My first encounter with phyllo roll — Wow. Cinnamon-spiced chicken with raisins, chickpeas and almonds were listed to describe Chicken Cilicia, my favorite on La Méditeranée's four-roll platter.
My taste buds wondered what I'd been doing all my life before I discovered that poultry, nuts and baking spices compose a stellar trio. It would take years for me to track down this filling's Moroccan origins in a magical pie called Bstilla.
One evening in New York, my good friend, Stephanie, who had recently traveled to Morocco, made Bstilla as I succumbed to jetlag in her bed after a transcontinental flight. Waking up for dinner to the scent of baked buttered phyllo is one of my favorite food memories with Steph, an ace pie maker and epicure-in-the-know who introduced me to Umami Mart. As I took my first bite, the symphonic crunching of phyllo happening between my ears sounded like swishing through a pile of dried autumn leaves, and the filling brought me back to La Méditeranée.
From that moment on, I ordered Bstilla — or pastilla, bisteeya, bastela — every time I saw it on a menu. It takes about 3 hours to make so I never bothered until recently when I suggested to Chris that we try our hand at Bstilla, along with a litany of other pies, savory and sweet, for Pi Day. He pointed out that it would take too much time to make all the pies we wanted to serve our friends and family coming over for 3/14, and on a Friday no less. I pondered the steps that could be accomplished ahead of time, but still it seemed like too much to handle. So for dinner last Friday, we decided to prepare a half portion of Claudia Roden's recipe for ourselves, and make a one-bottle dent in our Syrah collection.
We happen to have a lot of Washington Syrah in our wine rack because Chris has relatives in Walla Walla, Washington, and we fly there annually for our fix of family, sweet onions and cowboy wine country. Far east of Seattle and set amongst low rolling wheat fields, Walla Walla is unique in the world as a wine destination, and well worth visiting.
All of the vineyards there are irrigated so it is interesting to taste how winemakers interpret grapes that have more surface similarities than dry-farmed Napa grapes grown with only rain and deep, efficient root systems to sustain them, for example. Plus, Walla Walla is a fraction of Napa's size — 1,800 acres of vineyard to Napa's 43,000 — which makes the stylistic diversity found among its 100+ wineries all the more intriguing.
Meat plus herbs or baking spices, or any spice that's not hot spicy, is a surefire bet with Syrah. The 2009 Tamarack Columbia Valley Syrah had a round, voluptuous mouthfeel, and a lingering finish of olive, blackberry and a dusting of cocoa powder, neatly knotting the Bstilla's flaky, meaty and soft-scrambled textures together. The wine improves with air — all the more reason to pop the cork when the dish goes into the oven so you can savor a glass with some olives and salami after the hard part is done. This pairing takes time, but it's well worth the wait. Here's what we savored just after 10:30pm:
Pigeon (Squab) or Chicken Pie
Adapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden
Serves four as a main course, eight as an appetizer
FOR THE FILLING
2 pounds chicken legs, skin on
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 large onion, diced
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon plus more to garnish
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
3/4 cup blanched almonds
1.5 tablespoons sugar
14-20 sheets phyllo pastry (use as many as you need given the size of your dough; the recipe calls for 14 but I probably used 20-22)
1/2 stick of butter, melted
Powdered sugar to garnish
1. Cut the chicken legs into drumsticks and thighs. Put them in a pan with a tablespoon of oil, salt, pepper, onion, ginger and cinnamon. Add just enough water to cover. Simmer with the lid on for 50 minutes.
2. Lift the chicken out of the liquid, leaving the sauce in the pan. Reduce the sauce to about 1/3 cup. Pour in the eggs and stir over low heat until the mixture is creamy and nearly set. Stir in the parsley and cilantro; season with salt and pepper.
3. The chicken should be cool enough to handle at this point; tear the meat off the bone and hand-shred it into small pieces.
4. Coarsely chop the almonds and fry them briefly with a tablespoon of oil in a pan. Stir vigorously to ensure even browning. Drain on paper towels and mix with the sugar and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon.
5. Now, assemble the pie. Brush a 9.5 inch pie pan with melted butter. You'll need a deep pan here, say 1.5-2 inches deep. Fit a sheet of phyllo in the dish so that the ends fold well up the side and overlap the edges. Brush this first sheet with melted butter before adding another sheet and repeating the buttering process for each sheet. Depending on the size of your phyllo dough, you might use as few as six sheets or as many as 10-12. The more the merrier is my personal philosophy with this ingredient.
6. Spread the chicken over the pastry and cover with the egg mixture. Layer on more phyllo, one sheet at a time, to cover the egg and chicken layer. Brush butter on each sheet before adding a new one.
7. Sprinkle the fried almonds evenly over the top layer, then bring the overhanging bits of sheets up and fold them over the almond mixture.
8. Cover with a few more sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer except the top one with melted butter. Tuck the top sheets down inside the pan, underneath the pie if possible.
9. Bake in a preheated 400˚ F oven for 30 minutes until the top is crisp and golden brown. Very carefully turn over the pie onto a baking sheet and bake for a further 15 minutes, or until the other side is brown.
10. Serve hot, turned out upside down again onto a serving platter. Dust the top with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
Happy Pi Day to all!