gastronome. Finnish-Swedish you see, they have always had finer sensibilities and tastes than us bush-Finns who have been perfectly happy with our porridge, turnips and pork butt. But of course in this case we forgive him, because of saving the country and all.

It has taken several generations, but today a Finnish man can be seen cooking or reading a food blog without people thinking he is either gay or Swedish. Usually he would still be wearing a rude apron with pictures of genitals on it, just to make a point of his masculinity. But still, progress! Emancipation for our menfolk!

I decided this Christmas to steer away from any traditional Christmas dishes, because mostly they are rubbish. People ate the stuff hundreds of years ago, because better things were not available. Like lutefisk, fish preserved in lye. There is a reason why in these days of freezers and air-freighted fresh fish from warmer climes we don't preserve our fish in lye. It might have to do with the fact that the whole thing smells like dead people.

And no Waitrose during the Greater Wrath, was there? And I kept to plan, apart from a jar of pickled herring (incidentally from Waitrose). And because of the herring I also had to do the traditional  Finnish sweetened potato bake which mysteriously and not at all amusingly turned green during the 5-6 hour sweetening process. I've made it successfully many times and never seen this before. I know the potato type that I used wasn't optimal for this purpose, but I didn't expect a reaction this dramatic.

After witnessing this unexpected development, I just replaced the lid, pretended I didn't see anything and put it back in the oven. A friend suggested it as a great recipe for St. Patrick's day. Not helpful. But as husband doesn't really know what colour it's supposed to be, although I think he might guess not green, I went with it. In the final baking it did change from green to a weird brown - still not massively appetising looking, but so awesome tasting with the herring and some whitefish caviar. I never thought about why these tastes just work so perfectly, but of course the sweetness of the potato bake is the perfect companion to the salty, pungent herring and caviar with sour cream and onions.

Finnish traditional sweetened Christmas potato bake, pickled herring and whitefish caviar with sour cream and onion
The best of Finnish Christmas, it's not about the look (and it took a bit of editing to get it look even this good) - the traditional sweetened potato bake, pickled herring and whitefish caviar with sour cream and onion. 
Other than that I just cooked things I wanted to cook and I knew husband wanted to eat. On boxing day I lit the barbecue in pouring rain, because I had decided to do so and a little rain was not going to make me change my plans. Husband thought it was a bit extreme, but loved the sirloin steaks I grilled. No complaints there.

I made the Zander Walewska on Christmas Eve. It sounds fussier than it actually is. It is actually really easy. I just need to get bigger nozzle for my piping bag to make proper duchess potatoes and an oval baking dish to improve on the esthetics, but tastewise I wouldn't have changed a thing.

A classic Finnish fish bake with duchess potatoes white fish and bechamel sauce

Zander Walewska

1/2 kg potatoes
2 tbsp butter
2 egg yolks
1/2 tl salt
1/4 tl ground nutmeg

600 g of any white fleshed fish boned and skinned
1 dl fish stock
1 dl dry white wine or sparkling wine
juice of half a lemon

30g butter
2 1/2 tbsp plain flour
3-4 dl of the fish poaching liquid
1/2 dl single cream
1 cup chanterelles or other mushroom sauteed in butter
salt and white or black pepper to taste
1 egg yolk

For garnish:
100 g shrimp - deveined
chopped fresh herbs (dill or basil)
Original recipes often also calls for steamed broccoli florets for decoration

Peal the potatoes and cut to chunks. Boil in salted water until done. Mash the potatoes and add the butter in. Leave to cool for a while. Add the yolks and seasoning, check the taste and mix well.

While potatoes are boiling heat the oven to 200 C. Place the fish in a baking dish with the seasoning and liquid. Cover and bake for 10 minutes.

Clean and chop your mushrooms and saute in butter.

For the sauce, add all ingredients apart from the yolk to a pan using the cooking liquid from the fish and bring to boil mixing continuously. Cook for 3-5 minutes. Add the yolk while mixing well.

Crank your oven up to 220C. Take an oval baking dish and place the fish in the middle. Add the potato mash around the fish. Using a large star shaped nozzle, pipe the top layer of mash into duchesse potatoes. Pour the sauce on top of the fish. Place the deveined shrimp on top of the sauce with the broccoli florets if using, and place in the oven until the top is nicely browned. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and serve with a fresh green salad.

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