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I first tried pastilla (or bstilla) at a rooftop cafe in Marrakech, where it is served in almost every restaurant – either filled with chicken, or perhaps more traditionally pigeon. At first glance, the icing sugar dusting on top of a savoury filling isn’t the most obvious combination, but one mouthful of this and I guarantee you’ll be converted.

Inspired by the beautiful photography in Malouf’s New Middle Eastern Food, I managed to spend most of last Saturday on a Blue Peter like craft project, giving an old cereal box a new lease of life to lend my pastilla a bit of an edge. Several hours and a few near misses with the craft knife later, the results were well worth it – a beautiful geometric dusting of icing sugar atop a crisp, filo wrapped bundle of spiced chicken.

We served this at Easter as part of a sort of Middle Eastern mezze, but it’s just as good with a simple salad – perhaps chopped tomatoes, radishes, cucumber and a little mint.

Serves 5-6

  • 6-8 chicken thighs (on the bone, around 800g)
  • 2 onions, finely sliced
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • pinch allspice
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • large bunch of flat leaf parsley
  • large bunch of coriander
  • small handful sultanas
  • 100g toasted flaked almonds
  • 8 sheets of good quality filo pastry, each around 50 by 30cm
  • 100g butter
  • 1 egg yolk

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the chicken thighs, skin on, on a roasting tray and cook for 30-40 minutes.

Whilst the chicken is roasting, place the onions in a large frying pan with a tablespoon of olive oil, then cook slowly over a low heat until the onions are very soft and starting to caramelise. Add the spices and fry for another couple of minutes, making sure you’ve evaporated all the liquid to avoid a soggy pie.

Once the chicken is cooked, set aside until cool enough to handle. Discard the chicken skin, then shred the flesh from the bones and add to the onion mixture. Stir through the chopped herbs and sultanas.

Now assemble the pie – have the filo pasty laid out on your worktop ready to go, but try to work quickly to avoid it drying out. Melt the butter and use some of it to brush the base and sides of a loose bottomed flan tin, around 23cm in diameter.

Lay one sheet of filo over the flan tin and push gently into the corners, leaving the edges overhanging. Brush the whole sheet with butter, then lay another sheet of filo pastry over the top, at an angle to the first. Repeat until you have layered up five sheets of pastry.

Pastilla filling

Place the chicken mixture into the centre of the flan tin, top with the almonds, then fold the overhanging edges of the filo sheets into the middle to make a sort of parcel. Place the whole thing on top of an upturned bowl, so that you can slide the flan ring away from the base (and the pie). Layer the final three sheets of filo on to the top of the pie, at angles to each other, brushing each sheet with butter. Tuck the edges of these sheets in underneath the pie to completely enclose it.

Finally, brush the top of the parcel with beaten egg yolk and bake for 40-50 minutes at 180°C, until the top is golden brown. Claudia Roden recommends placing it on the bottom of the oven for the last 15 minutes to make sure the base is crisp.

Dust the pie with icing sugar (and cinnamon if you like) then serve straight away.