Chicken, chilli, saffron pie

What do you cook when you’ve got an expert on Italian food coming to lunch? Antonio Maurizio Gaetani is the founder and inspiration behind Italia di Gusto, a deli that champions tip-top quality foods made by family run, non-industrial producers.

Non Italian, that’s what.

I made a recipe from Food of the Sun, by Alastair Little and Richard Whittington, a writing partnership that was one of my favourites in the 1990s. Richard is, alas, no longer with us; while Alastair has discovered there is more to life than being a celebrity chef (he’s far too nice) and runs the deli Tavola in Notting Hill ( 155 Westbourne Grove, London W11, no website).

Their Capon Salad from their Keep it Simple book is a dish I do regularly. But since that is an Italian inspired recipe (I imagined exclamations of ‘but this is not the traditional way to make it’), I went for their Chicken Chilli Saffron Pie with Fennel, Mushroom and Parmesan salad, a favourite from Deborah Madison’s perennially wonderful Greens cookbook. Then lime and ginger sorbet – something I made up, though I’m sure there are loads of iterations on this theme out there.

For 8 people

  • 1 large free range chicken (minimum 1.9kg)
  • Poaching ingredients: outer celery sticks, parsley stalks, 2 bay leaves, 12 crushed black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1kg onions, thinly sliced
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • 75g butter
  • 50g plain flour
  • 400ml chicken stock
  • 500ml milk (approx)
  • 2 red chillies, or cayenne to taste (easier heat control for guests of a nervous disposition)
  • 12 strands of saffron, soaked in a little hot water
  • 1 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 20 sheets of filo pastry (impossible to buy in Italy; puff pastry will also do)
  • melted butter for brushing pastry

Place the chicken in large saucepan, cover with water and add the poaching ingredients. Cover and bring to a simmer, skimming off any scummy foam as it bobs to the surface. Poach the chicken for around 50 minutes until it is cooked.

Remove the chicken and once it is cool enough to handle, strip the meat off the bones before returning these to the stockpot to continue to simmer for another 30 minutes.

While the stock is gently simmering, sauté the onions with the butter in a large heavy duty frying pan until soft and translucent. Stir in the flour. Strain the stock and add 400ml; save the rest for soup.

Once you’ve amalgamated the stock, add the milk. You want a sauce in the Goldilocks zone of being not too thin and not too thick to begin with. Cook for 20 minutes, by which time it should have thickened and reduced. Remove the sauce from the heat.

Chop the chicken into bite size pieces and add to the onion sauce. Season with salt. Then add cayenne to taste, or de-seed 2 chillies and slice very thinly before stirring them into the sauce along with the saffron liquid and nutmeg. Whisk the egg yolks and stir them into the mixture.

Heat the oven to 190C/gas mark 5. While it is heating up, prepare the pastry.

Take a baking dish approximately 38x23x8cms – I used my Pyrex – and brush melted butter over the base and sides.

Lay the first 10 sheets of filo pastry across the bottom of the dish, making sure they over lap while the edges hang over the side, brushing each sheet with butter as you go.

Spread the chicken mixture into the middle, fold the edges of the pastry over and then add the next 10 sheets of filo, buttering each as you go. It’s a bit like tucking in blankets on a bed.

Bake the pie for 35 to 40 minutes – the top should be a lovely deep golden brown. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before cutting into slices. It can also be served at room temperature.

PS It was a big success. Not Italian, but not so foreign as to frighten the horses. My American and Italian guests ate everything with gusto