Mexico has rich and varied food traditions, with many for the various holidays. A traditional Lenten dish in Mexico is Capirotada, a bread pudding with cheese, that is both sweet and savory. Legend says that Capirotada was invented as a way to use up forbidden foods before beginning the Lenten fast, but now it shows up on the table throughout Lent, and especially during Holy Week. Since meat was traditionally forbidden during Lent, the pudding may have grown in popularity as a way to get more protein into a meatless diet, in the form of cheese. The name “Capirotada” comes from the word for a friar’s hat, probably because the layer of cheese, bubbling and browned on top of the pudding.
Capirotada has a very long history; Capirotada recipes were recorded by the Holy Office of the Spanish Inquisition in the mid-17th century, and can still be found in the archives there to this day. Made from ingredients commonly in use in Spain at the time of the Conquest, some New World touches were added along the way. It’s popular to this day throughout the Hispanic world, and for many Mexicans, the smell of Capirotada bubbling in the oven is the smell of home. This is definitely comfort food, Latin style.
Good Mexican cooks are artists and proud of their recipes. Here is an authentic Capirotada recipe that came from my Mexican friend Michelle. I followed the recipe exactly, but Michelle says that the very flexibility of Capirotada means you can make any number of substitutions and changes and still have authentic Mexican Capirotada. If you are a fan of bread pudding, you will love this!
1 quart water
3 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks
1 whole clove
3 or 4 large piloncillos*
4 large bolillo rolls that have been left out to stale, torn into 1-inch cubes**
3 bananas (sliced) or 3 cooking apples (peeled, cored, and sliced)
1 cup raisins
1 cup piñons (pine nuts), shelled
1/2 cup blanched almonds, chopped
1/2 pound cubed cheese (Queso Añejo or Monterrey Jack Cheese)
*Piloncillos are cone shaped pieces of raw cane sugar. In my market they can be found in the produce section. They come in a small (about 4-ounce) size and a large (about 9 ounces). If you cannot find piloncillos, or simply prefer not to use them, 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar may be substituted.
**Most market bakeries sell bolillo rolls. They are much like a French bread (crusty on the outside and soft on the inside). French bread can also be used, or even stale white bread if you have no other choice.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter a medium-size baking dish.
Boil the water, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and piloncillo (or brown sugar) together until a syrup forms; set aside.
In the prepared baking dish, place a layer of bolillo (or bread cubes). Cover with a layer of the banana or apple slices. Sprinkle some of the raisins, piñons, almonds, and cheese cubes over the top. Repeat layers until all the ingredients (except the syrup) are used.
Remove the cinnamon sticks and clove from your syrup and pour the syrup over the top of the layers you have made. Bake for about 30 minutes; remove from oven.
Cool slightly, then spoon onto plates and serve warm. Some people also like it cold. It is wonderful on its own, heavenly with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!
Makes 8 to 10 servings