B’stilla is one of those classic sweet-savory Moroccan dishes that is an absolute must at any celebration, whether religious or secular. It is the first course served at a diffa (which means “reception” and describes a celebratory meal). One of the seasonings in the filling is ras el-hanout, possibly the most complex of all Islamic spice mixtures and usually used with game or in sweet-savory tagines. Ras el-hanout means the “head of the shop,” signaling how precious the spice blend is, both because of its price and the fact that the blend is made with up to 30 different spices. The mixture once included Spanish fly before it was made illegal. I like to think it was banned because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac, but it is probably because it can be noxious if used liberally.
B’stilla is traditionally cooked on top of the stove in a tobsil (a large, flat hand-beaten iron pan). Then, once the pie is cooked, the top is sprinkled with powdered sugar and decorated with criss- crossed lines of ground cinnamon. I still like to prepare the pie the traditional way, in three separate layers: one of ground almonds, another with the stewed pigeons (quartered and left on the bone; Moroccan pigeons are very small), and another with the eggs that have been scrambled in the sauce of the pigeons. Each layer is separated from the other by a couple of sheets of warqa, and the whole is wrapped in more warqa. And I like to eat it with my hand, the way Moroccans do, by first breaking open the edge of the crisp pastry, then pulling out a piece of pigeon and sucking the meat off the bone before daintily pinching off more pastry, this time with a little of the almond and egg filling.
Sadly, fewer and fewer people, in Morocco or outside, make b’stilla this way anymore. They use chicken instead of pigeon and mix it with the scrambled eggs and almonds to make a single layer. It is a faster and simpler way to prepare b’stilla. If you don’t want to go to the trouble of building the pie the way I describe below, simply mix all the filling ingredients and make the pie in one layer, using the sheets of warqa between each layer on the bottom of the pie.
Servings: 6 to 8
For the filling:
2 squabs or 3 quail
2 medium onions (about 1 cup), grated on the coarse side of a grater
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
1 ½ teaspoons, ground cinnamon
1 ½ teaspoons, ground ginger
1 teaspoon, ground ras el-hanout
¼ teaspoon, cayenne pepper
2 good pinches, saffron threads
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the baking dish
⅔ cup blanched almonds
10 organic eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons, powdered sugar
For the pie:
16 sheets phyllo dough (12 ½ by 7 inches/32 by 18 centimeters) or 11 sheets warqa
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
Powdered sugar, for garnish
Ground cinnamon, for garnish
Put the squabs in a heavy pot. Add the onions, parsley, cilantro, cinnamon, ginger, ras el-hanout, cayenne, saffron, and a little salt. Add 1 ¾ cups water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. As the water comes to a boil, add the 4 tablespoons of butter. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low, turn the birds in the sauce, and simmer for 10 more minutes, or until the birds are done.
Put the almonds in the hot oven and toast them for about 7 minutes, or until golden brown. Take out of the oven and keep the oven on. Let the almonds cool before grinding them coarsely in a food processor.
Move the squabs to a plate and let cool. The sauce should be very thick. If it isn’t, let it bubble over high heat, stirring regularly, until completely reduced and silky. Once this is done, reduce the heat to low, then whisk the eggs into the sauce and scramble them, whisking all the time for about 5 minutes, or until set but still creamy. Take off the heat.
Take the squab meat off the bone, discarding the skin. Tear into small pieces. Mix the ground almonds with the powdered sugar.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Lay one sheet of phyllo over the bottom of a shallow 12-inch round nonstick baking dish. If you don’t have one, brush the bottom and sides of a normal one with a little of the melted butter. Brush with some melted butter and lay another sheet across the first one. Brush with butter and lay four more sheets, overlapping them as you go along so that you have pastry overhanging all around the edges. (If you are using warqa, cover the bottom of the dish with one sheet. Then fan four sheets in a rosette, half inside the dish and half outside. Cover the bottom of the dish with another sheet—you do not need to brush the warqa with butter as it is already lightly oiled.)
Spread the ground almonds evenly over the pastry. Lay two phyllo sheets (or one warqa) over the almonds and brush with melted butter. Spread the squab meat over the pastry and cover with another two phyllo sheets (or one warqa) and brush with melted butter. Spread the scrambled eggs all over the pastry and lay another phyllo (or warqa) sheet over the eggs. Fold the loose pastry over the eggs and lay the remaining five sheets of phyllo (or two warqa) over the filling—again overlapping them and brushing each with butter—and carefully tuck the loose ends inside the pie dish and under the pie, as if you were tucking in a sheet under a mattress. If the warqa is too thick—some Western commercial brands are—trim the inside layers and just lay the top two sheets over the pie without tucking them under the pie. Brush the top with butter.
Bake the b’stilla for 20 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown all over. Let sit for 2 to 3 minutes, then dust the top with powdered sugar. Make a square or diamond pattern by sprinkling thin lines of ground cinnamon at about 1-inch intervals. Serve immediately.
This recipe is from Feast: Food of the Islamic World by Anissa Helou. © 2018 by Anissa Helou. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.