The holiday of Maimouna was just celebrated in both Morocco and Israel – it is not well-known to most Jews of European descent unless they know a Moroccan or have lived in Israel, where it has become a rather big deal for the entire country.
The origin of the holiday is unclear, though some say Maimouna is derived from the Arabic word for wealth and good fortune (literally “protected by God,” ma’amoun). Since Passover (which just ended) is the beginning of the new agricultural year, it is a time to pray for plentiful crops, which are themselves symbolic of general prosperity.
Maimouna is celebrated with family, friends, and guests in each Moroccan-Jewish household, which reflects the themes of friendship, community, and hospitality. People in each household will wear expensive clothing and also visit their relatives and friends’ homes, going from household to household and greeting each other with a traditional saying: “Be Prosperous and Lucky”.
This seemed an opportune time to introduce the fabulous cuisine of Morocco to TFD – few regions of the world have produced so elegant and diverse a cuisine, using a multitude of spices and techniques to bring their food to the very pinnacle of gastronomy. The amazing Paula Wolfert has written a number of books on Moroccan cuisine – all of which are definitive in my humble opinion and worth purchasing on Amazon.
Perhaps the summit of Moroccan dishes is Bastilla, a traditional Moroccan dish that is an elaborate meat pie traditionally made of squab (pigeon). As squabs are often hard to get, shredded chicken is more often used today – though I personally love it made with squab!
Bastilla is a pie which combines sweet and salty flavors; a combination of crisp layers of the crepe-like warqa dough (a thinner cousin of phyllo dough) wrapping savory meat slow-cooked in broth and spices and shredded, scrambled eggs and finally topped with a crunchy layer of toasted and ground almonds, spices, and sugar.
This combination of flavors may sound odd to a Western palate, but trust me – it is delicious and well-worth trying, Citizens! I am confident that my version of this recipe will meet with your approval – I’ve tried to keep it as traditional as possible, but I have substituted clarified butter for smen – a salted fermented butter that is not easily found outside of Morocco. Ms. Wolfert does include a recipe on how to make it in “The Food of Morocco”.
Battle on – The Generalissimo
Pigeon/Fowl: 1st filling/layer, can be done 1 day ahead
5 pounds pigeon or one 5-pound free-range chicken, alternatively, try 2 Cornish hens (3 pounds total), 1 pheasant (1 ½ pounds), and ½ pound turkey thigh or breast
2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tsp of ghee + 2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 ¼ cups chopped yellow onions
1 tsp of ginger powder
A good pinch of saffron threads
1 tsp of turmeric
Salt to taste
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 heaped cup of finely chopped coriander and parsley
1 medium cinnamon stick
Enough chicken stock (low-salt or homemade) to cover the fowl
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
½ tbsp salt
2 tbsp of honey
Scrambled eggs : 2nd filling/layer, can be done a day ahead
Remaining sauce from the fowl
¼ cup minced cilantro
Almonds: 3rd layer/filling, can be done 1 day ahead
2 cups almonds, unsalted
Ghee or Vegetable oil
½ cup powdered sugar
3 drops of mastic gum ground into a powder in a spice grinder (optional but recommended)
1 tbsp of ras el hanout spice blend (in a pinch, use garam masala with extra cumin, coriander and ground thyme added) My favorite commercial blend of Ras El Hanout uses 30 different spices and herbs – buy it on Amazon
1 tbsp of orange blossom water
1 tbsp ghee or butter
Assembling the bastilla
12 -20 sheets of warqa sheets or equivalent of thin phyllo dough (depending on the size of the pan)
1 egg yolk for egg wash
½ cup powdered sugar and 2 tablespoons cinnamon, sifted together
If you are using chicken, pull off as much fat as possible.
In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except honey, garlic and salt and let simmer for about 45 minutes or until pigeons/fowl are tender. Set aside to cool.
Pull the pigeon/fowl flesh off the bone and chop the big “chunks” (if any) into small pieces and reserve in a separate bowl.
Reduce the sauce in the pot until most of the liquids have evaporated and the onions form a mass in the oil. Stir occasionally, and adjust the heat as necessary to prevent burning, add the honey and stir well. Pound the garlic and salt together into a paste and add to the sauce as well. Remove the cinnamon stick and discard.
Set aside to cool and drain – put several spoonfuls of the onion mixture into the pigeon/fowl meat and stir well (YOU WILL NEED THE REMAINDER OF THE ONION MIXTURE FOR THE SCRAMBLED EGGS). Keep it overnight: as it ages, it will gain in flavor!
Scramble the eggs on a low heat with the cooled onion mixture and cilantro by stirring with a spatula. Drain and reserve.
Heat ½” of vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat for about five minutes, or until the oil is hot. Test the oil by dropping in an almond. If tiny bubbles rapidly rise around the almond within a few seconds, the oil is ready. If the oil boils and splatters immediately, it’s too hot.
Fry the almonds in batches, stirring constantly, until golden brown. As soon as the almonds are richly colored, transfer them to a tray lined with paper towels to drain and cool. Fried almonds will continue to darken a bit after frying, so be careful not to burn them while they’re in the oil.
When the almonds have cooled completely, pulse them in a food processor until finely ground. Put them in a mixing bowl, and with your hands work in all the remaining ingredients. Set aside.
Generously oil a 14″ or larger round pan. If you don’t have a round pan, work on an oiled flat baking sheet or large plate, and shape a circular pie as best you can.
Brush melted butter on each sheet of warqa or phyllo dough as you work. If using phyllo, take care to keep it covered with plastic as you work since it dries out very quickly.
Using your pan as a guide, overlap three or four single layers of warqa (shiny side down) – or double layers of phyllo dough – in a circular fashion, so that the inner halves of the pastry dough overlap in the center, and the excess dough drapes over the edges of the pan. (Remember to butter each layer of dough.)
Place one buttered 12″ circle of warqa, or two 12″ buttered circles of phyllo, in the center of the pan. This forms the bottom of the pie. Cover the 12″ circle with the fowl filling, and then distribute the egg stuffing over the chicken.
Top the egg stuffing with another buttered 12″ circle of warqa (shiny side up), or two 12″ buttered circles of phyllo. Spread the almond topping over this layer of dough.
Fold the excess dough up and over the almonds to enclose the pie. Flatten and smooth any bulky areas.
Brush butter on the folded edges of dough, and top with three more overlapping layers of warqa (shiny side up) or phyllo, brushing butter on each layer. Fold down the edges of dough and carefully tuck them underneath the pie, molding and shaping the bastilla as you go.
Use your hands to spread the egg yolk over the top and sides of the pie. Lightly oil the bastilla with ghee in the same manner.
The bastilla is now ready for baking. It can be covered in plastic and stored in the refrigerator for up to a day, or in the freezer for up to two months.
Preheat an oven to 350° F (180° C). Place the bastilla on an oiled flat baking sheet in the middle of the oven, and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until deep golden brown. Note that a bastilla placed into the oven directly from the freezer will take up to an hour to bake.
Generously coat the bastilla with the sifted powdered sugar/cinnamon mixture in a decorative geometric pattern and serve immediately.