My sisters and I used to make an annual trek to a restaurant in DC called Marrakesh, on New York Avenue. Its saffron-colored exterior stood out from the low, gray buildings and otherwise non-descript thoroughfare of DC's midtown. But once inside, the sweet fragrance of orange blossom and cinnamon welcomed you to a dining room draped in heavy fabrics and lined with low, private dining areas with comfy floor pillows. A visually exhausting belly-dancing show was featured after the third or fourth course. Dinner at Marrakech was a lovely respite from the frenetic chaos outside.
The food was good - silky tagines, fluffy couscous, and tasty chicken with lemon and olives - but our favorite dish was their pastilla, which is a flaky, buttery pie filled with chicken and dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. We'd tuck into the crispy layers with abandon, oblivious to the powdered sugar that coated out faces. This dish is classic Moroccan soul food - a perfect combination of sweet, savory, silky, and crispy. It hits all the good spots.
Making traditional pastilla involves wrapping the stewed chicken in layers of a phyllo-like dough called Feuille de Bric. This dough is easy to find in France and Spain, but I have so far been unable to find it in the States. I find phyllo a bit more difficult to work with than bric, but it actually makes a great crust. So when I have a craving for pastilla but can't get to a Moroccan restaurant or wait for the next holiday dinner at a friend's house, I make this casserole. It is delicious, features layers of crispy phyllo, a fragrant filling, and is easy to execute. I use toasted pumpkin seeds instead of traditional almonds because of my daughter's nut allergies for the unique crunch of traditional pastilla, and currants for rich sweetness. This casserole serves six hungry people and freezes well if you have leftovers.
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 generous pinch of saffron threads
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
Juice and zest of one blood orange
1 cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
1/2 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1/2 cup dried currants
1 cup chicken stock
1 package phyllo dough, defrosted (defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours before using; do NOT thaw out on the counter!)
1/2 cup ghee or olive oil
Cinnamon and powdered sugar, for dusting
1. Preheat oven to 400F.
2. Season chicken thighs with the salt and white pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of ghee or olive oil over medium-high heat in a heavy bottom pot and add enough chicken to form a single layer. Brown on both sides, then remove to a large plate or platter. Continue in as many batches as it takes until you have browned all of the chicken. Cover the plate tightly with foil.
3. Add the onion to the pot and stir until just softened, about 3 minutes. Add the saffron, ginger, coriander, and cinnamon and stir for another 2-3 minutes.
4. Add the chicken and any juices to the pot, along with the blood orange juice, zest, and chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and lower to a simmer. Cook for 35-45 minutes until the liquid is almost gone in the pot and the chicken shreds easily with a fork. Shred the chicken and add to a large bowl to cool slightly.
5. Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper. Scatter the pumpkin seeds on the paper and toast in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven but leave it on.
6. In small bowl beat the eggs until smooth (but not frothy.) Pour the eggs over the shredded chicken in the bowl, add the currants, and stir gently to coat.
7. Butter a 13x9-inch casserole dish. Spoon in the chicken and egg mixture and spread to cover the entire bottom of the dish. Scatter the toasted pumpkin seeds all over the top.
8. Have your ghee or oil, a pastry brush, and clean kitchen towel ready. Gently unroll the phyllo dough. Remove one sheet and cover the remaining dough with the towel. Lay the phyllo in a single layer over the casserole so that it extends over the edge by 1 inch on each side. Brush well with the ghee or olive oil. Fold or lay another single layer on top of the first and brush with ghee or oil. Continue to layer and brush dough until you have 7 layers (6 layers plus one for good luck!) Make sure the top layer is well painted with ghee or oil. Gently tuck the dough around the filling about 1/4 inch down. Store the leftover phyllo in a large ziplock bag for future use.
9. Place casserole in the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Cut into squares and serve hot.