B'stila My Heart

I first had b’stila in Morocco in 1991. It wasn’t made with chicken, but with quail or perhaps pigeon. The meat certainly was not boneless; the bird was simply hacked into pieces, bones and all. I had never before (and never since) had so many small bird bones to pick from my teeth!

It was also, I thought, the first sweet-savory combination I was aware of being served. That, of course, was not true. I grew up in Philadelphia where “sweet and sour” was almost a daily thing, thanks to the Amish.

And let’s not even discuss sweet potato casseroles, or glazed hams with pineapples and Maraschino cherries. (No, really – please... let’s not talk about them.)

This dish - b’stila b’djej - reminds me of the dishes one might find in Renaissance-era Emilia-Romagna. I am thinking specifically of a dish I made from The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

It was a pasta dish like no other - rosewater in the pasta and the sauce; the latter also contained butter, sugar, and cinnamon. Quite a stunning antecedent to the ubiquitous modern red sauce that is thought to be quintessentially Italian. After the rise of the Ottoman Empire interrupted trade routes, even wealthy Italians abandoned such combinations in favor of local herbs. But the old tradition continued in the Islamic world of the Middle East and North Africa.

This b’stila – sometimes spelled b’stilla - is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and turmeric - along with a heavy dose of sugar. It is rounded out with almonds, parsley, and cilantro.

Yes, I know it sounds unusual, but isn’t that why we are here on earth? To explore and test and try and taste? (Thank you, Anthony Bourdain…)

To some Moroccans, it is esteemed as the national dish. Perhaps, to others, the tagine or a couscous is more the dish that defines the cuisine.

Either way, this b’stila is a stunner, and will have your guests wowed at the unusual combination of flavors and textures. After a first bite, I can actually hear someone saying, “B’stila my heart...”

~ David

B’stila b’djej 
Adapted from the recipe by Kitty Morse

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup water
2/3 cups confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 eggs, beaten

Almond Mixture 1/2 cup slices blanched almonds
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

12 sheets of phyllo dough, thawed
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
confectioners sugar, for garnish
ground cinnamon, for garnish

Note: phyllo dough is notoriously hard to work with. It can be very brittle, so be careful not to bend the roll as you unwrap it. Also, it needs to be kept damp. Once you spread out the 12 sheets you need, cover them with a very damp towel.

Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté until golden brown - about 10 minutes. Add the cinnamon, ginger, saffron, and turmeric and cook for 30 seconds or so to open up the flavors. Add the chicken, parsley, cilantro, and water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover. Cook for 20 minutes - the chicken should be done. Remove chicken pieces and place them on a plate to cool. Continue to simmer the spice and herb mixture until it cooks down a bit - about 5 minutes. (If it is already looking thick and reduced, skip this last step.) Add the sugar, salt, pepper and stir, then add the eggs and stir frequently until eggs are almost set and have a (lumpy) custard-like texture. Set aside.

For the almond mixture, add the almonds, sugar, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process with pulses; you want the mixture well blended but not too finely chopped.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Shred the cooled chicken and add it, and all accumulated juices, to the egg custard. Mix well.

Remove 12 sheets of phyllo dough from the package and wrap remaining pieces for another use. Place a very damp towel over the 12 sheets to keep them damp.

Brush a shallow pizza pan with some of the melted butter. Place once full sheet of phyllo dough onto the pan and brush well with butter. Repeat this with two more sheets of phyllo, laying each at a 30° angle so they don’t align with the sheets below. After the third sheet, sprinkle with half of the almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture. Top with a sheet of phyllo, butter that sheet, then add two more sheets, buttering each time.

Spoon the chicken mixture into the center of the six layers of buttered dough. Spread the filing to be a 10-inch circle.

Cut remaining six sheets (keep them stacked) of dough into 11-inch circles. Continue to cover with a damp towel.

Take one of the circles of dough and place it on top of the filling, and brush it with butter. Repeat with two more circles of dough, then sprinkle with the remaining almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture. Take the excess flaps of dough from the bottom and bring them up one at a time to wrap the filling; don’t worry, it won’t cover it completely. Butter the pulled-up flaps of dough and top with a circle of pastry. Butter the circle, then repeat with final two circles of pastry, buttering the last one. Tuck any excess dough underneath to make a tidy, circular package. If your dough breaks during handling, don’t worry; just gently patch it together and it will look fine when it comes out of the oven.

Bake the b’stila until golden brown - about 25 minutes. Sift confections sugar over the top and then sprinkle the sugar with cinnamon in a decorative pattern. (I have always felt this resembles the patterns of the Beni Ourain Berber carpets – see photo below.)

Bring to the table and serve immediately with grilled or sautéed vegetables on the side.

Makes 6 servings.

Labels: , , , , , , ,