The holidays mean tradition. And where I grew up that meant tamales, buñuelos, and my favorite– Capirotada. And since I don’t have a small army to assemble homemade tamales I usually opt for easier endeavors that are just as delicious.
Capirotada is a dish with a rich legacy. Also known as Mexican bread pudding, Capirotada is a dessert with as many variations as you can imagine. There is no one definitive recipe, it’s open to many broad interpretations. Perhaps this is why I enjoy it so much; it’s always different no matter where you go. But no matter where eat it, you can be assured that you’ll find the one ingredient that makes it Capirotada through and through: cheese.
Capirotada is traditionally served during Lent. My grandmother would make it a few times a year or whenever she found herself with a surplus of stale bread, and without fail it would disappear in seconds. There’s something about that savory bite of cheese hidden within the flavors of cinnamon, cloves and raisins. It’s a natural pairing, even if I did think it was strange as a child. Ah, how tastes change, no?
The history of the Capirotada is long and complex. As with many Mexican dishes, Capirotada traces its roots back to the old world, where various centuries-old Spanish cookbooks mention its predecessor. Even further back we see a distant relative mentioned by the Romans entitled Sala Cattaba, a mixture of bread, liquid (more on this later), savories such as vegetables, fowl, meat and fat, and a dressing that made of mint, pepper, celery, pennyroyal, pine nuts, vinegar, honey, water and cheese. Throughout history, this potted bread pudding has changed over time, but it has always managed to keep its sweet & savory element intact.
Fast-forward a couple of hundred years. It’s not clear exactly when the Capirotada made its official crossover into the world of sweets, but legend has it that meat was omitted sometime during the 19th century, mostly for religious observances. It’s this version that you’ll find throughout Mexico–if you’re lucky, that is. José Luis Juárez López, a food writer from Mexico, says that Capirotada is in danger of extinction and isn’t a part of too many food celebrations today. Certainly disheartening.
Present-day recipes of Capirotada can often leave you confused. You’d be hard pressed to find matching recipes no matter where you looked, as ingredients, quantities and preparation methods can vary from cook to cook. There is a general consensus, however, which states that Capirotada includes bread, a liquid, some solids in the form of raisins and nuts, and of course cheese (hallelujah Matt screams!)
Bread forms the basis of this dish. It’s the foundation. As I mentioned earlier, my grandmother always used stale bread as it seems to hold up better. If you’re using fresh bread you’ll want to toast it before using it. Capirotada is usually made with Bolillos, small round loaves of bread found in Mexican markets. Once stale they make the perfect texture for bread pudding.
A sauce must be made to pour over the chunks of bread. This liquid is basically made of water, brown sugar, cloves and cinnamon sticks, reduced to a syrup and strained. Variations include the addition of anise tea or a piloncillo, The piloncillo, a small cone of dried unrefined brown sugar, is the Mexican secret incredient and can be found in Latin markets. To me it’s what makes my Capirotada. You may also notice that Capirotada uses a sugar syrup and not cream and eggs like other bread puddings. But fear not, it’s still delicious.
The beauty of this dish is its personalized nature. I am content with the sole inclusion of raisins, but feel free to add currants, pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, peanuts, even fresh or dried fruit.
Then there’s the cheese. Yes, cheese. A nice cheddar freshly shredded tastes delicious and is more subtle in this dish than you might imagine. Similar to apple pie with a slice of cheddar on top, cheese in this bread pudding really shines and adds dimension. Besides, it’s not Capirotada without it! Other recipes call for Queso Añejo, Seco or Ranchero, but I find a simple cheddar works just fine.
Black pepper, chopped tomatoes, onions and bay leaves can be added. No, your browser hasn’t accidentally taken you to another recipe. We’re still talking Capirotada here, folks. Personally this is a tad bit different for me and not at all the way I grew up eating it. But experiment and try it, you might just like it!
Mexican desserts aren’t known for their over-the-top sweetness. If you prefer your bread pudding on the sweeter side simply adjust the sugar level in the liquid.
3 cups of water
3 large cinnamon sticks
3 to 4 Pilloncillos (if not available you can substitute 1 1/2 cups brown sugar)
3 to 4 oz raisins
4 bolillo rolls (found in Mexican markets) or 1 loaf french bread, cut into pieces
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
In a saucepan, bring water, sugar and cinnamon sticks to a boil then reduce and simmer for 10 minutes. Break bread into small 2 inch pieces (if using fresh bread you’ll need to toast it beforehand) and place in a baking dish and sprinkle with raisins and half of the shredded cheese. Strain the syrup liquid, removing the cinnamon sticks, and pour the syrup over the bread until well absorbed. Top with remaining cheese and bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes or until syrup is absorbed. This dish may be served warm or cold and topped with fresh whipped cream or ice cream. Enjoy!
This post first appeared in May 2006, but it’s the holidays and so delicious it’s worth repeating!