When I was seven, the first time I boarded a plane I was in route to San Francisco with my mother. It was during Easter break. In those days food was not accessible everywhere as it is today. People ate at meal times, it’s probably why obesity was such a rarity. Consequently, we arrived at our destination famished. Once at my Uncles’ my mother vocalized our hunger. We were served cold Lenten bread pudding and I was instantly smitten. Capirotada is made of toasted bread slices drenched in a sweet and spicy syrup. It was soft and sticky, and there were crunchy nuts, chewy raisins and a creamy tang…I was in love!
After that, I begged Mom to make it. Watching her weight as she did, she refused until we lived just the two of us. Then it became a yearly ritual. I suppose it was in part because I ate so little that she was willing to grant my every wish. A mother’s heart knows no bounds. When I began to make it, I followed her recipe, although I did try it without the onion and tomato and once had to substitute pecans for peanuts and liked it!
Mexican bread pudding, is a one of a kind dessert with the addition of savory cheese being one of its signatures. It’s traditionally eaten during Lent as some claim the cheese provides extra protein to Lenten observers abstaining from meat on Fridays.
Despite its popularity with those in the know, I’ve found that it’s still somewhat of an esoteric dessert, despite it being in existence in some form since the 1400’s. But for some reason it never caught on as much as other Mexican delicacies such as tres leches cake or flan.
I think I know why.
First, there’s the cheese factor. For some people the thought of savory cheese in a dessert seems odd. But once you taste it you realize that it’s not bizarre at all and actually, it works. Think about it—cheese is a classic pairing with sweets, such as goat cheese and dried apricots, blue cheese with candied pecans or cheddar cheese with apple pie.
Then there’s the classic Mexican way of making capirotada, which calls for a small amount of both onion, and a tomato to be added to the syrup. That’s how my mother makes it, but it’s not completely bizarre as both tomatoes and onions have a natural sweetness to them when cooked.
I think the main reason why it hasn’t met with popular approval is that there’s no definitive way to make it. There’s the classic recipe that calls for peanuts and raisins to be sprinkled throughout the pudding. There’s also the temperature factor as some serve it warm and some serve it cold. And what kind of cheese to use? You’ll find some bake it with white Mexican soft melting cheeses, while others will use Mexican hard cheeses such as cotija. All these variables are enough to confuse anyone!
But you know what? I think this is what makes it such a fascinating dessert. As the only bread pudding made with cheese and syrup, you’re free to do with the details as you wish. As for me, I like to make mine with raisins, pecans and cotija. But I would not be adverse to dried apricots, pecans and Longhorn cheddar. Or if you’re feeling really wild, why not dried figs, soft goat cheese and pecans? Why not? Your only barrier to a captivating capirotada is the limits of your imagination.
I’ll share the recipe with you now, but take into consideration, neither I nor my mother measure with a cup, we measure with our eyes and by taste. I have less of a sweet tooth than she does, so here are my portions.
•6 cups water
•½ pound piloncillo, grated, or about 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
•1 -2 cinnamon sticks
•3 whole cloves
•1 loaf french bread, preferably a couple days old, cut into 1/2 inch slices or cubed (you can also use brioche)
•1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted for brushing bread, plus more for greasing the casserole
•½ white onion
•½ small ripe tomato
•2/3 cup raisins
•1 cup pecans, roughly chopped and toasted (Mom used peanuts)
•4 oz, or about ½ cup, crumbled Queso Fresco, or Cotija (Mom used Cheddar)
•Ground cinnamon, optional, to sprinkle on top
For the bread: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Slice into 3/8-inch pieces. Spread in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes, until thoroughly dried and beginning to brown. Drizzle the melted butter evenly over the bread, tossing and turning the pieces to insure that they are evenly coated. Return to the oven and bake until nicely golden, about 15 minutes, then set aside.
Pan fry the onion and tomato in olive oil, make sure that you do not burn.
For the syrup: Combine the chopped piloncillo (or brown sugar ), water, cinnamon, cloves, onion and tomato in a large saucepan and bring to a boil, then simmer gently over medium-low for 20 minutes.
The other ingredients: Toss the raisins with the liquid and macerate for 15 minutes.
Toast the nuts spreading them on a baking sheet in a 325-degree oven until lightly browned, about 15 minutes.
Layer the bread into a decorative square 9×13 baking dish, crumbling the cheese on top. Then add the toasted nuts and the liquid. Place in a 325 degree oven. Bake for 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling nicely and the bread looks caramel-coated on top. Remove, cool a little, then serve. Enjoy!