Okay vegans, look away for this one. I promise I’ll make it up to you with a Moroccan recipe for beets that will knock your socks off.
Bisteeya (alternatively pastilla, besṭila, bastilla, b’stilla or b’steeya) is a traditional Moroccan savory pie, usually served on special occasions as a first course. When I first started exploring Moroccan cooking, bisteeya was my Holy Grail. I fell in love with it in Morocco many moons ago; here in New York, the late, great Cafe Noir used to serve it up (and well).
This is the most delicious chicken dish I have ever tasted, bar none.
My recipe here is a hodge-podge of various online offerings as well as my own adjustments, simplifications and shortcuts. Bisteeya is not a particularly difficult dish to make, but my best time start-to-finish is a little under 3 hours. The good news is that it can be made ahead and reheated (see the very end of this post). This recipe serves 8-10 as a first course, 4-6 as a main course (very nice paired with a seasonal salad), or 6 individual mini-bisteeya in small springform pans (4-1/2 inch diameter).
Equipment (aside from the ordinary):
- large, heavy-bottom stockpot with tight fitting lid
- glass pie pan (mine is 9½ inch/24 cm)
- pastry brush
- 1 cup slivered almonds, or whole raw almonds coarsely chopped
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus a few tablespoons for assembly
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
- Kosher or sea salt + freshly ground black pepper, as needed
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground ceylon cinnamon, plus extra for dusting
- 1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, crushed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 to 3 cups chicken stock
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
- 8 large eggs
- 6 tablespoons* chopped flat-leaf fresh parsley
(optional: 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro. If used, cut parsley back to 3 tablespoons.)
- 10-12 sheets phyllo dough, defrosted in refrigerator if frozen
- powdered sugar, as needed, for dusting along with cinnamon right before serving
*NOTE: when making bisteeya for gifts or guests, I exclude the cilantro and make up for it with more parsley—turns out some people cannot deal with cilantro.
Preheat oven to 350F. While oven heats: spread almonds in a single layer on a cookie sheet or shallow baking pan; measure out and combine cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and cloves and set aside. Toast the almonds for 4 minutes, then stir or shake them, and bake for another 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Reserve for assembly.
Slivered almonds before and after toasting:
color, flavor and texture are noticeably different.
Turn up the oven to 400F. Heat the olive oil in the stockpot over medium-high heat. Open package(s) of chicken and sprinkle the accessible surface generously with salt and pepper. When the oil is hot, place the chicken thighs, salt-&-peppered side down, in the stockpot, and generously salt-&-pepper the other sides. Cook until browned on both sides, about 5-6 minutes. (Depending on the size of your stockpot, you may need to do this in two batches.) As the oil heats and the chicken browns, work on finely chopping the onion and mincing the garlic. Put the browned chicken on a plate and reserve.
Lower the heat slightly. Add to the same pot the chopped onions and the spice mixture (cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron and cloves), and sauté until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute. Add 2 cups of chicken stock, stir well, and scrape the bottom of the pot to free any browned onion, chicken or spices that may have stuck. Add the chicken pieces back into the pot, along with any juices from the plate. Add more stock as needed to bring the liquid level up to the chicken without completely submerging it. Bring to a boil. Cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and place in the 400F oven for 20 minutes.
♦ ♦ ♦ Always practice safe chicken! ♦ ♦ ♦
While the chicken braises in the oven, thoroughly wash and dry the dish you used to hold the chicken, tongs, spatula, spoon rest, etc.—you will need them again. Thoroughly clean any other kitchen surfaces and equipment that may have come into contact with raw or semi-cooked chicken.
NO JOKE, PEOPLE.
After 20 minutes, turn the oven off and set the stockpot back on the stove over medium-high heat. Carefully remove the lid. Take out the chicken pieces and put them on the plate to cool.
Reduce the braising liquid to about 1 cup, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, chop up the parsley (and optional cilantro if using), lightly beat the eggs, and measure out the brown sugar and butter.
Once the liquid is reduced to about 1 cup, add the butter, brown sugar and parsley (+ optional cilantro) to the pot, and stir until the butter is melted. Add the beaten eggs to the pot and stir constantly, until the eggs are well incorporated and the texture is like cooked oatmeal. Immediately remove from heat. To quickly stop the egg mixture from cooking and prevent it from drying out, I recommend submerging the bottom of the stockpot in cold water (I put the pot in my sink so it blocks the drain and run cold water, letting the sink fill up around the pot for a few minutes. Reserve the egg mixture for assembly.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. With the pastry brush, coat the glass pie dish very lightly with olive oil. Lay out the stack of phyllo dough sheets, and give each one a very light brushing of olive oil before you pick each one up. Layer strips of phyllo dough on the bottom and over the sides of the dish to build up to about 8 layers. Trust me: it doesn’t have to be pretty, just more or less even-ish. Reserve at least two full phyllo sheets for covering the top.
Shred the cooled chicken with your fingers (you can easily feel and remove any fat, gristle or cartilage the butcher might have missed) and spread it in an even layer in the dish. Spread the egg mixture evenly over the chicken. Spread the toasted almonds evenly over the egg mixture.
1-2-3: chicken + egg mixture + toasted almonds.
Fold the overhanging phyllo dough inward, and use the reserved phyllo sheets to cover the filling and secure the edge by tucking into the sides of the dish. If the Phyllo Gods are feeling benevolent and smiling upon you, it will look something like this:
If the Phyllo Gods are being giant douches and the sheets are a fragile, dried-out, cracked-up mess—as is frequently the case in my kitchen—don’t worry about it. Fold the overhanging pieces around the edge of the dish inward and let the cracked pieces do whatever they’re going to do. Cover the whole top of it as best you can using the reserved phyllo sheets, plus whatever breaks off. It will look something like this:
It doesn’t matter, because after about 20 minutes in the oven, it comes out gorgeous either way.
To finish the bisteeya, dust with ceylon cinnamon and powdered sugar. You can do this over the whole bisteeya right after it comes out of the oven, or better yet cut and plate each slice first before dusting them with cinnamon and sugar individually. If refrigerating/freezing and reheating the bisteeya, wait to dust with cinnamon and sugar until after reheating, right before serving.
To reheat bisteeya when refrigerated (or frozen and then thawed in the refrigerator), preheat oven to 325F. Cover the dish with foil, and place directly on oven rack. Heat until warmed through, about 45-60 minutes.
To make 6 mini-bisteeya in small springform pans (4-1/2 inch diameter), layer thinner strips of phyllo on the bottom and over the sides of the pan to build up to about 4 layers.
To reheat mini-bisteeya when refrigerated (or frozen then thawed in the refrigerator), preheat oven to 325F. Remove from the springform pan and wrap completely in foil. Place the foil packet directly on oven rack and heat until warmed through, about 35-45 minutes.