Exotic meat pies

This sweet pastry enclosing chicken and roasted almonds is a favorite chicken dish.

meat pie 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
meat pie 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first time we ate at an authentic Chinese dim sum restaurant, where waiters wheel carts to your table laden with enticing, appetizer-size treats, we had plenty of surprises. One was a triangular shaped pastry, with a golden, sesame-sprinkled flaky crust, which we called "Chinese burekas." When we asked about the filling, we were told it was barbecued meat. We bit into it, and it was totally different from burekas - the meat filling was sweet. We were a bit taken aback, but we like to keep an open mind about ethnic specialties, and indeed, we grew to like them. We've enjoyed these treats many times since, and have also sampled other Chinese appetizers with the same sweet meat filling - baked into small round rolls and steamed in white, yeast-leavened buns. Although the taste was new, this savory-sweet pastry had a certain familiarity. Finally we realized what it recalled - Moroccan bastilla, a splendid poultry-filled pie with saffron and almonds, served topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The best bastilla we tasted was at Timgad, a Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant in Paris. Another memorable bastilla was the one we sampled at Darna restaurant in Jerusalem. Actually, the sweet meat theme is evident in several Moroccan creations, such as sweet tajines of lamb stewed with dried fruit. A Moroccan friend of ours, Perla Abergel, showed us how she made tasty sweet chicken-filled cigars with raisins. Meat pastries with a touch of sweetness are popular in the New World too. Argentinean and Chilean cooks are known for their empanadas, often filled with a mixture of ground meat, olives and raisins. Such pastries are popular all around South America. Among Europeans, the English are famous for their mincemeat pie, an old-fashioned dessert with a filling of dried fruit, beef suet and sometimes ground beef, spiced generously with cinnamon, cloves and other sweet spices and spiked with sherry and brandy. According to my friend Susan G. Purdy, author of As Easy as Pie, such pies can be traced to the Crusaders, who brought back a variety of spices from the East. Unlike bastilla and empanadas, which are appetizers or entrees, this is a dessert pie with the addition of meat. The idea of including the meat never sounded appealing to me but when I sampled it at a cooking demonstration by a talented pastry chef, it was very good; with all the spice and fruit, the meat wasn't really noticeable. MOROCCAN CHICKEN PIE WITH CINNAMON AND SAFFRON (BASTILLA) This exotic pastry enclosing saffron- and cinnamon-scented chicken and roasted almonds is one of my favorite chicken dishes. Just before serving, the pie is sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. You will find it on Moroccan menus under several names - bastilla, bastella, pastilla, bestila. Classically prepared with squab, it is also made with chicken. Chef Michel Ohayon of Koutoubia restaurant in Los Angeles showed me how he prepares his specialty. This version is made with filo dough, which is thinner and more delicate than the traditional ouarka sheets. Unlike many bastilla recipes that include large amounts of butter, this one uses a little oil, and is light and delicious. The pie is not complicated to prepare at home, and the filling can be made 1 day ahead and kept, covered, in the refrigerator. 1 cup minced onion 1⁄2 cup minced fresh parsley 1⁄2 cup minced cilantro (fresh coriander) 1 bay leaf a 1.4-kg. chicken 1⁄4 cup water salt and pepper to taste 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 3 Tbsp. granulated sugar 6 to 8 eggs 1⁄4 tsp. saffron powder 11⁄4 cups whole or slivered blanched almonds 4 sheets filo dough, thawed if frozen, kept in refrigerator until ready to use 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil powdered sugar and ground cinnamon (for sprinkling) In a heavy stew pan, put onion, parsley, cilantro and bay leaf. Place chicken on top of mixture. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, cinnamon and 1 tablespoon sugar. Heat over medium-high heat until sizzling. Reduce heat to low, add water, cover and cook about 1 hour or until tender, turning chicken over after 30 minutes, and adding more water by tablespoons only if necessary. Remove cooked chicken and let cool; reserve broth. Discard bay leaf. Discard chicken skin and bones. Pull meat into small thin pieces and put aside. Beat eggs lightly. Return casserole to low heat and heat broth, chicken pieces and saffron until sizzling. Add beaten eggs and cook over low heat, stirring, until set, like dry scrambled eggs. Taste and adjust seasoning. Preheat oven to 175º. Toast whole almonds in oven for 10 minutes until golden brown; if using slivered almonds, toast them 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Cool completely. Finely chop almonds in a food processor with remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, leaving a few chunks. About 30 minutes before assembling pie, remove filo dough from refrigerator; leave it wrapped until ready to use. Handle dough gently; it tears easily. Preheat oven to 190º. Brush bottom and sides of two 23-cm. pie pans lightly with oil. For each pie, lay 2 filo sheets in pan, overlapping in center and allowing about half of each sheet to hang over pan's edge, so there is about 15 cm. to 20 cm. of pastry around outside of pan. Sprinkle about 1⁄3 cup chopped almonds in each pan, and add half the chicken filling to each, crumbling it with your fingers. Sprinkle remaining almonds on top (about 1⁄2 cup for each pan). Fold overhanging pastry over filling, lifting it with both hands, and gathering it lightly in center; it naturally forms soft pleats. Brush with remaining oil. Bake pies for 20 to 25 minutes or until tops are golden brown. (If tops brown after 15 minutes, reduce heat to 175º and bake 10 more minutes, to be sure the filling becomes thoroughly heated.) Either slide each pie onto a round serving platter or serve it from the pan. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon just before serving. Serve hot. Makes 8 appetizers, or 4 to 5 main course servings. Faye Levy is the author of Faye Levy's International Chicken Cookbook. Her latest book, Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home, will be published this month.