Alluring and delicious. Photo © Hannah
Pastilla, pronounced “bastilla” in the Arabic of North Africa, is a traditional Moroccan dish that crossed the Straits of Gilbraltar from Andalusia, Spain. It is transliterated from the Arabic pastilla, bastilla, bisteeya, b’stilla or bstilla.
It all means “delicious,” says Hannah Kaminsky.
Traditionally served as a first course of a special meal, this squab pie with flaky, crêpe-like dough is more often made with chicken these days. Fish, offal and vegetarian recipes are also made.
In traditional recipes, the meat is slow-cooked in broth and spices, then shredded and layered in the pastry with toasted and ground almonds, cinnamon and sugar.
“I may have never known about the wonders of pastilla, the mysterious pastry with a half-dozen different spellings, if not for the ethereal prose of Fatima Mernissi,” says Hannah. “So inspired by her lavish, unrestrained words of praise, this was my call to action, to secure a literal piece of the pie for myself.”
Looking for a vegan substitute, she turned to chickpeas, noting:
“Most curious with pastilla is the incongruous addition of powdered sugar right before serving; a light dusting of confectionery snow, frosting a decidedly savory main course.
“Humbly, I must admit, it does work, tempering the hot, bold and intense spices without turning the pastry into a dessert. Though it could still taste equally delicious without the sugar, for those as hesitant as myself, I must urge you to just give it a shot.”
Ingredients For 3-4 Servings
1. PREHEAT Preheat oven to 425°F. Lightly grease a 6-inch round springform pan.
2. HEAT 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sugar; cook for 8-10 minutes while stirring frequently, until lightly golden and aromatic. Add the ground cumin, coriander, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and cayenne, cooking for a minute or two longer to gently toast the spices.
3. ADD the drained chickpeas and almond meal, stirring to combine, before slowly pouring in the broth and lemon juice together. Cook for another minute to heat through and slightly thicken the mixture. It should be thoroughly moistened but not soupy. Season with salt to taste. Remove from the heat and let cool for 15 minutes before proceeding.
4. LAY 1 sheet of phyllo across the bottom of the prepared springform pan, allowing the excess dough to hang over the edges. Lightly brush with the remaining olive oil, and then place another sheet of phyllo on top, turning it slightly so that the points stick out at different angles. Repeat this process so that you end up with 4-5 sheets lining the pan, covering the sides completely.
This baklava, made in a star-shaped cup, shows the numerous layers of phyllo dough. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.
5. SPOON the chickpea filling into the center, smoothing it out so that it fills the pan evenly. If you end up with a bit too much filling to comfortably squeeze in, you can always use leftover sheets of phyllo later, to make individual parcels.
6. COVER the filling with another sheet of phyllo, brush with olive oil and repeat the same process as before, ending up with another 4-5 sheets on top. Fold the overhanging dough back over the top, smoothing it down as neatly as you can. Give it a final brush of olive oil before sliding it into the oven.
7. BAKE for 15-18 minutes, keeping a close eye on the pie until it is golden brown (it cooks quickly at this high temperature). Let cool for 5 minutes before unmolding. Sift a fine dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top right before serving.
THE HISTORY OF PHYLLO DOUGH
Phyllo (FEE-low), fillo or filo is the traditional dough of the Greek, Middle Eastern and Balkan cuisines. It is used for pastries from the sweet, like baklava (with honey and nuts) to the savory, like spanakopita (spinach and feta).
Phyllo means “leaf” in Greek, and refers to the many tissue-thin leaves (so thin you can read through them) of unleavened flour sheets that comprise the dough. The paper-thin layers are separated by a thin film of butter.
The earliest form of the dough was made in the 8th century B.C.E. in northern Mesopotamia, when the Assyrians made an early version of baklava, layering very thin pieces of dough with nuts and honey, and baking them in wood-burning ovens.
The practice of stretching raw dough into paper-thin sheets is believed to have evolved in the kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, based on Central Asian prototypes.
Greek seamen brought the concept home, and Athenian bakers created phyllo, the leaf-thin layers of dough, as early as the 3rd century B.C.E. Given the labor required, it was served in wealthy Greek households for special occasions.
The dough (flour, water, oil and white vinegar) was made by gently rolling, stretching or pressing into the ultra-thin sheets. This takes time and skill, requiring progressive rolling and stretching into a single thin and very large sheet. A very large table and a long roller are required, with continous flouring between layers to prevent tearing.
Machines for producing phyllo pastry were perfected in the 1970s. Today, phyllo is made by machine and available in the freezer section of most food stores, or fresh in some specialty markets.
In preparation for baking, the dough is brushed with butter or oil; it must be worked with quickly as it dries with exposure to air. It can be cut into sheets and layered in a tin, cut into individual rolls or rolled up as one large roll.
In any form, it is delicious!