Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca) | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Mexican “lasagna” is built from layers of corn tortillas, sauce, meat and cheese
Milk Street Bowtie Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca)

Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca)

2 hours 1¼ hours active, plus resting

Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca)

Free

Though pastel azteca translates from the Spanish as “Aztec cake,” the dish often is referred to in English as Mexican lasagna, enchilada casserole or tortilla pie—and understandably so. It is comprised of corn tortillas layered with sauce, meat, cheeses, crema (a cultured cream similar to crème fraîche) and vegetables; a stint in the oven brings together all the elements. Our recipe is an adaptation of the pastel azteca taught to us in Mexico City by chef Esmerelda Brinn Bolaños. We swapped chicken thighs for the dark-meat turkey that she used and found readily available substitutes for the locally made Mexican cheeses. We opted for pepper Jack cheese because of its melting qualities and mild spiciness; if you prefer, use regular Jack cheese or even mozzarella. To assemble and bake the casserole, we use a 9-inch springform pan for a presentation that reveals the impressive layers and allows for slicing into wedges for serving.

8

Servings

Tip

Don’t use sour cream in place of Mexican crema. Sour cream has a lower fat content and will curdle during baking. If crema is not available, crème fraîche is the next best option, but it’s much thicker than crema, so allow it to come to room temperature before use so it’s easier to spread. Don’t slice the pastel until it has rested for at least 30 minutes to allow the layers to set up for easier slicing and serving.

2 hours

1¼ hours active, plus resting

1 pound poblano chilies
1½ pounds tomatillos, husked and halved
3 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, plus ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided
3 teaspoons ground cumin, divided
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 large white onion, chopped
1 cup corn kernels, defrosted if frozen
8 6-inch corn tortillas
12 ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (4 cups)
1 cup Mexican crema or one 8-ounce container crème fraîche, room temperature
4 ounces cotija cheese (see headnote), grated (1 cup)
2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds, finely chopped (optional)
Ingredients
  • 1

    pound poblano chilies

  • pounds tomatillos, husked and halved

  • 3

    medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

  • 2

    tablespoons white vinegar

  • 1

    cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, plus ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

  • 3

    teaspoons ground cumin, divided

  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

  • 1

    tablespoon grapeseed or other neutral oil

  • 1

    pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs

  • 1

    large white onion, chopped

  • 1

    cup corn kernels, defrosted if frozen

  • 8

    6-inch corn tortillas

  • 12

    ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (4 cups)

  • 1

    cup Mexican crema or one 8-ounce container crème fraîche, room temperature

  • 4

    ounces cotija cheese (see headnote), grated (1 cup)

  • 2

    tablespoons pumpkin seeds, finely chopped (optional)

Directions
  1. 01
    Heat the broiler with a rack about 6 inches from the element. Place the poblanos on a rimmed baking sheet and broil until charred, about 10 minutes. Flip the chilies and broil until charred on the second sides, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl, cover and let steam to loosen the skins while you make the puree and cook the chicken. Turn the oven to 375°F.
  2. 02
    In a blender, combine the tomatillos, garlic, vinegar, 1 cup of cilantro, 2 teaspoons of cumin and 1 teaspoons salt. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping the blender jar as needed; set the puree aside.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-2
  3. 03
    In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Carefully add the puree (it may splatter) and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced and a spoon drawn through leaves a brief trail, about 6 minutes. Remove ½ cup of the sauce and set aside. To the remaining sauce in the pot, add the chicken, onion, the remaining 1 teaspoon cumin, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer, then cover, reduce to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until a skewer inserted into the chicken meets no resistance, 15 to 20 minutes.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-3
  4. 04
    While the chicken cooks, peel the skins off the chilies and remove and discard the stems and seeds. Chop the chilies and set aside. When the chicken is done, remove the pot from the heat. Using 2 forks, shred the chicken; you should have about 3½ cups chicken in salsa verde. If you have more, return the pot to medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced. Stir in the corn, the ¼ cup of the chopped cilantro and the chopped chilies. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-4
  5. 05
    Wrap the exterior of a 9-inch springform pan with a sheet of foil and set on a rimmed baking sheet. Add half of the reserved salsa to the pan and spread in an even layer. Line the bottom of the pan with 2⅔ tortillas, tearing them as needed to fit; it’s fine if the tortillas overlap slightly and if a few small spots are uncovered. Spoon in half of the chicken mixture and distribute in an even layer. Dollop with half of the crema, then spread evenly. Sprinkle with a third of the pepper Jack cheese. Repeat the layering using another 2⅔ tortillas, the remaining chicken mixture, the remaining crema and half of the remaining pepper Jack. Layer in the remaining tortillas, then spread evenly with the remaining reserved salsa. Sprinkle on the remaining pepper Jack followed by the cotija. Bake the pastel on the baking sheet until browned on top and bubbling at the edges, about 35 minutes.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-5
  6. 06
    Set the baking sheet on a wire rack. Sprinkle the pastel with the remaining ¼ cup chopped cilantro and the pumpkin seeds (if using). Let rest for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-6
  7. 07
    To serve, run a knife around the inside of the springform pan to loosen. Remove the foil, set the pan on a large, flat platter and remove the sides. Cut into wedges and serve.
    See Demo
    chicken-salsa-verde-tortilla-casserole-pastel-azteca-step-7
Tip: Don’t use sour cream in place of Mexican crema. Sour cream has a lower fat content and will curdle during baking. If crema is not available, crème fraîche is the next best option, but it’s much thicker than crema, so allow it to come to room temperature before use so it’s easier to spread. Don’t slice the pastel until it has rested for at least 30 minutes to allow the layers to set up for easier slicing and serving.
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Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca)

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8

Servings

2 hours

1¼ hours active, plus resting

Tip

Don’t use sour cream in place of Mexican crema. Sour cream has a lower fat content and will curdle during baking. If crema is not available, crème fraîche is the next best option, but it’s much thicker than crema, so allow it to come to room temperature before use so it’s easier to spread. Don’t slice the pastel until it has rested for at least 30 minutes to allow the layers to set up for easier slicing and serving.

Ingredients
  • 1

    pound poblano chilies

  • pounds tomatillos, husked and halved

  • 3

    medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled

  • 2

    tablespoons white vinegar

  • 1

    cup lightly packed fresh cilantro, plus ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro, divided

  • 3

    teaspoons ground cumin, divided

  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

  • 1

    tablespoon grapeseed or other neutral oil

  • 1

    pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs

  • 1

    large white onion, chopped

  • 1

    cup corn kernels, defrosted if frozen

  • 8

    6-inch corn tortillas

  • 12

    ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (4 cups)

  • 1

    cup Mexican crema or one 8-ounce container crème fraîche, room temperature

  • 4

    ounces cotija cheese (see headnote), grated (1 cup)

  • 2

    tablespoons pumpkin seeds, finely chopped (optional)

Step 1 of 7

Broil Poblanos

1
pound poblano chilies

Heat the broiler with a rack about 6 inches from the element. Place the poblanos on a rimmed baking sheet and broil until charred, about 10 minutes. Flip the chilies and broil until charred on the second sides, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a medium bowl, cover and let steam to loosen the skins while you make the puree and cook the chicken. Turn the oven to 375°F.

Step 2 of 7

Combine Ingredients In Blender

pounds tomatillos, husked and halved
3
medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
2
tablespoons white vinegar
1
cup lightly packed fresh cilantro
2
teaspoons ground cumin
Kosher salt

In a blender, combine the tomatillos, garlic, vinegar, 1 cup of cilantro, 2 teaspoons of cumin and 1 teaspoons salt. Blend until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping the blender jar as needed; set the puree aside.

Step 3 of 7

Combine Ingredients In Dutch Oven

1
tablespoon grapeseed or other neutral oil
1
pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1
large white onion, chopped
1
teaspoon ground cumin
Kosher salt and ground black pepper

In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Carefully add the puree (it may splatter) and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced and a spoon drawn through leaves a brief trail, about 6 minutes. Remove ½ cup of the sauce and set aside. To the remaining sauce in the pot, add the chicken, onion, the remaining 1 teaspoon cumin, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer, then cover, reduce to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until a skewer inserted into the chicken meets no resistance, 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 4 of 7

Shred Chicken

1
cup corn kernels, defrosted if frozen
¼
cup chopped fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and ground black pepper

While the chicken cooks, peel the skins off the chilies and remove and discard the stems and seeds. Chop the chilies and set aside. When the chicken is done, remove the pot from the heat. Using 2 forks, shred the chicken; you should have about 3½ cups chicken in salsa verde. If you have more, return the pot to medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced. Stir in the corn, the ¼ cup of the chopped cilantro and the chopped chilies. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Step 5 of 7

Assemble and Bake Pastel

8
6-inch corn tortillas
1
cup Mexican crema or one 8-ounce container crème fraîche, room temperature
12
ounces pepper Jack cheese, shredded (4 cups)
4
ounces cotija cheese (see headnote), grated (1 cup)

Wrap the exterior of a 9-inch springform pan with a sheet of foil and set on a rimmed baking sheet. Add half of the reserved salsa to the pan and spread in an even layer. Line the bottom of the pan with 2⅔ tortillas, tearing them as needed to fit; it’s fine if the tortillas overlap slightly and if a few small spots are uncovered. Spoon in half of the chicken mixture and distribute in an even layer. Dollop with half of the crema, then spread evenly. Sprinkle with a third of the pepper Jack cheese. Repeat the layering using another 2⅔ tortillas, the remaining chicken mixture, the remaining crema and half of the remaining pepper Jack. Layer in the remaining tortillas, then spread evenly with the remaining reserved salsa. Sprinkle on the remaining pepper Jack followed by the cotija. Bake the pastel on the baking sheet until browned on top and bubbling at the edges, about 35 minutes.

Step 6 of 7

Rest Pastel

¼
cup chopped fresh cilantro
2
tablespoons pumpkin seeds, finely chopped (optional)

Set the baking sheet on a wire rack. Sprinkle the pastel with the remaining ¼ cup chopped cilantro and the pumpkin seeds (if using). Let rest for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour.

Step 7 of 7

Finish and Serve

To serve, run a knife around the inside of the springform pan to loosen. Remove the foil, set the pan on a large, flat platter and remove the sides. Cut into wedges and serve.

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