Growing up there were just some things that this little pudgy boy would not eat. High on the short list of food items, along with sour cream and avocados, was this recipe called Capirotada. No matter how hard they tried I just wouldn’t move past the strange blend of ingredients that went into this Mexican bread pudding.
Now it’s the only thing I want to eat.
Capirotada is a Mexican bread pudding that’s normally served during Lent. Because of this it has always featured any ingredients that were on hand and someone on the humble side of desserts — a tad bit plain and not too sweet. And like most recipes coming from a country as diverse as Mexico, it’s also infinitely adaptable. It’s hard to find the same recipe for Capirotada when you begin to look around and speak with Mexican cooks.
There are a few things you can count on with Capirotada. It’s made with leftover stale bread, most often in the form of Bolillos, those small loaves you’ll find in panaderias and markets. It always always has cinnamon and spices and its sweetness comes in the form of piloncillo, the pylon-shaped cones of unrefined solid cane sugar. Some add peanuts and dried fruit as well. After this point Capirotada takes the most interesting turn and one that I just couldn’t wrap my head around as a child: cheese. Flavorful, sharp cheese, that is. Some folks even add tomatoes and onions and pepper to their bread pudding which adds a totally new dimension, but even now I just can’t seem to enjoy making it too savory.
I’ll be the first to admit that sweet, cinnamony bread pudding with cheddar cheese or manchego sounds odd, and I suppose it could be. But to me it’s no more odd than adding cream cheese to frosting and cheese cake or a slice of cheddar on top of apple pie as the same principles are at work. The slight saltiness and the tangy hint of cheese become tempered by the sugar and the contrast becomes something absolutely delicious. It’s not unusual for me to make a few batches of this around the holidays, but this year I wanted to do something a bit different. Because traditional Capirotadas use a sugar syrup made with water as the base I began to wonder what it might be like to recreate it with a custard base, similar to other bread puddings. It made this simple dessert a bit more of a holiday affair. And when I say holiday affair I mean it’s a perfectly acceptable time to add more fat in the form of heavy cream and eggs to just about everything and not feel a tinge of guilt. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself!
Bread pudding is so homey in nature, the antithesis of a fancy dessert. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried dressing it up. Have you met me? Hello! After letting my dessert set for a bit after baking I’ll take a ring cookie cutter to create round servings of bread pudding and then drizzle dulce de leche on top because really, isn’t everything better with caramel over it?
Capirotada Bread Pudding
If there’s a Latin market nearby you’re in luck. You’ll be able to find Piloncillos, the cone-shaped sugar that is universal to this dish. If not you can always use brown sugar in its place. And almost any bread works although bolillos are very close to small French bread loaves. You’ll want to make sure they’re stale or else you’ll end up with a different texture — very soft and uniform bread pudding which actually ain’t half that bad when you think about it. It’s all about preference. And feel free to experiment with the spices as you may want more cinnamon, less raisins, a bit more cheese, even a clove or two, whatever. The beauty of this recipe is that it’s exceptionally forgiving.
4 bolillos or 1 loaf of french bread
3/4 cup raisins
4 sticks of cinnamon
3 star anise
1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese
4 piloncillos (use 1 1/2 cups of brown sugar if piloncillos aren’t available)
1 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups of cream or half and half
In a saucepan add water, the piloncillos, cinnamon and star anise. Heat until the liquid simmers and cover until the sugar has dissolved, about 10-15 minutes. Once the sugar has dissolved completely, strain the syrup, discard the cinnamon and anise and let cool completely.
In a mixing bowl beat 4 eggs and add the cream. Slowly add the cooled sugar syrup, a little bit at a time, mixing well. Once fully mixed pour the egg & sugar mixture over torn pieces of bolillos in a large bowl, making sure that each piece of bread is covered with liquid. Depending on the staleness of your bread you’ll want to let it set for a few minutes to fully absorb the liquid.
Once absorbed, add the raisins and half of the cheddar cheese and toss to mix all ingredients. Again, if your bread isn’t stale be careful not to break the chunks up too much as you want pieces to comprise the pudding and not a bread mush. Add the mixture evenly to a 9 x 13 inch baking dish and sprinkle the remaining cheddar cheese on top. Bake at 350˚F for 30-40 minutes or until the eggs have set and the top begins to brown. I check for doneness by touching the top; it should be a tiny bit crusty and not so spongey.
Let cool and then serve. It’s great with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar, dulce de leche, more cheddar cheese, ice cream, whipped cream, nutmeg, whatever. But not all at the same time. Or maybe if you’re all indulgent like that. Don’t look at me.