B’stilla My Heart

When I entered college, every freshman at my university had to take a class called World Views. Professors from every discipline taught sections, and the overarching theme changed every few years. When it was my turn, we examined the Middle East, and I was fortunate enough to be in a class with the religious studies chair. At one point in the semester, he took the entire class on a field trip to Portland and bought us dinner at a Moroccan restaurant called Marrakesh. It was my introduction to Moroccan cuisine, and you better believe that all my sensory defenses went up when we went inside and saw the lack of chairs and eating utensils. But the amazing scent and flavor of the food quickly won me over: savory spiced lamb brochettes that I have been trying to duplicate at home ever since, bubbling mint tea poured from three feet up into cups on a swinging tray, and the scent of rosewater on our hands perfuming the air all the way back to Salem. But the most surprising part of that enlightening evening for me was easily the b’stilla.

B’stilla (or pastilla or bisteeya) is a Moroccan meat pie, flaky phyllo pastry enveloping a moist spiced mince of chicken, almond, and egg. The unusual thing about it is the fact that it arrives sprinkled with powdered sugar and is traditionally eaten with the fingers. After taking one look at this sweet, gloppy chicken pie, served in the center of the table for everyone to partake of,  it required every ounce of my willpower to dig my fingers in and eat a bite. When I finally managed it, I was shocked. Somehow the spices sublimated that odd combination of chicken and sugar into a miraculously unified whole that made me crave more. In the end, I didn’t even care about that gloppy texture on my fingers.

Marrakesh is not exactly a family-friendly—or particularly budget-friendly—restaurant, so I haven’t been back there in years. But for the past year or more, I have been increasingly interested in trying to make a b’stilla at home. I’ve even had the phyllo dough languishing in the freezer for months, waiting for me to screw up my courage and give it a try, so I promised myself that the next time we bought whole chickens, I would go for it. The recipe I used calls for braising the dark meat of the chicken in a broth of onions, garlic and ras el hanout, which I just happened to have on hand from my spice purchases in October last. I then chopped the meat coarsely in my food processor, whisked eggs into the hot braising liquid to form a curdled and really unappetizing-looking glop, and mixed it all together with some chopped dates and preserved Meyer lemon.

I opened up the phyllo packet with my heart pounding, and built up layers of pastry and melted butter as quickly as I could in a 9″ springform, sprinkling ground almonds and sugar in between almost like I was making a baklava. That comparison ended the instant I plopped the spiced chicken mixture into the dish, though, and with a few more buttery leaves of dough artlessly draped over the top, into the oven it went.

Thirty minutes later, I pulled the crispy, golden b’stilla from the oven and held my breath as I sifted more almond sugar over the top. We ate wedges with a side of sweet-tart braised carrots, flavored with more Moroccan spices and preserved lemon peel, and went back for seconds. I don’t think it was identical to the b’stilla at Marrakesh, but it was addictively close, and I am just crossing my fingers that the leftovers will taste as good as it did fresh from the oven.

Chicken B’stilla with Dates and Preserved Lemon

Try not to be intimidated by the length of the recipe! It really isn’t hard to make—just be prepared for some downtime between steps. The original recipe I adapted called for making individual b’stillas, which would be an excellent addition to a dinner party menu; the large one I made was equally impressive for just the three of us on a Wednesday night.

For the almond sugar:
1/2 C blanched whole almonds, toasted and cooled
3 T granulated sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

For the filling:
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/4 C)
2 garlic cloves, cut into thin strips
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 C) unsalted butter
3/4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp ras el hanout
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds chicken parts (I used 2 thighs and 2 legs)
1 1/2 C chicken broth, preferably homemade
1/4 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
2 large eggs, beaten lightly
1/4 C plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
3 T chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
1 1/2 T preserved lemon, finely chopped
2-3 Medjool dates, pitted and finely chopped
8 sheets phyllo (preferably Number 4 ultra-thin), thawed overnight in refrigerator and warmed 2 hours at room temperature

To make the almond sugar: In a food processor grind fine almonds, granulated sugar, and cinnamon. Almond sugar may be made 1 day ahead and kept covered in a cool dark place.

To make the filling: In a heavy 4-quart pot or sauté pan, sauté onion and garlic in 3 T butter over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until onion is golden, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat to moderate and add ginger, ras el hanout, and pepper. Cook mixture, stirring, 3 minutes. Add chicken parts, broth and saffron, and simmer covered, turning the chicken once, until very tender and cooked through, 25 to 35 minutes. Let chicken stand in cooking liquid off heat 30 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate, reserving cooking liquid and solids, and, when cool enough to handle, shred chicken, discarding skin and bones; or chop coarsely in a food processor.

Measure reserved cooking liquid and solids, and if necessary boil until reduced to about 1 3/4 cups. Reduce heat to moderate and add eggs in a stream, whisking. Cook mixture, stirring, until eggs are set and the mixture has thickened and curdled slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and pour egg mixture into a coarse sieve set over a bowl. Let mixture drain undisturbed 10 minutes before discarding liquid. Transfer egg mixture to a bowl. Stir in chicken, parsley, cilantro, preserved lemon, dates, and salt and pepper to taste, and chill. Filling may be made 1 day ahead and kept chilled, covered.

Preheat oven to 375°F. In a small saucepan melt remaining 9 tablespoons butter and keep warm but not hot. Using a pastry brush, coat the bottom and sides of a 9″ springform pan with butter. Stack phyllo sheets between 2 sheets wax paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Layer 6 sheets of phyllo in the bottom of the springform, allowing the corners to fall back over the edges; brush each sheet with butter as you go, and then sprinkle with about a tablespoon of almond sugar. After 6 sheets are down, sprinkle a heavier layer of almond sugar to cover the entire base of the b’stilla. Dollop the chicken mixture on top and spread out evenly. Top chicken mixture with another layer of almond sugar, drape and brush two more sheet of phyllo, as before, then gently fold all the corners into the center of the springform. Brush generously with butter, and bake in the oven until top is puffed and golden brown, about 30 minutes. Release from the springform and cool slightly on a rack. Sprinkle b’stilla with confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon (or sifted almond sugar) and serve warm.

Source: Adapted from Epicurious.

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