This week, on November 18th, Morocco will celebrate its Independence Day which took place on 18 November 1955.
In many countries, Independence Day is often the National Day, but that is not the case in Morocco. Independence Day is definitely celebrated on November 18, but it remains much less important than the “Feast of the Throne”, recognized as the National Day, and celebrated on July 30th.
I have excellent memories of all the Feast of the Throne festivities that I attended in Morocco. Independence Day definitely did not bring the same atmosphere and the same jubilation in the streets of the country.
Independence Day marks the anniversary of King Mohammed V‘s accession to the throne after his return of a 27 months’ exile in Madagascar. Given that Morocco owes its independence to him, this date was chosen to celebrate this occasion and to remember all the good deeds done by this king.
In Arabic, Independence Day is called Aid el Istiqlal, a celebration that also announces the independence of “modern” Morocco, namely the effective end of the French Protectorate in Morocco, definitively signed on 2 March 1956.
I was born in a country where cooking is an age-old way of life.
Nowadays, when we talk about “cuisine”, it is more synonymous with refined gastronomy, starred chefs or even reality TV shows rather than grandmothers dishes. But true cooking, that touches us and takes us back to our childhood, is the one of the memories in our hearts. The kitchen of a mother, a grandmother, an aunt or … that of a dada!
Yes, Moroccan culinary arts have been perpetuated by dadas, the women who cooked, and were formerly hired by wealthy families. There are still many dadas today and they continue to transmit their know-how, from generation to generation.
Every wealthy family had to have one, two, or even several dadas. The dada was one of the pillars of the house and had several functions. She was at the same time the cook, the nurse, the housekeeper, the confidante and the guardian of all the family secrets.
And precisely, when we speak about pastilla, it is the dadas, these guardians of an ancestral art, who are at the origin of this mythical appetizer.
Again, everything goes back to Fez, my native city! I assure you I do not do it on purpose! I did not choose to be born in a city, that is recognized as a World Heritage site by the UNESCO, which gave birth to so many cooks with golden hands who have contributed to the excellent and well deserved reputation of Moroccan cuisine around the world!
The story goes that in 1492, during the fall of Al-Andalus driven out of Spain after the reconquest of Granada, the Moors took refuge in Morocco and brought their traditions and a multitude of recipes with them, including pastilla.
But it’s not only about the Moors. It is believed that pastilla also has Sephardic Jewish origins. Indeed, after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Isabelle I, there was a great wave of emigration of Jews in North Africa. They also brought their know-how and traditions with them.
The traditional and authentic recipe of pastilla calls for pigeon.
But… I did not find any pigeon in Paris! At least at the butcher! Don’t even imagine that I would have killed one on my balcony! I just replaced the pigeon with Cornish hen. But farm-raised chicken, that is more tender, would work as well.
In addition to being served in all the Moroccan restaurants around the world, pastilla is the dish that is served at most celebrations, including weddings, births, circumcisions, etc.
It is one of the oldest dishes based on a sweet and savory combination. It is presented in the form of a pie, whose filling is enclosed in several layers of an extremely thin dough called warka or warqa (sheet of paper, in Arabic).
Outside of Morocco, the only two acceptable alternatives are filo dough or brick dough sheets, which, I must admit, have absolutely nothing to do with the traditional warka of my childhood in terms of both taste and texture. Our charming Moroccan cuisine expert Bouchra, from famous blog Ma Fleur d’Oranger will certainly not contradict me on this topic. My recipe is actually adapted from her recipe which, in my eyes, is just perfect.
The filling of pastilla contains poultry, beaten eggs, almonds, onion, sugar and spices, all delicately perfumed with cinnamon.
It is a long recipe to execute. Very often, people start preparing the filling the day before. I prepared it three weeks ago, during a visit of Mike in Paris, for a meal with Mike’s family where I was invited.
A Moroccan legend says that a good authentic pastilla recipe can not be written in less than a thousand words.
So, I am going to count the words of my recipe and even if it may not reach a thousand words, just know that it was nevertheless delicious!
Recipe of Pastilla
Preparation time: 2h
Cooking time: 1h05
Ingredients (for 6 to 8 people)
- For the dough envelope
10 brick dough or filo dough sheets
10 tablespoons butter, melted
1 egg white, beaten
2 tablespoons icing sugar
Ground cinnamon, to taste
For Cornish hen and egg filling
2 large Cornish hens
10 tablespoons butter
1 bunch of flat parsley, chopped
4 onions, thinly sliced
A few saffron threads
1 cinnamon stick
4 tablespoons sugar
6 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 cup cold water
For the almond filling
3/4 cup sunflower oil
8 oz whole almonds, blanched and peeled
2 tablespoons icing sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preparation of the Cornish hens
Put the Cornish hens in a large pot. Add the onions, parsley, ginger, turmeric, saffron, salt and pepper. Pour 1/2 cup of cold water, mix well and cook over medium heat for 35 minutes.
Remove the Cornish hens from the sauce. Debone them and shred the flesh.
Preparation of the egg mixture
Put the sauce back on medium/high heat to reduce until the liquid evaporates, stirring constantly. Add the cinnamon stick and sugar to caramelize the onions.
Add the eggs to the caramelized onions, stirring constantly and vigorously. The mixture should have the texture of a thick cream. Reduce so all the liquid evaporates.
Preparation of the almonds
Add the oil to a large non-stick pan over medium/high heat. Add the peeled almonds right away and fry them, without burning them, for a few minutes until golden.
Drain the almonds and crush them in a food processor with the ground cinnamon and icing sugar.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Assembly of the pastilla
Grease a round pan with butter.
Thoroughly grease each brick dough sheet with butter. Important: The buttered side should always face up.
At the bottom of the dish, lay 4 sheets of brick by overlapping them one on top the other and having half of each of them hanging outside the pan.
Add a sheet to the center to consolidate the bottom of the pastilla.
Place a layer of egg mixture on the sheets, spreading evenly over the entire surface. Cover with a sheet of brick. Add the Cornish hen in the same way and cover with another sheet of brick. Finally, add the crushed almonds.
Fold the edges of the leaves toward the center and press lightly to seal with the layer of almonds. Coat with egg white to seal the leaves.
Cover with 2 brik sheets to close the pastilla, and insert the edges towards the inside of the mold.
Brush the edges of the last sheet with egg white so that it adheres well and does not peel off during baking.
Brush the surface of the pastilla with melted butter.
Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown.
Place the pastilla on a serving dish. Dust with iced sugar and cinnamon. Serve hot.