Moroccan Pastilla

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A pastilla is a type of savory pie, consisting of spiced bird of some sort or another encased in puff pastry.  Variants can be found across the Mediterranean and into the Middle East, probably because they taste so good. 

Some quick notes up-front:  depending on where you live, some of the ingredients can be hard to find, and impossible in a standard grocery store.  Hopefully, there's a Middle Eastern or "International" market nearby where you can find them.  Also, filo comes frozen, and needs to be defrosted carefully.  Overnight in the fridge is best, but if your house is cold you can do it on the counter, so long as you only let it get to "cool", and put it in the fridge straightaway.

 

 

Keep the filo sheets in the fridge until you're ready to use them.  Filo is laminated pastry and butter, and at room temperature, the butter will melt out and it won't be flaky.

Preparation is a solid 3-4 hours, but a lot of that is waiting for stuff to be done.  So this is more planning than work.  But, it means planning accordingly unless you want to eat in the middle of the night.

One important note before we begin is that the bird has to be relatively gamey to stand up against the spices.  I use chicken thighs for mine.  It's probably the more common variety in the US because it's easy to get, and we pay a premium for squab here.  I'm not sure why pigeon is more expensive, but it is, so here we are.

First things first, we need to roast some almonds.  We could probably use store-bought ones, but if we do it ourselves, we get more of the oil out.  Besides, roasting almonds is pretty simple.  Heat the oven up to around 400F, and when the oven is up to temperature spread your 2-3 ounces of almonds on a cookie sheet and bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the kitchen smells almond-y.  Once they've cooled down a little, put 'em in the food processor and give it a good couple of pulses to break up the almonds (more chunks than crumbs).  Set these aside for later, and turn the oven down to 350F.

To start the actual cooking, chop up 2-3 onions very finely and set aside for a minute or two.  Do the same with 2-3 (or more) cloves of garlic, but not in the same bowl. 

In a skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and when it's hot add the chicken.  Cook the chicken until it starts to brown on both sides and remove from the pan to a plate.  To the pan, add 2-3 tablespoons of butter and the onions.  Saute the onions until they start to get transparent, and add in the garlic and spices- 1tsp cinnamon, 1tsp ginger, 1/2tsp tumeric, and a pinch of saffron (one plastic thingy if you paid too much at the supermarket).  Let it go for a few minutes to allow the flavors to incorporate.  While this is going on, finely slice up the dates and set them aside as well.

Add the chicken back to the pan, along with 2-ish cups of chicken stock and 3-4 tablespoons of finely chopped Italian parsely.  Cover the pan and let it simmer for a half-hour or so, or until the chicken is tender.  Then remove the chicken from the pan (again) and as soon as it's cool enough to touch, cut up into tiny chunks (1/4" or maybe less) and set this aside too.

Bring the pan back up to a simmer, and let it go (uncovered) until the liquid is reduced by about 1/2.  Add two beaten eggs, and cook until the eggs are done and the mix is kind of lumpy.  Stir in the almonds, then the dates, 1 tbsp orange blossom water, 1-2tsp orange zest, and chicken.  Cook for a few minutes until everything is good and hot, then reduce the heat and allow to cool completely.  This last bit is rather important, because if the filling is not cool, it'll ruin the filo by melting out the butter layers.

I probably should have talked about pans earlier, but now is as good a place as any.  It doesn't matter what you use for the filling part, but for baking, you need somewhere around 10".  A standard 9" cake pan (not pie pan), might barely be enough, but I wouldn't risk it.  Personally, I use a 10" cast iron skillet.  It's just the right size, and seems to do the job quite well.

When the filling is cool, melt the rest of the stick of butter, and start coating and assembling things.  First, brush the inside of the pan, and lay in your first sheet of filo, carefully working it into the corners.  Brush the inside of the layer with more butter, and add another layer, rotated 45 degrees. Repeat at least once, preferably twice, depending on how many sheets of dough you have.  Then add the filling and carefully fold the overhanging corners into the middle, adding butter all along the way.  Finally, brush the top with what's left.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the top is browned a little.  When it's time to take your pastilla out of the oven, conscript a second pair of hands, since we need to do a double-flip.  Place a pizza sheet or baking sheet over the pan, and flip over. The pie should come out easily.  Then place your serving dish gently over the pie, and flip over again so the folded part is on top.  

Sprinkle with cinnamon powder and baking (fine) sugar and serve.

 

Shopping list:

  • filo pastry (yufka can also be used, and is probably easier for the uninitiated)
  • orange blossom water
  • 1-3/4 to 2 pounds of chicken thighs.
  • 2-3 onions
  • several cloves of garlic
  • at least a stick of butter
  • A bunch of Italian parsley
  • 2-3 ounces almonds
  • 2-3 ounces dried dates
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 eggs
  • cinnamon
  • tumeric
  • ginger
  • pepper
  • baking or caster sugar