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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

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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 (3 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 (3 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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Reviews
Cheryl F.
October 4, 2022
Pastel Azteca
Loved it!
Teresa B.
June 7, 2022
Yummy
Make sure to cook the filling to precise measurements for perfect slicing
Azur M.

For crema I’ve used a mix of sour cream and heavy cream

Sarah F.

This was SO GOOD. Total cheese bomb, but amazing. I would 100% make the chicken mixture and stop there and use it to fill tacos or even put over rice. So so good.

Linda L.

We enjoyed this and will definitely make it again. Found it took much longer to cook down tomatillo sauce. Increased the amount of chicken to 1.75 lbs. Sprayed the springform pan w/ cooking spray and cleanup was a breeze. Will try adding either some lime zest and/or juice to tomatillo sauce. Delicious make ahead meal.

John M.

Another excellent Milk Street recipe! This was a *big* hit with everyone who tried it. The ingredients complemented each other well with no part overwhelming the whole. The cotija cheese was a great topping -- tasty & crunchy. Per Linda's comment above, I used 1.5 lbs. of chicken and sprayed the sides of the pan w/cooking oil. One thing I noticed was that 1/2 cup of salsa to spread equally between the bottom & top layers of the pastel was barely enough to cover a six inch circumference in the center of the pan on either layer. Seems as though it would take a full cup to achieve the desired results. That would take away salsa from the chicken mix, though.. Thanks again Milk Street & Courtney Hill!

Brian M.

Absolutely delicious - highly recommend. But budget plenty of time, this isn’t a weeknight endeavor!

Mark C.

This was excellent. Great flavors and loved the layers. Agree with Linda about taking longer to cook down the sauce than expected, but worth it to get it nice and thick without being runny. Couldn't get cotija so subbed feta and it was great. Definitely a bit of a project to put together but so worth it. Next time will spray inside of pan with oil to make cleanup even easier.

Jeanette H.

FYI, I found a great fast trick for shredding chicken: put in a bowl and use a hand mixer (the old style mixer with the 2 beaters—NOT a hand blender). This shreds chicken really well.

Jonathan S.

I really enjoyed this recipe even though I messed up and used flour tortillas. Next time I will reduce the amount of cheese because it seemed to overpower the Tomatillo sauce. I like the other commenters idea of adding lime and I might take it a bit further and spice it up with some cayenne or jalapeño.

Kristen B.

This turned out absolutely delicious. I doubled the chicken filling and vacuum - sealed and frozr the rest for tacos next week. Extra pepitas and cilantro are in order. I see a week of happy lunches and this was worth every minute of prep.

Mary M.

This was ok, just because I found it very sweet -and seemed to be missing flavor. I filled the instructions exactly.
I might leave out the corn if I make it again.

Jennifer B.

Megan, lots of work and not much taste. Nothing memorable.

Steven R.

This is excellent, and tasty. It's probably the best version of what's commonly called tortilla pie that I've come across. In experimenting with this recipe I have discovered that a cook in a hurry can use salsa verde in place of the ground tomatilloes. Also the combination of cheeses is easily replaced by a Mexican multiple cheese blend found in many stores. Also I suggest having at least 16 ozs of Mexican sour cream (crema) on hand for assembly of the dish. This is a delicious relatively easy to prepare dish.

Chris W.

Thanks for the quick tips when you don't have 2 hours, and I am sure store bought roast chicken would speed it up even more. The 16 oz of Crema is also a good idea since 8 oz is on the skimpy side.

Chris W.

This was incredible, what an orgasm of flavours bursting in every bite, even wifey who is from Viet Nam and does not really like cheese, loved it! Though its about 2 hours, so don't start too late unless you want to be eating at 8pm...

Sean K.

This was absolute comfort food: charred chiles, silky smooth crema, nice meaty chicken, subtly sweet corn, herbaceous cilantro, and more cheese than should be safely served at any one time. Forget "King Ranch Casserole", this is what you want to make and eat. This is the real deal. My family absolutely went crazy for this, and while I was hoping for at least three days of leftovers, it only survived two. We polished this off in record time.

Really, the only issue was that it never sliced cleanly like on the TV show! I let it rest the requisite 30 minutes (there was no way those aromas would let me go the full hour) and removed the springform pan. But as soon as I applied downward pressure, all that delicious filling squeezed out from in between the tortillas and all over the cutting board. Visually, it was a disgusting mess, more reminiscent of upchuck than food. In fact, we ended up calling this dish "Mexi-Glop".

But we ate it all up anyway! It may have looked awful but it tasted sooooooo gooooood! 😋

Cathy B.

I love this dish! But I cannot get it to keep its shape -- I had Sean K's experience above every time I've made it. Thinking of flipping it to a 9x12" casserole dish, like I do with King Ranch. Any other tips for how to get it to keep the shape? Is it a matter of letting it cool for longer?

Cynthia R.

Cannot wait to give this a try.

Mexican Crema JUST became available locally which I have been looking for over the last SEVERAL years!

Love Poblanos... have Stuffed pepper recipe uing them, made with Tomatillo based Enchilada Sauce. Seite Brand is my go to sauce.

Jacki K.

I made this for the 1st time tonight. It was delicious but it didn't hold its shape after resting for 45 minutes. I will make again but will use a lasagna pan. Was anyone successful with it holding its shape & if so, any suggestions for me?

Lynn C.

Hi Jacki -

You may want to let it go the full hour of cooling time, which will definitely help it hold its shape better. Much like a lasagna it stays pretty hot for a while. A couple more things to keep in mind - make sure to use the weight amount of poblanos, rather than a guesstimate. If you add too many the excess liquid from the peppers can cause the filling to be too watery, which will prevent it from holding its shape. Also, after shredding the chicken, make sure to measure the amount of chicken and salsa verde. You want to have exactly 3 1/2 cups. If you have more you'll need to put the mixture back on the heat and reduce the sauce to yield the correct amount. Again, if there is more salsa verde than called for, the filling may be too watery.

Hope that helps!
The Milk Street Team

Amanda D.

Thank you for your comment! Your comment is currently under moderation and will appear shortly.

Kathleen P.

My grocery was out of tomatillos and I can’t stand cilantro, so I tried a red version of this. I used two cans of Rotel tomatoes and 8 oz tomato sauce, with a mix of chili, cumin, and coriander. I also sizzled some frozen corn in a dry skillet with some Penzey’s Northwoods Fire, and added a can of drained and rinsed pinto beans that I mushed up with my hands. I was a little short on tortillas so I crunched up some blue corn tortilla chips into shards and threw them in. Excellent.

It freezes well too. After thawing it in the fridge, I cooked slices in a skillet to get the caramelization.


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Chicken, Salsa Verde and Tortilla Casserole (Pastel Azteca)

Get Ready to Cook

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 (3 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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