Monday, March 20, 2006

Moroccan Masterpiece

I am inordinately proud of myself for making one of the most complicated dishes I have ever cooked in my life--bisteeya. This is a filo pie from Morocco that is traditionally made of squab, egg custard, and sugared almonds. I prepared it for the first meeting of the FIS Cooking Club, which was themed around Middle Eastern cuisine. By all accounts the dinner was a tremendous success, and all of us there are eagerly anticipating the next meeting, which will be the next school year. But more about the pastry. . .

I followed Paula Wolfert's recipe from her book Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. This author spent a significant amount of time in Morocco, researching and learning all that she could about the cuisine. Of the three books and countless websites that I consulted for versions of the recipe, hers was the most explicit and informative--the background history of bisteeya and other Moroccan pastries runs to five pages. As the recipe for bisteeya is about five pages (including helpful sketches), I will refer ambitious readers to Wolfert's book for the exact instructions for cooking and assembling this creation. I suppose, though, that you are interested in what I did, so here is an account of my adventures in the kitchen:

Friday night after working in the Inforum, I poached about 4 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs with finely chopped onion, cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and parsley (no, I did not buy squab, nor did I skulk the city sidewalks to acquire the poultry). I cooked it the Chinese way, which is to say that I brought almost 1 litre of water to a boil, put in all the ingredients, brought the mixture back to a boil, then shut off the heat, covered the pot, and left the entire thing to cook in my aunt's handy thermos cooking pot for 15 minutes, which was all the time needed for the chicken to cook. The chicken I then left to cool overnight. Oh, and I also toasted some sliced almonds, which were to go into the pie later.

On Saturday morning I took the chicken out of the broth and reduced it to half its volume. To this aromatic stock I added the zest and juice of a lemon and stirred in 9 beaten eggs, which I cooked over gentle heat until it thickened and scrambled a little.

The next step was to shred the chicken into pieces, and mix icing sugar and cinnamon with the toasted almonds. The three fillings now prepared, I clarified some unsalted butter. This was not so successful, as I discovered the microwave is not a good way to speed up the process (butter splatters dreadfully as it heats up), nor is it easy to pour off the butterfat while leaving behind the milk solids in the bowl, as this recipe (and others I've read) so breezily instruct cooks to do. So, I mopped up the split butter and mixed in some vegetable oil to make up the balance (which I'm sure is all right to do, since another bisteeya recipe suggested this mixture of fats).

Now all the fillings were ready, and the penultimate stage of the recipe was to spread all the fillings inside layers of filo. It was at this point that my cousin M. decided to get out of bed and come downstairs to the kitchen. I say her timing was impeccable, because I had already started (rather clumsily) lining my baking tin with the paper-thin, extremely delicate leaves of dough and tearing them in the process (how does one manage to get tears in the middle of a leaf of filo?). Thank goodness for her curiosity in my cooking experiments and her willingness to help, for it only took one hour to assemble two bisteeya with her help.

Really, working with filo is not that difficult, even though the dough tears and dries out easily, because you would never use just one leaf of dough, so subsequent leaves can always be strategically layered on top of tears and liberally brushed with butter, the fat that hides all mistakes. M. and I alternated between peeling off leaves of filo from the stack I had covered with a damp towel and layering it into an 8-inch square pan and a 9-inch springrform pan. In retrospect, it was a good idea to work on one pie at a time, but I should have divided all the fillings first instead of estimating when I had used half, as the second pie was not as full as the first (oh well).

After laying down a base of filo leaves, the first filling to go in was the shredded chicken; the next was a layer of creamy scrambled egg, which I will probably cook even less the next time I make this pie. Following the chicken and egg was a layer of crisped filo leaves (I simply baked four leaves until they were delicately brittle and golden), over which we sprinkled a generous layer of sugared almonds. The last step was to fold the overhanding leaves of pastry back over the pie fillings and cover the top with a few leaves of filo to produce a smooth top. Everything was freely brushed with melted butter--and in this aspect of Middle Eastern cooking mythology, it does not take pounds and pounds of butter to properly prepare filo pastry. I had about three quarters of a cup of melted butter and oil, and even after making two rather tall pies, I had a quarter cup leftover.

The last thing was to bake the pie, which I did later at R-E's house. A hot oven for about twenty-five minutes was enough to cook and crisp the filo and heat the filling. Finally, the traditional way to serve bisteeya is to generously sift icing sugar over the top and sprinkle lines of ground cinnamon in a criss-cross pattern over top.

And the taste? Magnificent! I know that a combination of savoury chicken, lemony herbed eggs, and sugared almonds sounds rather strange, but the flavours in combination blend harmoniously and complement each other very well. In fact, I would say that the sugar heightens rather than detracts from the subtler spice and herb flavours of the pie. Is this recipe worth the amount of labour and care that must be devoted to it? Most definitely.

Notes for next time:
  • I'll use either flaked almonds or chopped almonds, or a combination of both for more texture.
  • Granulated, rather than icing sugar mixed into the almonds would probably make the sweet almond layer inside the pie crunchier, and therefore contrast more against the creamy and flaky textures.
  • The egg mixture was too liquid for my liking--the stock needs to be reduced to a third its original volume and barely cooked so that I won't have the same problem of a soggy bottom layer of pastry.
  • The base needs a few more leaves of filo to be really sturdy.