Pastilla is a monument of Moroccan cuisine that is synonymous with refinement and delicacy.
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!
What is 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! This city 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!
What is pastilla?
What is the origin of pastilla?
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.
How to make pastilla
The traditional and authentic recipe of pastilla calls for pigeon, although Cornish hen can be used too. Farm-raised chicken, that is more tender, works 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.
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 for one of Mike’s trip to Paris, for a dinner with his 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!
- 10 brick dough sheets (or filo dough sheets)
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter , melted
- 1 egg white , beaten
- 2 tablespoons icing sugar
- Ground cinnamon , to taste
- 2 large Cornish hens
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 bunch 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
- ½ cup cold water
- ¾ cup sunflower oil
- 8 oz. whole almonds , blanched and peeled
- 2 tablespoons icing sugar
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the Cornish hens, and brown all sides for a few minutes.
Add the onions, parsley, ginger, turmeric, saffron, salt and pepper. Pour ½ 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.
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.
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.
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.