Imagine you have no idea of a country’s signature cuisine on your first visit. Now imagine someone tells a teenage-version of yourself about their special celebratory dish consisting of delicious things like chicken, eggs, coriander, almonds, lots of spices, orange blossom scented honey puff pastry, fig jam and a ton of icing sugar on top.
You might just be able to visualize my 15-year old self standing somewhere in Marrakesh, scratching her head right about now… At that moment I vividly remembered the Friends Thanksgiving-Special episode with Rachels epic attempt to prepare a Trifle for dessert. Just in case you’re not in the know: Attempting something relatively simple like a trifle is quite the courageous thing for scatterbrain Rachel to do. Alas, despite the “thorough” pre-prep she doesn’t notice the pages of her cookbook sticking together while soldiering on through the task – resulting in half a Strawberry Trifle with half a Shepherd’s Pie on top.
While that slightly repelling imagery was passing in front of my inner eyes, I was sure the good man had to be messing with me, so I bravely grabbed the brick-shaped pastry he offered me and had my head spinning a few blinks later. He hadn’t been kidding, it was a sweet pastry with a citrusy, spice-laden chicken, fig and almond filling… and it was absolutely delicious.
So when I came by this little recipe during my travels through Tyria…
…I immediately thought of that particular dish and decided I simply had to share my version of a Moroccan Pastilla with you guys.
Here’s a bit of foodology on the subject of all (not that weird after all) things Pastilla. Despite it being known as one of those “classic” Moroccan dishes that have spread across the country’s borders faster than anyone could say “seconds, please!” it’s actually of Spanish origin with a root or two digging into Arabic customs. After having travelled to the Maghreb region with the spice traders of the time, the humble little Spanish pigeon pies quickly turned into elaborate dishes served up for special occasions – laden with the highest quality meat and most precious spices available and lovingly decorated to a degree that might even put a professional pâtissier to shame on occasion. As the recipe travelled along the trading routes across Northern Africa and the Middle East and later on, through the connection between the French colonies, back to Central Europe and across the Atlantic to Canada, obviously parts of it changed and evolved. For the most part, appearances and ingredients adapted to cultural/religious traditions and rules and availability of spices – but only marginally. Figs to dates, filo pastry to puff pastry, birds to offal, that kind of thing – and back again, of course. A delicious example of a “winning core team” that’s best left unchanged~!
The Chicken and Almond Pastilla – Part #1, The Chicken
10-12 Large Organic Chicken Drumsticks
Alt: 2 Chicken Breasts (skins on if possible) and 3-4 Thighs
4 Shallots, thinly sliced into disks
1 Red Onion, finely diced
1 Clove of Garlic, very finely chopped
1 Tbsp Clarified Butter or Ghee
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1 generous Pinch of Saffron Threads
½ Orange, Zest and Juice
2 Tbsp fresh Ginger, finely grated
½ Tsp each of Ground Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Allspice and Hot Chilli Flakes
1 Tbsp Ras el Hanout
1 Tsp Brown Sugar
200-500ml Chicken Stock – I’ll get to this off-amount in a few lines~
2 Large, Happy Eggs, lightly beaten
A handful of fresh coriander, leaves picked and roughly chopped
1 Small Bunch each of Flatleaf Parsley and Mint, leaves picked and roughly chopped
Salt, Hot Chilli Flakes and freshly cracked Black Pepper to taste
8-12 Dried Figs, 5-6 of them finely chopped, the rest carefully sliced into disksyou’ll need at the very end
Opt: 2-3 Herby pancakes with roughly the same DIA of the pan/tin you’re using to act as stabilizers
1) Generously rub the chicken with salt all around.
2) Set a heavy-based pan large enough to accommodate the bird onto medium-high heat.
3) Place the pieces inside – skinside down if you’re going with the breast alternative.
4) Render off the fat by turning the pieces over every few mins while getting a deliciously golden-brown tan on them at the same time.
5) Add the butter and the oil when slightly aggressive hissing noises in the pan are letting you know it’s back up to its max temperature despite the chicken inside.
6) Once the chicken’s irresistibly golden all around, transfer the pieces to a plate lined with paper towels and set them aside for the time being.
7) Pour the orange juice into a small bowl and stir in the saffron and orange zest. Set the bowl aside in arm-swinging reach.
8) Turn the heat down to medium and add the shallots, onions and garlic.
9) Allow the lot to cook and soften up for 3-4 mins, then add the fresh ginger, spices and sugar..
10) Continue to simmer and stir the fragrant mixture for 4 more mins.
11) Retrieve the chicken pieces and wriggle them into the pan.
12) Drizzle the tops with the the orange-soaked saffron.
13) This is where the x-amount of chicken stock comes in~ Add enough stock to the pan to cover everything up to just below the tops of the chicken pieces.
14) Scatter half of your fresh herbs on top, pop on a lid and allow everything to simmer away undisturbed for 20 mins.
15) Once the time’s up, use a pair of tongs to carefully take the piping hot chicken out of the pan, shaking off any clingy, saucy bits as you go.
16) Keep the lid off at this stage and leave the sauce to reduce down to a thick and creamy 1/3 of its current amount.
17) In the meantime, carefully flake the meat off of the bones in easily forkable pieces, spreading out the bite-sized bits on a cold plate to help them steam off some excess moisture as it cools down.
18) If you’d like, you can keep the crispy-golden skins on, but discard the bones (and re-check you bites for bone splinters and gnarly-bits you don’t want to have in your Pastilla).
19) Fold the remaining mint leaves and 5 finely chopped dried figs into the chicken bits along with a generous pinch each of chilli flakes and salt.
20) As the sauce is nearing its thick and creamy peak, whisk in the beaten eggs and fold in the remaining herbs before setting it aside for a bit.
The Chicken and Almond Pastilla – Part #2, The Almonds (-middle and top layers)
150g Almond Slivers
2 Thsp Lemon Juice
1 Tbsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
½ Tsp Ground Cinnamon
½ Tsp Chilli Flakes
¼ Tsp Orange Blossom Water
1) Spread out your almond slivers in a wide pan sitting on medium heat.
2) Once they’re lightly toasty-golden, drizzle them with the oil, lemon juice, orange blossom water and the spices.
3) Once the liquids have poofed out for the most part, set the pan aside and allow the lot to cool off slowly.
The Chicken and Almond Pastilla – Part #3, Assembling the Dish
About 12-14 Sheets of Filo Pastry
100g Butter, melted
1 Egg Yolk, beaten
5-20 Fresh Figs – depending on the DIA you have in mind for your Pastilla, they’ll be sliced and arranged on top of the Pastilla Tarte-Style, so plan/shop accordingly
The Dried Fig Disks
Ground Cinnamon, Icing Sugar and Sea Salt Flakes eye candy on top.
Ok, I’ve prepared this one in 3 different ways so far, all of them pretty, pretty easy and pretty damn delicious~ The difference between the three methods merely lies in the time you want or can spend on this last step.
Lets start with the fastest route to the finishing line: Bricks
1) Brush a sheet of filo pastry with melted butter and fit a second sheet on top, lining up the edges.
2) Mark a rectangle in the center of the sheets with dried figs and stack just enough chicken, sauce and almonds on top of it to form a tight little brick of yum once you’ve folded up the sides of the pastry. I usually start and finish the stacking bit – in either variant – with a layer of almonds.
3) Before you move around the center-rectangle, snugly folding it into the pastry blanket, brush the rims with melted butter.
4) Also treat the outside of the side you’ve just folded over the filling with a gloss of butter to make the other sides stick to it more easily. Repeat the process until you’re out of ingredients.
5) Once all sides are tightly folded and wriggled around the filling and you’re looking at a row of very fragrant bricks, fire up your pan again on medium heat.
6) Brush each brick with some more butter and place them in the pan with the pastry-seams facing down – that way they’ll seal up just a few blinks after hitting the heat.
7) Fry them on each side until golden – move through your pile in batches in order to keep the pan un-crowded.
8) On one last flip to the position you’ve started in, seams down and smooth side up, brush the tops with the beaten egg and give the bricks 2-3 more mins before sliding them out on a plate.
9) Decorate the tops with a dusting of sugar, cinnamon and sea salt before arranging a decorative fresh fig on top.
10) Serve while they’re hot – a bit of garden salad to the side goes a long way
The Middle Road: Stacked and Fried up in a Pancake Pan
1) I highly recommend actually frying up 2-3 pancakes spiced along the lines of the other fillings. These can/will do a magnificent job at stabilizing the stacked-up fillings inside the rather fragile pastry. Here’s my recipe in case you don’t have an auto-pilot pancake recipe on your own – simply replace the herbs in here with a generous pinch of the spiced used for the fillings.
2) Brush the inside of your pan with an even coat of melted butter.
3) Smooth a double-layer of filo pastry into the shape of the pan.
4) Pop in your first pancake which conveniently has the perfect, fitting diameter to net you a smooth and even, stable topside when you’re turning out the finished pie right at the end.
5) Spread out a layer of almonds on your pancake – or a thicker layer of almonds and a couple of thinly sliced dried figs to replace said pancake.
6) Wriggle everything into place with another double-layer of buttered filo pastry. Don’t forget to gloss the sides currently hanging out of the pan as well.
7) Add about ½ the amount of chicken along with a generous spoonful of sauce and pack it in neatly with the help of the back of your spoon.
8) Hold it in place with yet another pancake-, almond-, fig- and double-filo layer before adding the remaining chicken, sauce, almonds, figs and lid off everything with the last pancake.
9) Brush the pastry-flaps hanging over the edges of the pan with the remaining butter and neatly fold them closed over your fillings. Try to put some pressure on the seams to keep them from folding upwards as the pastilla bakes.
10) Pop on a fitting lid and allow the Pastilla to “bake” and set on medium-low heat for the next 20-25 mins.
11) Carefully replace the lid with a pretty plate and turn the Pastilla out with a hearty flip of the pan. Decorate the pie to your heart’s content and dig in while it’s hot~
The “Long” (and lazy~) Way: The Oven
1) Preheat your oven at 180°C.
2) Grab a circular pie tin of about 5-7cm height – I’m actually not sure how high the rims of a regular pie tin are since I don’t have one, I go with a regular brownie tin for my oven-version. Traditionally they’re served up in a round shape though, so…
3) Grab the tin of your choice and brush it with melted butter.
4) Line it with a double-layer of filo pastry, neatly fitting the pastry to the shape of the tin.
5) Brush the top sheet with butter again, lightly sprinkle it with a pinch of sugar and salt as well as a thin layer of the almonds and add 2 more buttered sheets on top.
6) Spread out a layer of the spiced chicken and hold it in place with 2 snugly fitted sheets of buttered filo pastry.
7) Continue piling up the Pastilla with a layer of the thick sauce, a double- filo sheets, a layer of dried figs and almonds and another layer of buttered filo pastry.
8) One last layer of almonds and three sheets of buttered filo pastry later, you’re done~
9) Brush the pastry ends hanging over the sides of your tin and the top layer with the remaining butter and tightly tuck them in along the rim to tightly seal in all of the delicious goodness of the Pastilla as well as to avoid any pointy bits of the pastry sticking out and burning up in the oven.
10) Brush the top with the beaten egg yolk and add a last flourish of sea salt.
11) Slide the tin onto the middle rack of your oven and bake the pie for 30 min – or until a crispy-golden glow beaming up at you tells you it’s time to whet your knives~
12) Retrieve the pastilla, sprinkle the top with a hint of icing sugar, salt and cinnamon and dot it with your edible deco like above.
13) Divvy it up cake-style and dig in while it’s warm.