Andrea Maunder, locovore, wine expert and pastry chef, is the owner and creative force behind Bacalao, a St. John's restaurant specializing in "nouvelle Newfoundland" cuisine.

In Love with Bastilla

I think the closest we get, in Newfoundland cuisine, to serving something sweet in a savoury meal is a boiled duff in our Jiggs’ dinner. Meanwhile, I can think of many sweet dishes in Cantonese, Japanese, East Indian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines. German, Russian and Hungarian cuisines have some sweet-and-sour dishes. The French and Scandinavians traditionally serve fruit and berry sauces with game. Latin American cuisines have chocolaty sauces such as molé.  But I have yet to encounter a savoury dish more overtly dessert-like than Moroccan Bastilla.

This gorgeous meat “pie” has layers of phyllo pastry encasing separate little compartments of saffron-infused chicken, broth-scrambled eggs and cinnamon-sugared almonds. It’s enhanced with exotic Ras el Hanout spice blend and fresh herbs. To gild the lily, the golden crusty top is then dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon while warm from the oven. The aroma is intoxicating and the combination of textures and flavours is a feast for all the senses. Truth is, it’s kinda sexy. Perfect for Valentine’s Day!

1 pkg phyllo pastry (thawed according to package directions)
1/4 tsp saffron threads
2 tbsp hot water
1 med. onion, chopped
2-3 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 tsp ground ginger
3-4 tsp Ras el Hanout, to taste (recipe to follow)
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs bone-in chicken thighs Salt to taste
1 1/2 cups low-salt chicken broth
3 large eggs, beaten lightly
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1-2 tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste
3 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
3/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup olive oil
Icing sugar and ground cinnamon for sprinkling

Almond Sugar:
1/2 cup whole blanched almonds
3 tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Ras el Hanout (moroccan spice blend):
1/2 tsp aniseed
1 tsp fennel seed
8 whole allspice berries
Seeds from 8 green cardamom pods
8 whole cloves
15 whole black peppercorns
1 (4") stick cinnamon, broken in half
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp cumin seed
Pinch dried red pepper flakes
Pinch ground mace
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Make Almond Sugar
Toast almonds in a 350°F oven for 8-10 minutes; let cool. Grind cooled almonds (in a spice or coffee mill or small food processor) with sugar and cinnamon.

Make the Ras el Hanout
In a spice or coffee mill, grind all the whole spices together until finely ground. Add mace, ginger and nutmeg; whiz to combine. Store in a sealed jar. Makes about ¼ cup.

Make the Chicken Filling
Steep saffron in hot water for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pot, sauté onion in olive oil over med-high heat until softened. Add garlic and sauté a couple minutes more. Add ginger, Ras el Hanout and pepper. Cook, stirring, a couple of minutes. Add chicken and sear on both sides, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add broth and saffron mixture, cover pot, reduce heat and simmer 30-40 minutes until chicken is cooked through and tender. Remove chicken from stock (save stock) and let it cool enough to handle, then discard chicken skin and remove meat from the bone. Shred meat and transfer to a small bowl.

Cook the Eggs
Measure the stock the chicken was cooked in and, if necessary, boil it, stirring occasionally, until it’s reduced to 1 3/4 cups. Reduce heat to medium and whisk in the eggs. Cook, stirring, until they are just set, but not dry (2-3 minutes). Pour into a coarse sieve over a bowl to let the eggs drain. Taste and season if necessary. To the bowl of shredded chicken, add some of the stock the eggs were cooked in. Add parsley, lemon juice and coriander. Taste and adjust seasonings. Preheat oven to 375°F.

Assemble the Bastilla
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a microwave. Remove thawed phyllo from the package and cover it with a very slightly dampened tea towel as you work. Brush a pie plate with melted butter/oil. You will be using mostly folded sheets of phyllo. Set it in front of you landscape fashion. As you work, fold the right edge over the left (like turning the pages of a book). Place 1 folded sheet in the centre of the pie plate, brush with butter/oil. Then add 5 more folded sheets, fanning them in a circle so that two-thirds of each sheet hangs over the plate edge. Butter the edges and where they overlap. Smooth out the chicken mixture over phyllo pastry (not past the plate edge). Fan out a layer of 2-3 folded sheets to cover the chicken, buttering in between and on the edges. Spread on the egg mixture, then repeat with another 2-3 folded sheets, buttering between and on the edges, to cover the eggs. Top with cinnamon-almond mixture. Then fold in the overhanging sheets, buttering to get them to stick to each other. Next, place a full, unfolded sheet over the top of the pie and tuck the edges securely under the pie inside the pie plate, lifting the pie a little as you work. Add a few more full sheets overlapping the others, and buttering in between, until you have a smooth surface. Butter the top and bake at 375°F for 20-30 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and let cool just a couple of minutes before you sift icing sugar generously over the top. Using your fingers, sprinkle lines of cinnamon to demarcate wedges in the pie. This makes a stunning presentation and the scent of cinnamon as it hits the hot pastry is heavenly. Cut into wedges to serve.

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