Chicken Bastilla

by Sarah on October 21, 2009

The first time I read about Bastilla, the famous Moroccan pigeon and national dish, I was fascinated because it was enriched not only with almonds, cinnamon, powdered sugar and saffron but also with hundreds of years of history. It seemed a daunting feat to prepare it, partly because I have never tasted it and did not know exactly what to aim for but also because an authentic bastilla is the food of royalty and needs a golden touch.

Others were not impressed. When I mentioned to my twitter friends that I wanted to make Moroccan pigeon pie they thought that was hilarious. “I have plenty of pigeons all over my balcony, do you want them?” or “There is a pigeon roasting, I mean roosting on my windowsill”. Goodness, is there no respect for this splendid dish?

Another reason it took me this long to make Bastilla was because it is made with warka, similar to phyllo dough but thinner and made using a completely different method. My last attempt at making warka was catastrophic; I almost burnt the house down.  Although I learned a new genius technique both from Paula Wolfert and Aya, a commenter on my blog I decided to use phyllo dough for its availability and ease of use. I saved the homemade warka for braewat.

It is hard to trace the origin of the famous bastilla but it appears in various guises with one of the earliest mentions from 12th century France where it was known as pastillus. Modern Spain does not boast of any version of bastilla, despite its proximity with Morocco and its intertwined history although the name bastilla comes from the Spanish word for pastry, pastille (As a linguistic rule, Arabic switches the letter P, which is difficult for Arabs to pronounce, with B). It is most likely that Spain, cultural center of the Arab world from 756, under the Umayyad dynasty, until 1492 under the Nasrid caliphates, contributed to the development of fine cuisine such as bastilla which eventually fell out of favor but did not entirely disappear. Vestiges of bastilla can be seen throughout the Mediterranean and the world, such as the Syrian pastelis, Israeli pastelim and even as far away as Puerto Rico. In Morocco it slowly evolved, integrating global and local culinary elements until it reached its present pinnacle. Paula Wolfert, expert on Moroccan cuisine can reconstruct bastilla’s development into various regions in Morocca. According to Paula Wolfert “the lemony eggs of Tetuan and sweetened almond layers of the Souss were added until the final glory of the dish was achieved.” This I think is amazing because it brings together vast knowledge not only how to prepare the bastilla but also how it evolved.

Now I need to explain why I didn’t use Paula Wolfert’s Bastilla recipe, but Benny Saida’s, who is Syrian not Moroccan. To tell the truth, since this is the first time making the pie, I was afraid I would make a horrible mess of it and didn’t want to use Paula’s recipe for practice.  I wish I did as in retrospect, her instructions were much more explicit and I would have produced a better pie (well, of course). It just so happened that Michelle from Baroness Tapuzina prepared it using Paula’s recipe and told me her pie tasted delicious (well, of course again).

Chicken Bastilla

[printable recipe]

Based on a recipe by Benny Saida

As pigeons are hard to come by (actually they are all over my roof but that’s a little too free range for my taste) this recipe, as are most modern Bastilla recipes, use chicken.

I was happy with this recipe but noticed that it called for much more onions than any other Bastilla recipe I came across, perhaps the author’s personal preference. Also I made the mistake of not reducing the sauce enough before adding the eggs and ended up draining some of it. This step is important because the flavor of the pie is found in the sauce. Christine Benlafquih who specializes in Moroccan cooking on about.com has a wonderful recipe with photographs explaining each step of the process. In Paula Wolfert’s version she uses lemon juice to help the eggs curdle and I think the citrus flavor would meld well with the rest of the dish.

Filling

15 strands of saffron soaked in 4 tablespoons boiling water

Oil for deep frying

150 grams blanched almonds

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

1/3 cup oil

1 large chicken, cut into quarters

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

3 cups water

8 onions, finely chopped

1 cup coriander, chopped

1 cup parsley, chopped

6 eggs, whisked

100 grams margarine or butter

12 phyllo sheets (or 25 warka leaves)

Decoration

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons sugar

28-30cm diameter pan

Fry the almonds in oil until golden, set aside on paper towel to absorb excess oil. Roughly grind and add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1 teaspoon powdered sugar.

Fry the pieces of the chicken until golden brown, add the spices, saffron, ginger, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, turmeric and salt and pepper. Add the 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 1 hour until soft and cooked through (Benny Saida said to cook for two hours but I found that dries out the chicken). Take the chicken out of the pot with a slotted spoon. Let cool. Remove bones and skin and cut the meat into small pieces.

While the chicken is cooking fry the onions until golden (they lose much of their volume in this step).

Add the coriander and parsley to the pot and reduce the liquid until there is only 2 cups and the sauce is thick. Whisk the eggs into the sauce and cook until set. Remove from heat and let cool.

Turn on the oven to 200 C. Melt the butter or margarine and brush the baking pan. Add a layer of phyllo dough so that only one edge is covering the bottom and the other falls over the sides of the pan. Brush melted butter or margarine over the sheet and continue to covering the sides and bottom of the pan with the phyllo, overlapping. About 6 sheets of phyllo should be used.

Add the chopped chicken to the baking dish and the onions on top of that, spreading it evenly. Add the egg sauce and finally the ground almond mixture. Close the phyllo sheets above the filling and then add 6 sheets to the top, brushing between each layer and tucking the sides into the pan.

Bake for about 45 minutes until golden brown. Decorate with powdered sugar and cinnamon in a crisscrossing pattern. As you can see, I need practice with the decorating.

References:

A Mediterranean Feast, Clifford A. Wright

Couscous and other Good Food from Morocco, Paula Wolfert

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