Thursday, February 5, 2009

Grand Gestures - Bastilla

Have you seen that movie, Babette's Feast? When I say "I love it", that just doesn't do it justice. I think I've seen it over 20 times already. They were having some sort of Babette's Feast marathon on one of those HD channels (FLMHD) a few weeks ago, and I sat there watching it again and again, with a big grin on my face. I notice some new delightful detail each time. And I always end up snacking on something unhealthy during it - because, c'mon, I dare anyone to sit through the dinner sequence without drooling uncontrollably!

Quick side note: where did FLMHD go? That channel showed such amazing foreign films, and now it's gone! As is my GALHD (art-related shows) and ULTHD (everything to do with the fashion industry, interior design, restaurant reviews). What the hell's going on with TV these days?! How am I supposed to get my regular fix of "Reservations Required" now?

Back to Babette's Feast. You can find a pretty good summary of the movie here. The part that makes the heart of every foodie beat faster is during the last hour or so of the movie, when all the components for a grand French feast start coming together. Remembering it right now is making me salivate ... how decadent was that scene when she's shaving the black truffle? Mmmmmmm .. get a hold of yourself woman, and focus!

So when I started thinking about what I might make if I could contribute to Babette's Feast (yes I know, I still play make-believe), I knew it would have to be something extraordinary. Presentation is key, so it would have to be a dish that makes an impact when it's brought out to the table. The flavors would have to be complex and exhilirating, so that it feels like you're digging into something rich and luxurious. All kinds of menu options were playing in my head, but I wanted a challenge. For the first time, I wanted there to be a level of technical difficulty in creating a dish. Then I remembered a recipe that I've been skirting around for a while now, nibbling at its edges every now and then, but never having the guts to just jump in and make it!
Pastilla, Bsteeya, Bastilla, or Bstilla (pronounced Bastiyya) is a Moroccan dish that's traditionally made with pigeon meat (mixed with eggs, almonds, onions, and stuffed into a phyllo casing), but since New Yorker pigeons are basically flying rodents and only useful as window-entertainment for my kitty Ozzy, I went for the substitute, chicken. One advantage I had when making this dish is that I've had it a few times before, in various Moroccan restaurants in Manhattan (Zerza makes my favorite version), and so I knew what it was supposed to taste like. But it was such an exciting dish to prepare, because the technique was unlike anything I'd made before. I got over my fear of working with phyllo, for one thing. And it really appealed to my visual, artsy-fartsy side, because it feels like you're sculpting something oddly fantastic. Check it out below, and you'll see what I mean ...

(inspired by Pete's recipe over on his fun blog, Pete Bakes! Thanks for the amazing step-by-step instructions, Pete!)
Serves 6

2 lbs chicken breast
3 cups chicken broth
1 large white onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp grated ginger
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground cumin
Small handful fresh cilantro
Small handful fresh parsley (flat, not curly)
1 cinnamon stick
salt and pepper
6 eggs
2/3 cup almonds
1 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
1 pckg phyllo dough
5 Tbsp butter, melted
confectioners’ sugar for dusting

1. Place chicken breasts in a large saucepan and pour in just enough broth to cover them. Add the onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cilantro, parsley, cinnamon stick and salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and cook for about 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, toast almonds (ok to leave the skin on) with a few drops of canola oil, then grind in a food processor with sugar and 1 Tbsp ground cinnamon. Set aside.
3. Remove the chicken from the stock and set aside to cool. Severely reduce the stock to a thick sauce. Remove the cinnamon stick.
4. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl, then cook in a skillet with 1/3 cup of the thickened broth/sauce. They should reach a scrambled egg consistency but should not be wet. Set aside.
5. Once the chicken has cooled, shred it. Add the shredded chicken to the egg mixture. Make sure this mixture is not too wet or it will soak through the phyllo dough.
6. Thaw the phyllo dough per the package instructions. Keep them supple by placing a damp cloth over them. In a large oven-proof round pan, layer 8-12 sheets of phyllo, brushing each layer with melted butter (this is essential!). The sheets should drape over the sides of the pan. Fold 2 sheets of phyllo in half and place in the center for stability.
7. Spread half of the almond-cinnamon-sugar mixture down in the pan. Lay the shredded chicken/egg mixture down. Top with the remaining almond mixture. Fold another 2 sheets of phyllo in half and place on top.
8. Fold the overlapped phyllo from the bottom over the top of the bastilla. Brush with melted butter to make sure everything sticks together. Make sure you brush the inner sides of the pan with butter as well (or the sides of the bastilla won't brown properly, like mine). Add more layers of phyllo if you think it needs more coverage (I did).
9. Bake at 425 F for 20 minutes, until the phyllo is brown and crisp.
10. Invert onto a large baking sheet. dust with confectioners’ sugar and decorate with remaining 1 Tbsp of ground cinnamon. If you're not afraid of combining sweet and savory flavors, then this is a must-have.

Serve this right away, because that's when it's best. Although good on its own, I personally think it's great with a little hot n spicy chutney on the side. This sounds odd, but I put some ketchup on mine, and I liked it! Blasphemy, I know, but I'm telling you like it is, folks. You can definitely keep this in your fridge for a couple of days, and surprisingly the phyllo won't get soggy. Just warm it up in the microwave, and drizzle some sauce over it (go crazy, try any sauce you like).