A modest dish that combines humble ingredients with holy symbolism makes a special Mexican dessert beloved during Lent and at Easter.
It's capirotada, a simple bread pudding that forgoes the common egg-milk custard base that we all recognize. Instead, capirotada gains its moisture from a deeply flavored clove-and-cinnamon-spiked sugar syrup. Capirotada may also include dried fruits (such as raisins, chopped apricot or chopped dates), fresh fruits (such as banana or pineapple), nuts (such as pine nuts, slivered almonds or chopped walnuts) – but many families' versions include neither fruits nor nuts.
Like all bread puddings, capirotada's origins are ancient, dating to 15th century Spain or perhaps even earlier. In its earliest incarnations, capirotada was a Moorish-influenced sweet-and-savory dish. Bread pudding surely arose from kitchen economy, when bread going stale was rescued from ruin, but it originally wasn't a dessert dish. Rather, it was a sopa seca, a "dry soup," or a savory dish served at the beginning of a meal. Some versions of capirotada include tomato and onion, even today. This combination of what Westerners traditionally consider "sweet" spices – cinnamon and clove – with savory ingredients is commonplace in Moroccan cooking, for example.
Its constants, then, are the bread, symbolizing the body of Christ; the dark syrup, echoing Christ's blood; the cinnamon sticks, symbolizing the wood of the cross; the cloves, representing the nails used in the Crucifixion; and the cheese that cloaks the dish, suggesting the holy shroud. Beyond that, it seems, any amount of customization is allowable and acceptable.
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Bolillos, Mexican sandwich rolls, and piloncillos, cones of unrefined brown sugar, are widely available in supermarkets these days. Look for the bolillos in the bakery section; I often find piloncillos in the specialty part of the produce section. But if you can't find them, don't fret: A sturdy baguette and some dark brown sugar will substitute quite nicely.
Here's a basic capirotada recipe to get you started. Customize it as you wish, and enjoy your date with history.
Robin Mather is a freelance writer and editor, and the author of "The Feast Nearby," a collection of essays and recipes from a year of eating locally on a strict budget.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 65 minutes
Makes: 6 to 8 generous servings
This very old, Spanish-influenced form of bread pudding has origins dating to the 15th century and perhaps earlier. It's a popular Lenten and Easter dessert in Mexico, where the bump of protein from the cheese during a meatless Lent may be welcome. Commonly eaten warm from the oven (or reheated), it's also good when eaten at room temperature or chilled, especially with a bit of crema, sour cream or heavy cream.
4 bolillos, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices, or 1 large baguette, sliced similarly
6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups water
2 large piloncillos, or 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, packed
4 cinnamon sticks
8 whole cloves
1 cup raisins, golden raisins, dried cranberries, dried cherries or other dried fruit, optional
1 cup pine nuts, slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, chopped pecans or other nuts, optional
3 cups shredded mild cheese, such as Monterey jack, Colby, queso fresco or mild cheddar
1. Lay the sliced bread on rimmed baking sheets, and toast under the broiler until golden, 2 to 3 minutes, turning once. Brush slices on both sides with melted butter. Set the bread and any remaining butter aside while you make the syrup.
2. Place water in a large, heavy saucepan with a close-fitting lid. Add the piloncillos or brown sugar, cinnamon sticks and cloves. Over medium high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook, 10 minutes. Remove from heat to cool slightly before straining out cinnamon sticks and cloves. Set the strained syrup aside.
3. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
4. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with buttered bread. Strew a third of the dried fruit, if using, and a third of the nuts, if using, atop the buttered bread. Scatter a cup of shredded cheese over all. Pour over 1/3 of the syrup; let stand, 15 minutes.
5. Repeat layers as needed to fill dish, allowing the syrup-drenched bread to stand for 15 minutes before adding another layer. If you have melted butter left over, pour it over the final, top layer before adding cheese. End with shredded cheese.
6. Heavily butter a piece of aluminum foil, and cover the filled baking dish. Bake, 30 minutes; uncover and bake until the cheese is browned and bubbly, 15 minutes.
7. Remove from oven; let stand 15 minutes before serving. Garnish each serving with crema, sour cream or heavy cream, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 548 calories, 24 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 61 mg cholesterol, 68 g carbohydrates, 42 g sugar, 16 g protein, 517 mg sodium, 1 g fiber