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Chicken B'Stilla for a Double-Header Birthday Dinner

How does a Moroccan meat pie, typically served at festive occasions, end up on the menu for a double-header birthday dinner for two dear friends with December birthdays? Well, it all started with a box of oranges purchased for a middle-school fundraiser, took a left turn at a bag full of spices from Tanzania from Gen's latest African safari, merged with a CORE cooking class featuring Janel's phyllo dough recipes and then ended with an addicting spice mixture called Dukkah from Ellen. And somehow, those unrelated events and ingredients joined forces to create a dinner table filled with individual chicken b'stillas -- seriously good Moroccan comfort food. 

My first exposure to Moroccan food was a pound of oil-cured olives from Bill's Imported Foods in Minneapolis. I was stocking up on French feta and Greek Diamond olive oil when I spied a bin of wrinkled black olives in the deli case. I asked to try one and was blown away by the intense, almost prune-like flavor. I had never tasted anything like it before. Kiki, the matriarch of the Bill's Imported Food clan, suggested I throw a handful into my next batch of olive tapenande  or add them to a chicken tajine. I was immediately intrigued and bought a pound of the glossy, shriveled olives, went to Barnes and Noble to find a Moroccan cookbook (this was before all recipes were a Google search away), and made my first chicken tagine (made in a conical tajine pot and everything) that evening. I've been hooked on Moroccan cooking ever since -- the preserved lemons, olives and aromatic spices are perfect for dinner on a cold and snowy night.  

Over the years, my Moroccan food journey went from tajines to harissa (a hot chili pepper paste) to chermoula paste (a lemony/garlic/cilantro marinade used for fish) to b'stilla. I have to admit, I made my first chicken b'stilla because I loved the word (both saying it and how it was spelled) but it didn't disappoint when I took my first forkful. The combination of cinnamon sugar dusted phyllo dough surrounding tender chicken covered in a richly spiced lemony gravy was really something special. Growing up, chicken a la king was our version of comfort food but the b'stilla, while much more intensely flavored, has become a 'grown-up' version of my childhood favorite. 

Phyllo dough can be a fickle beast and tends to break and rip when I'm working with it. Of course, it could be user error because I have little patience for carefully peeling each paper-thin, dry piece of pastry off the pile and it's likely that if I took my time, it would cooperate. At any rate, don't be put off by the phyllo dough -- it's not that difficult to work with (as long as it's completely thawed). Chicken b'stilla is typically made in one large pie but I like making individual b'stilla pies because it doesn't matter as much if the phyllo is mangled when you place it in the dish....and everyone gets plenty of the buttery/sugary phyllo crust! 

The birthday dinner was a success. Aldo was dressed up in his red bow (which he chewed up right after I took his picture), the b'stillas were a hit, the vegan roasted vegetable couscous was surprisingly good (I finally found a good vegan bouillon), I found the birthday candles, and Julie and Peter were properly fêted with cakes, candles, and a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday. All in all, it was the perfect way to close out 2016...with a good meal, good friends and a relatively well-behaved puppy named Aldo. 

Chicken B'Stilla
makes 10 individual b'stilla pies

8 - 10 chicken thighs, skin removed
8 - 10 chicken legs, skin removed
3 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 large onions, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons ginger, chopped
2 tablespoons Dukkah (recipe here)
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Big pinch of saffron threads
4 cups chicken broth, preferably home-made or low-sodium
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
5 large eggs
1/4 cup honey
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
One 16-ounce box of phyllo dough (about 40 sheets)
1 cup slivered almonds
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, melted
Cinnamon sugar, for dusting

Preparation
Put the chicken pieces, onions, garlic and spices into a Dutch oven and stir thoroughly with your hands or a large wooden spoon (you want to make sure all the chicken pieces are covered with the spice mixture). Cover and let the chicken marinate overnight in the refrigerator. 

Add the chicken broth to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat so that the liquid simmers, cover the pot, and cook for about an hour. You know it's done when the chicken is falling off the bone. 

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a bowl. Strain the broth, saving both the liquid and the onions. When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones and shred it.

Clean the Dutch oven and pour the broth back into it. Whisk in the the lemon juice, bring to a boil and cook until you have about 2 cups liquid (takes about 20 minutes). Reduce the heat to low.

Beat the eggs with the honey and add to the broth, whisking constantly. Continue to whisk the sauce until it thickens enough that your whisk leaves tracks in it, about 5 minutes. Pull the pan from the heat and season the sauce with salt and pepper.

Stir the chicken, sweet potatoes, cilantro, and reserved onions into the sauce. Set aside. 

Preheat the oven to 400°F. 

Open the phyllo sheets package and cover with a kitchen towel (this helps keep them from drying out and breaking). Generously brush each individual oven-safe crock with melted butter. Brush 1 sheet phyllo with butter, center it in the dish and sprinkle about 1 teaspoon of cinnamon sugar onto the phyllo. Brush two additional sheets with butter and press them into the dish. Sprinkle about 2 tablespoons of almonds over the phyllo, spoon in the saucy chicken and fold the overhanging phyllo over the chicken. Brush the top with melted butter and sprinkle about another teaspoon of cinnamon sugar over the top. Repeat with the remaining individual crocks. 

Bake the b’stillas for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350°F and bake for 20 minutes more. If the top seems to be getting too brown at any point, cover it loosely with foil. Remove from the oven, let rest for about 5 minutes and then enjoy!