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Winter is a great time to be indoors with loved ones. My husband’s extended family and my own live far away, so we don’t get to see them much, which is really too bad, especially for our kids. But recently a couple family members we haven’t seen for years came to visit, so we got all excited and our house bubbled with energy in preparation for hosting. My husband gets especially enthusiastic, as he gets to recommend the menu, his favorite fancy Moroccan dishes that never get made under normal circumstances but that are perfect for such occasions. One of those dishes is Bestila.

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Bestila is a unique chicken pie that’s really a work of art, as it combines all sorts of opposites: savory and sweet, crunchy and soft, dry and moist. The making is an elaborate process, but it’s not that difficult. There are 4 steps in the preparation: Almond mixture, shredded chicken, egg mixture, assembling. It makes all the difference if you can prepare the almonds one or more days in advance.

Almond Mixture:
Ingredients: 1 cup raw almonds. 1/2 cup table sugar. 1 tablespoon cinnamon.
Steps: Boil water and remove from stove. Immediately put raw almonds in the water to soak. Let them soften for 5 minutes, then strain them.

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Remove the skin from each individual almond. Do this by ‘snapping’ the almond between your fingers – the skin will slip off, just like that.

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Here is the risky part: frying the almonds. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, but it can seem long, as you stand there waiting for the almonds to ‘tan,’ watching the bubbling oil and thinking you could be doing other things. But hold on! The minute you turn away, the almonds will burn!

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As they fry, stir the almonds with a wooden spoon to ensure they cook evenly. When almonds turn golden, quickly remove them from the oil and put them in a bowl lined with a paper towel. Wait until they cool off, then transfer them to the blender. Stop the machine when you still have a granulated crunchy texture. Add sugar and cinnamon to the blender and stir together. Empty the mixture into a bowl.

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Shredded Chicken:
Ingredients: 4 tablespoons butter. 2 tablespoons olive oil. 6 bone-in chicken thighs. 3 large Spanish onions, chopped. 2 cinnamon sticks. 1 tablespoon ginger powder. 2 teaspoons salt. 1 teaspoon black pepper. 1 teaspoon turmeric. 1/4 teaspoon saffron threads.
Steps: Heat up oil and butter in a large pot. Add the onion, the chicken, and the spices. Let cook on medium heat uncovered for 10 minutes while mixing gently from time to time. Add 1 cup of water and mix again. Cover and let cook on low heat for 45 minutes. At this point, the meat should detach from bone easily.

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Without turning off the heat, remove the chicken pieces from the pot and transfer them to a plate. Leave the sauce with the onions in the pot.

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Egg Mixture:
Ingredients: 6 eggs. 1 cup parsley, chopped.
Steps: Break the eggs in a separate bowl, then pour them into the pot containing the onion and sauce. Follow this with the chopped parsley. Scramble everything together, and keep mixing until the water in the mixture evaporates. Transfer to a bowl.

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When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove the meat and discard the bones, skin, and any visible fat. Save the shredded chicken meat into a bowl.

Assembling:
Ingredients: 1 package Phyllo dough (20 sheets). 1 stick butter, melted. 1 tablespoon cinnamon. Powdered sugar. Our three bowls: almond mixture, shredded chicken, and egg mixture.
Steps: Create enough space on your working area to place the bowls, including the melted butter one, 1 large round baking or pizza pan, and Phyllo sheets.

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Layering. This must be done quickly, as the Phyllo dough loses its moisture. Start by brushing the inside of the pan (bottom and sides) with butter. Next, spread out 2 Phyllo sheets to cover the pan entirely – they should spill over the sides. Brush the top with butter. Now fold 4 separate Phyllo sheets in half, and prepare to place them in the 4 ‘sides’ of the pan – each folded sheet 2/3 inside the pan, 1/3 hanging over the edge. To begin, place a folded Phyllo sheet ‘North’ and then butter the part in the pan (bottom and sides); place a second ‘South’ and butter, then another ‘East’ and butter, and finally one ‘West’ and butter. Next we’ll need Phyllo sheets for the inside layers. Take 8 Phyllo sheets together and with a pair of scissors, cut them into a circle no bigger than the inside of the pan.

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The filling. Place a first Phyllo circle in the pan and butter, then a second and butter, then spread the egg mixture gently in the pan. Do the same for the shredded chicken and the almond mixture. Finish the layers with a Phyllo circle, butter, Phyllo circle, and butter. Now, close the dish by bringing all the Phyllo hanging over the pan’s sides to the center, one by one, brushing them generously with butter.

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Bake for 30 minutes in a 350°F pre-heated oven until golden brown. Remove from the oven. Place a large plate over the pan and carefully flip. Sift powdered sugar and cinnamon over the Bestila and decorate with almonds.

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Can you believe that in Morocco, Bastila is served as a starter? Hmm… Not in my house!

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