It can be hard to let a holiday end.
This recipe is a post card from our trip to Morocco. There were donkeys and dust. There were pulpy orange juices in the souk that tasted like shots of clear sunshine. There were hot bubbling pans of tajines, not the manic jumble of flavours that I might bully together, but restrained trios. Lamb neck. Prunes. Onions. And plenty of oil. There was berber bread with a texture like petrified kitchen sponges. There were thin and spicy links of merguez sausage. Pancakes for breakfast. And there was pastilla.
The streets of the souk reminded me of the bustle of Bangkok. Inside our riad it was cool and calm. It was there that I was first taught to make pastilla.
Pastilla is a pie like not many others. My favourite type was pigeon. Shreds of dark poultry meat get wrapped up with the squish of ground almonds, mysterious notes of spice and thready squiggles of cooked egg. Then there’s the pastry. Traditionally it’s made with a wafer thin type called ‘warka’- but you can substitute the light crackle of phyllo.
And then there’s the sugar.
We found plenty of sugar in Morocco. There’s a cube in every cup of mint tea. The lids and centres of the sticky pastries are teeming with it. We even wondered if the orange juice on the square was jazzed up with a lick of the sweet stuff.
And there’s plenty powdered over the top of pastillas which brings a heady muddle of sweet and spice to one of the lightest meat pies I’ve had.
At the time we wondered if it was too much.
The time we spent in Morocco, tootling around the cafes on the main square was just four days before the bomb went off at the Argana cafe, killing 17, including one British travel writer.
Sometimes when remembering a holiday, it’s best to focus on the sweet and the light.
Makes 4 individual pastillas
The pastilla is made up of four parts. There’s the shredded pigeon flesh. There’s an egg-like curd, made by reducing the poaching stock and mixing it with beaten eggs. Then there’s the almond mixture, which is a combination of butter, almond meal, cinnamon and a touch of sugar. Then there’s the pastry crust.
1 baking tray, lined with baking paper. 1 heavy bottom casserole pan. 1 pastry brush. 1 damp tea towel. 3 bowls.
3 pigeons (or 450 gram of pigeon in total. NB, you could substitute for other game birds, duck, or even chicken)
1 brown onion, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons of Ras el hanout (Ras El hanout is a Moroccan spice blend that’s made of up to 35 spices. You can buy it through Herbies.If you haven’t got any, then you can make up a fragrant combination of coriander seed, cumin, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg and clove.
Knob of ginger, size of a wine cork
1 stick of cinnamon
2 tablespoons of ground cinnamon
1 pinch of saffron or teaspoon of powdered saffron
2 cups of water
120 grams butter (50 grams for sauce, 50 grams for almond meal and 20 grams for brushing pastry)
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1 tablespoon of salt
100 grams of ground almonds
4 tablespoons of flaked almonds
4 eggs, beaten together
2 tablespoons of icing sugar/powdered sugar
4 teaspoons of orange flower water (or you could also use rosewater)
12-15 sheets of phyllo pastry
(Optional- 2 oranges- these are nice served with half an orange that has been caramellised slightly in the pan where you’ve melted the butter to brush for the phyllo. It provides a bit of a sauce and a nice citrus kick).
Here’s how we roll
Cook the pigeons
1. Clean and pat dry the pigeons.
2. In a heavy bottom pan toast the Ras el Hanout, powdered saffron (if you’re using that instead of stems) and the cinnamon quill. When the spices are nutty and fragrant, take them out of the pan and put them to the side.
3. Melt 50 grams of butter in the pan until it’s gently foaming and add the diced onion. Slowly cook the onion until it’s translucent.
4. Roll the pigeons in the toasted spice mixture.
5. Add a tablespoon of olive oil to the onion and the butter. Turn up the heat and add the pigeons. Turn them with tongs to sear the outside of the birds.
6. Add the cinnamon quill, two cups of warm water and the knob of ginger. If you are using saffron stems, now is the time to add them. Turn down the heat to medium.
7. Clamp the lid on the casserole pot and let the birds simmer for an hour. Turn off the heat and let them cool in the stock.
8. When the pigeons are cool enough to handle pull the meat off the bones and put it in a bowl to one side.
Make the egg curd
1. Turn up the heat on the poaching liquid and reduce by half.
2. Pluck out the cinnamon quill and the knob of ginger.
3. Pour in the beaten eggs and cook gently, stirring often until it looks like lumpen, seized scrambled eggs. Cook as much of the liquid out of it as you can.
4. Turn off the heat and put the egg mixture to one side.
Make the almond meal filling
1. Melt 50 grams of butter and mix it through 100grams of almond meal, a tablespoon of cinnamon and a tablespoon of icing sugar/powdered sugar.
Assemble the pastillas
1. Preheat the oven to 350F/ 180 C.
2. Lay out the phyllo pastry and cover it with a damp tea towel.
3. Take three sheets and dab each with melted butter.
4. Cut the phyllo into a circle that’s 30 cm in diameter. Reserve the trimmings under the damp tea towel.
5. Make a circle in the centre of 2 and a half tablespoons of the almond meal mixture.
6. Drizzle the mixture with a teaspoon of the orange flower essence
7. Top that with 2 and a half tablespoons of the egg mixture.
8. Top that with a quarter of the shredded pigeon meat.
9. Use the trimmings to layer over the top of the mound, cupping your hands to tuck it down, like you were smoothing the base of a sandcastle.
10. Fold one side of the phyllo circle up to the centre. Sixty degrees to the left of that, fold side up again. Then again at another 60 degree interval. Then again, and again and again. You should have a hexagon and the phyllo should meet at the middle.
11. Brush the base with melted butter to seal.
12. Gently flip the pastilla. Brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle ¼ of the flaked almonds over the top.
13. Repeat to make the three other pastillas.
14. To bake the pastillas, put them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 35 minutes at 180 C or 350 F. You want the pastry to be brown and crispy.
15. Dust with the remaining cinnamon and sugar. Serve with a green salad dressed with the juice of half an orange and olive oil. The other option is to serve with half an orange, having blistered its flesh briefly in a pan.