Pastilla, also spelled Bastilla, is a savory-sweet Moroccan meat pie made by filling a thin, flaky pastry shell with a mixture of tender braised poultry, eggs, and fried almonds. At first glance, a slice of pastilla could easily be mistaken for a dessert, since it's generously dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon, but the sweet, crispy exterior belies the spicy, savory mixture on the inside. Traditionally made with squab (a.k.a. pigeon) and warka pastry. I've adapted this pastilla with ingredients that are more readily available here.
As you bite into a crisp, buttery pastilla, the sugar and cinnamon activates your sweet taste receptors, but the sweetness quickly fades as the savory filling hits your tongue. The tender chicken and onions flood your mouth with an umami rich burst of flavor that carries with it notes of ginger, turmeric, and cardamom. Add to that the crunchy butter-fried almonds, and you'll start to get a picture of just how magnificent this humble pastry can be.
It's important to use clarified butter in this recipe since the milk solids in regular butter will burn before the almonds are fully toasted. Using clarified butter for the phyllo will also prevent your finished pastillas from taking on a mottled appearance. If you're anything like me and are too lazy to clarify your own butter, you can buy it in jars at Indian groceries labeled as "ghee".
If portability isn't important, this recipe could be used to make a more traditional pie shaped pastilla. Just put down a few layers of phyllo and butter into a round pan, fill with almonds and chicken, then cover with more buttered phyllo.
- ½ cup clarified butter
- ¾ cup blanched slivered almonds
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 large sweet onion (chopped)
- 6 pods green cardamom (crushed)
- 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1.5 pounds bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
- 3 large eggs beaten
- ¼ cups parsley minced
- 1 package phyllo dough
- 6 tablespoons clarified butter
- powdered sugar for dusting
- ground cinnamon for dusting
- Line a plate with a couple layers of paper towels. Heat the clarified butter in a large saucepan until very hot. Add the almonds and fry until they are golden brown. They will continue browning after they're removed from the heat, so be careful not to get them too dark in the pan. Remove them from the pot using a slotted spoon and drain on the paper towels. Toss the drained almonds with 2 Tbs sugar and 2 tsp cinnamon.
- Add the onions into the pot that the almonds came out of and fry until tender. Add the cardamom, turmeric, salt, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cinnamon stick and black pepper and continue frying until the spices are fragrant. Add the chicken into the pot and cover with the onions. Turn the heat down to the lowest setting and cover the pot with a lid. Gently simmer the chicken for about an hour, or until the meat easily comes off the bones. There shouldn't be any need to add water since the onions and chicken will excrete liquid, however, if all the liquid evaporates and it starts burning, add a bit of water.
- Remove the chicken from the pot and discard the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods. Turn the heat up to thicken the sauce. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred it with your fingers. Once the sauce has reached a thick gluggy state, add the eggs and parsley. Allow some curds to form, then stir to scramble the eggs into the sauce. Turn off the heat and add the chicken back in. Taste and add salt as needed. Allow this mixture to cool (ideally overnight in the fridge).
- When you're ready to make the pastilla, put the oven rack in the middle position and preheat to 450 degrees F. Get a kitchen towel damp, then unfold the phyllo dough and use a sharp knife to cut off a 2" wide strip of dough from one end. Wrap the rest of it back up. Place your damp towel over the phyllo dough strips making sure to keep them covered once you've pulled a few sheets from the stack.
- Start by pulling 2 strips of phyllo off the stack and lay them out in front of you. Use a pastry brush to apply a light coating of butter onto each strip of phyllo. Put a scant tablespoon of chicken mixture onto a corner of each strip of dough. Sprinkle a pinch of sugared almonds on top. Begin folding the strips into triangles starting from the end with the filling. The motion is similar to how you would fold a flag. You can also roll them into tubes if you like. Place them on a baking sheet and brush the tops with more melted butter. Put them in the oven until the pastillas are golden brown then transfer to a wire rack. Repeat until you run out of chicken.
- As the pastillas come out of the oven, put some powdered sugar into a small sieve and generously dust the tops. Sprinkle with a bit of cinnamon then serve while hot.