I love chicken and leek pie. I’ve posted chicken and leek pie recipes which avoid the starchy nature some commercial ones have. I have fond chicken and leek pie memories dating back to Mrs Patchett’s chicken and leek pies in Sydney and I obsessively order them if they’re on a menu. However, Chicken Pastilla may be my new favourite chicken pie. Well I say pie, for me a pie has to have a pastry base and lid (The English obsession with pot pies baffles me). Chicken pastilla fails this test as it is more open topped. However, despite its dubious pie credentials, it’s still delicious and has me questioning life long allegiances so I think it’s worth writing about. At its heart it’s braised chicken thighs with warming Moroccan spices and citrus notes wrapped in filo pastry tasting slightly of beurre noisette. Frankly, of course it’s delicious – I mean how could it not be.
Like the Tahini crusted beef dish I posted before, this recipe is inspired by Honey and Co. The lovely couple behind the amazing restaurant on Warren Street in London also have a wonderful cookbook which I thoroughly encourage you to buy if you like Middle Eastern food. Like a lot of Middle Eastern food, chicken pastilla flirts with sweet flavours despite being inherently savoury. In the Honey and Co recipe, jammy dates provide a sweet backbone with a faint floral edge from rose that competes with the earthy spices and chicken. I wanted to amp up these contrasts so I added the flavours of fresh citrus peel, more texture from toasted almond flakes, sharp sweetness from dried apricots and warmth from black pepper. All in all I was pretty darn happy with the result but you can play around. If you like a little bitter note then try replacing the almonds with toasted walnut pieces.
The chicken pastilla filling is about building up layers of flavour. Firstly you have to brown the chicken thighs, this adds flavour to the chicken but crucially also to the pan as the rendered chicken fat and browned bits of chicken in the pan will flavour the onions when you cook them. It sounds like a small step but it’s huge for the final flavour. After browning, and cooking the onions the spices come into play. You can adjust these spices to suit your palate but I’ve stuck quite close to the original Honey and Co chicken pastilla recipe here. The base of the spice mix is Ras el Hanout – literally translated as “top shelf” it’s a mix of spices which varies greatly by region, or even spice maker. You can make your own or buy pre-made but I like ones that have a particularly floral and ephemeral note to them. With a base of rose, ginger, paprika, cardomon and coriander you’re ensured that layering of flavour that a great spices combination needs. Ras el Hanout normally has around 15 different spices but it can stretch to more than a hundred spices in some ambitious blends. My advice is find one you like and stick to it, it’s personally too much of a hassle to make my own even if it is surprisingly versatile. It’s not just great in chicken pastilla, it transforms roasted meats, bbq rubs, couscous and tagines and I always have a pot of both it and the Moroccan Baharat spice blend (perfect for Tahini Crusted Beef) on hand.
Floral spices and browned chicken aren’t quite enough layers of flavour for this chicken pastilla though. Zesty strips of orange peel, jammy dates and sharp/sweet dried apricots round out the flavours and are added to the chicken as it braises in the oven. Dried chilli pepper adds a little warmth to the dish but I go very light on the chilli as G isn’t a great fan of spice. You can dial it up or down by changing both the type and quantity of dried chilli you use. Although I normally advocate toasting the dried chilli pepper until pliable and blending with a little water to really extract the flavour, I find that a little too strong for this dish and simply infuse it in the braise. I know sometimes people get worried about braising chicken thighs as they can dry out. However, don’t be shy as they’re a very forgiving cut of meat and you’ve got a decent margin of error here. Just be sure to allow the shredded chicken thighs to cool with some of the cooking liquid. As they cool they’ll reabsorb the liquid, a bit like a sponge as it relaxes, that’ll help your chicken pastilla filling stay moist.
Serve the proudly bronzed, brown butter basted chicken pastilla with some stunning couscous (recipe here – couple of tips and tricks for the ultimate couscous) and a simple orange and gem lettuce salad with a big steaming jug of the leftover chicken braising juices. Trust me, it’s a surefire winner.
- 8 Chicken thighs, bone in skin on
- 3 medium white onions, sliced thinly
- 1/2 dried chilli, seeds removed, I like a mild fruity chilli like Ancho
- 2 1/2 heaped tablespoons ras el hanout mix
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Peel of an orange cut into thick strips (try to get as little pith as possible)
- 15 pitted dates, diced
- 10 dried apricots, diced
- 80g butter
- ~200g phyllo (filo) pastry
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 cup water
- 150g flaked almonds
- Preheat the oven to 200 celsius.
- Place a pan over medium heat with no oil inside as the chicken will render fat. Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper and place skin side down for 10-15 minutes until the fat renders and the skin goes golden. Flip and cook another five minutes. Remove them skin side up to an oven proof dish. Add the orange peel, dates and apricots to the pan.
- Add the onions to the rendered chicken fat, season with salt and pepper, and cook until golden. Add the ras el hanout, cinnamon stick, dried chilli and cook for 30 seconds to a minute to toast the spices a bit. Add the water and bring to the boil. Once boiling pour over the chicken thighs.
- Cover the dish with foil and place in the oven for one hour, check the meat pulls easily from the bone and if not then cook a further 15 minutes covered. Once braised remove from the oven and leave to cool until it can be handled. It’s very important the chicken cools in the cooking liquid.
- Transfer the chicken thighs to a bowl. Strain the liquid and reserve the liquid. Discard the orange peel, cinnamon stick and chilli and add the remaining onion, date and apricot mixture to separate bowl. Shred the chicken and add the meat to the onions – make sure to remove all the gristle. Add enough of the reserved liquid to bind without making it too wet.
- Turn oven down to 180 celsius, toast the flaked almonds in the oven (10 minutes) and add to the filling. At this point the chicken pastilla filling is finished and can be stored in the fridge.
- Once you are ready to fill and cook the chicken pastilla, take a cake tin and butter it. Melt the 80g of butter over a medium heat with a little salt and cook until brown and nutty, approximately 5 minutes. Take a phyllo sheet square and brush it with the beurre noisette (brown butter), fold it in half into a rectangle and lay across the cake tin overhanging the sides. Repeat this process to form a cross and then twice more to form another cross rotated 45 degrees. In other words you should have divided the cake tin into eighths whilst covering the whole cake tin. Fill the pastry with the filling and fold the pastry over the top making it a little crumpled. Refrigerate covered with cling film until needed.
- Preheat the oven to 200 degrees celsius. Brush the top of the pastilla with some excess brown butter and place the pastilla in the oven for 30 minutes rotating the tin halfway through to ensure even browning. Serve the chicken pastilla immediately with a light citrus and lettuce salad, some couscous and a jug of the reserved cooking juices.
Timedeating tips and tricks for cooking ahead:
- The filling can be made up to 5 days in advance. It also freezes well but should be defrosted fully before filling.
- If required, you can pause the cooking after the braising of the chicken but before you shred it. Allow the chicken pieces to cool in the liquid and it can be refrigerated for up to 5 days as per point 1.
- Once filled, the uncooked chicken pastilla can be stored for up to 2 days before cooking. Brush the tops of the pastry with a little melted butter before cooking.
- Leftover chicken pastilla is still delicious. It can be warmed through gently in the oven or eaten cold, guiltily by the cool glow of the open fridge.