It is New Years Eve, so it is time to bring our annual progressive dinner menu to life. As this year’s theme is Northern African food (my favorite), what better way to start than with a sweet, savory, crispy, steamy Bisteeya — or “pigeon pie” to the Berbers of Morocco.
As I’ve made this bisteeya more times than I can count since my first trip to Morocco in 1971, I think I’ve earned the right to some serious modifications. I’ve taken Paula Wolfert’s exquisite but extensive 13-page Bisteeya recipe and simplified a few steps. Some people may have time to make Warka (the Moroccan equivalent of phyllo), but I don’t know any of them and wonder if they really exist. Short-cut #1, I’m using phyllo.
Bisteeya has 4 main parts: the pastry, the chicken (pigeon), the egg/herb/chicken layer and the sweet almond layer.
The chicken is simmered in water dense with herbs and onion. Once chicken and bones are removed (chicken is shredded and set aside), the fun begins. The herbed stock remaining in the pot is simmered until thick enough to reveal the pan bottom when scraped with a spatula (photo below).
By now, your kitchen smells like a cross between a Moroccan riad and heaven.
Beaten eggs are then whisked into your thickened herb stock
and cooked with constant stirring until thick and “curdy”.
If you haven’t done so while your sauce is reducing, you need to make the almond layer — a simple step. Toast sliced almonds (you can start with whole almonds, but I think the sliced ones give a nice texture to the pie) in a bit of olive oil until just beginning to brown.
Once cool, add the cinnamon and sugar. The sweet almonds will provide the most delightful contrast of flavors to your egg/herb mix that your taste buds can imagine.
Assuming you purchased the pastry, you now have everything ready to assemble.
You’ll start with layers of phyllo in a fan shape overlapping the edge of your dish. It doesn’t look pretty at this point, but you’ll just have to be patient. The glorious finished product is not far in your future.
Now add those layers that you’ve worked on for hours — first chicken, then the egg/herb, and the sweet almonds.
Almost there! After a bit of buttering, tucking and shaping, the “pie” is ready for the oven.
After baking and a final dusting of sugar and cinnamon, your beauty is ready to serve. If you’ve never had bisteeya, you are in for an unimaginable treat…
Recipe: Adapted from Paula Wolfert’s “Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco”, my favorite book about Moroccan food.
Menu: Our New Year’s Eve Moroccan Menu that includes this dish can be found at my blog-partner’s site, Housewifery.
Serving Size: 12
3 1/2 pounds chicken, fryer, whole
4 cloves garlic
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups water, approximately
1 cup parsley, chopped
1/4 teaspoon saffron
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 teaspoon ginger
4 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound almonds, sliced
2 tablespoons oil, olive
1/2 cup sugar, confectioners
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon, ground
1 cup butter, clarified
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 package phyllo, about 12 ounces
1. Rinse the chicken, Mince the garlic and coat the chicken. Set aside.
2. In a large Dutch oven (I like to use enamel-covered cast iron), sauté onion in butter.
3. Add chicken, water, parsley, saffron, turmeric, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon sticks and salt. Use enough water to cover the chicken, The exact amount of water does not matter as the stock will be reduced later in your preparation. Bring to a boil. Simmer, covered, for 1 1/4 hours.
4. Heat the olive oil in a heavy frying pan. Add almonds and stir until brown. Remove from heat and cool. Add confectioner’s sugar and ground cinnamon. Set aside. This will be the almond and top layer in the pie.
5. Remove chicken and all bones from stock. Leave the stock on the medium heat, uncovered to reduce.
6. Discard bones and skin and reserve all chicken meat. Shred with your fingers into small pieces (not larger than one inch and preferably shreds rather than chunks). Set aside. This is your chicken layer.
7. Reduce the stock until thick with the herbs/onion. A spatula scraped on the bottom of the pot should reveal the bottom for a few seconds (see photo). Add lemon juice. Beat eggs and whisk into reduced stock. Cook until thick and quite dry (see photo). Set aside. This is your egg layer.
8. Clarify the second quantity of butter by melting in a small saucepan. Skim solids at the surface (discard) and decant the clear liquid (reserve). There will be some remaining solids in the bottom of the pot (discard these also).
9. Preheat oven to 375 F.
10. Open phyllo according to package directions (be sure to thaw first in the refrigerator – not at room temperature). Begin layering the phyllo on a large round pan (a pizza pan works nicely). One at a time, lay at least 6 pieces of the phyllo in a fan shape, leaving edges of each piece overhanging the pan (see photo), and buttering each piece as you proceed.
11. Bake 2-3 phyllo leaves in the oven — just until crisp — about 1 minute.
12. Place the chicken on your phyllo “fan”. Make the chicken layer no more than 1/2 inch thick (reserve any extra chicken for another use). Cover the chicken with the egg mixture and then top with the crisped phyllo leaves. Top this with the almond layer. Then take the extended phyllo leaves and fold toward the center – over the top of your layers. Shape your pie into a “round shape” as you go.
13. Use another 6-12 sheets of phyllo to complete your pie. Making another “fan”, put each layer over the pie but extending over the edges of the pan. As you butter each sheet, tuck the extending edge under the pie.
14. Give the pie a final brush of butter and you are ready to bake. I find that a 350 F oven works best — heats the bestilla through without burning the top of the pastry. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. If your pie is not golden brown, increase the oven temperature and bake an additional 5-10 minutes.
15. When your pie is removed from the oven, dust with powdered sugar and, using your fingers, decorate with lines of cinnamon. Cut and serve.