Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Bastila (sometimes transliterated as bisteeya) is a huge pigeon pie traditional in Fez, and found throughout Morocco. One Moroccan cookbook starts a recipe for bastila with the instruction that one must have a dada come to the house to prepare it. A dada is a black professional woman cook from Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa employed in bourgeois and aristocratic households in Morocco to this day.
My most memorable bastila was at the huge villa of Moulay Messaouad Agouzzal outside Meknes, where our conference party of one hundred and sixty people dined on magnificent Moroccan culinary treasures. Moulay Agouzzal is a very gracious landowner and olive oil producer who put on an incredible feast with extraordinary modesty and great delight. After I had spent some time in the kitchen quizzing cooks about the food we were to eat, I returned to my table and was fortunate enough to be seated next to Paula Wolfert, the author of many books on Mediterranean cuisines, and who, although I nitpick with her about historical things, knows how to cook and eat bastila. Guided by her inimitable enthusiasm I learned how to eat bastila the correct way, with my fingers, and how to pay attention to the sequence of tastes and cacophony of smells.
This recipe is recreated from the cooks I talked to that day. I find the combination of fowl (my idea) that I use in this recipe to be a very close approximation of those plump and flavorful pigeons one can enjoy in North Africa. Of course, if you can find a good quality unfrozen plump pigeon (squab) in your market at a price that won't break the bank, then by all means use them. Before proceeding with the recipe, make sure you have a 16-inch-diameter baking pan and that it fits in your oven. If you have never made bastila before, allow plenty of time, read the recipe several times, and work patiently.
[photo: unknown credit]
Yield: Makes 12 servings
Preparation Time: 5:30 hours
1. If you are using chicken, pull off as much fat as possible. In a mortar, pound the garlic and salt together until mushy and rub the fowl inside and out with this paste. Set the fowl aside for 1 hour in the refrigerator.
2. In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the samna over medium-high heat, then cook the almonds until golden, about 8 minutes, stirring or shaking the skillet almost constantly after the first 4 minutes. Cool completely, then grind in a food processor and mix with the confectioners' sugar and 1 tablespoon of the cinnamon.
3. Put the fowl in a large casserole or stew pot with the water, orange flower water, 1 pound butter, onion, ginger, ras al-hanut, allspice, saffron, the remaining 1/ 4 teaspoon cinnamon, the parsley, and fresh coriander and season with salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the meat is falling off the bones, about 3 hours. Remove the birds and separate the meat from the bones and set aside. Discard the bones.
4. Remove 5 1/ 2 cups of the poaching liquid from the casserole or stew pot. Beat the eggs and egg yolks into 2 cups of the poaching liquid. Pour the remaining 3 1/ 2 cups poaching liquid back into the casserole and reduce to a little less than 1 cup over high heat, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
5. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Grease the bottom and sides of a 16-inch round baking pan with some of the remaining samna. Cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of six sheets of phyllo dough, overlapping so some sheets drape over the side of the baking pan. Liberally brush the phyllo with melted samna . Layer another six sheets of phyllo and brush again liberally with samna. Fold the overlapping sheets in and bake until browned, about 5 minutes. Remove from the oven.
6. Sprinkle half the almond-and-sugar mixture over the pastry. Ladle half of the egg-and-broth mixture over the almond-sugar mixture, making sure that none runs over the edges. Arrange the reserved meat from the birds around the entire pie and spread with the glaze made of the reduced broth. Cover with the remaining egg-and-broth mixture, again making sure it does not run over the sides. Cover with the remaining almond-and-sugar mixture and cover with the remaining twelve sheets of phyllo, in two layers, brushing the layers with the remaining samna. Tuck the overlapping edges of phyllo into and under the pie, lifting the sides up gently. Brush the top of the pie with samna. Also brush the sides of pie well with samna where you tucked the phyllo under at the edge of the pan, using up all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of the remaining samna.
7. Bake until the top of the pie is golden brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Tilt the pan, spoon out any excess samna, and reserve. Loosen the sides of the pie with a spatula. Place a large buttered baking sheet or 18- to 20-inch pizza pan over the top of the baking pan and invert the pie in one quick motion. Given the size of the pie pan, this will seem like madness, but try not to be intimidated--hold really tight and flip very quickly and you'll do fine. Practice the movement with an empty pie pan filled with some books a couple of times before doing it and absolutely do not hesitate when you do this. Return the pie to the pan by sliding it in quickly from the platter or sheet, brush the top with the reserved or remaining samna, and bake until golden brown, another 15 to 20 minutes.
8. Remove the pie to a serving platter, and let rest for 10 minutes. Dust the top with confectioners' sugar and make criss-cross lines with ground cinnamon. Serve and, if eating authentically, seat your guests around the bastila and eat with your fingers.