Every family has its holiday staples. For some folks, it's not Christmas without ham; for others, Thanksgiving without green bean casserole is just another cold day in November. For me, it's not Easter without capirotada.
But here's the thing: It took 30 years and a boatload of research about Mexican food traditions for me to learn the actual name of the dish. I have distant, fond memories of eating bread pudding with the Mexican side of my family around Easter, and it's only recently that I've realized that we were eating capirotada, a style of bread pudding that's popular in Mexico and parts of the American Southwest.
Capirotada, it turns out, has been around for some 500 years, but the version my family serves is nothing like the spartan dish served in Spain during the Middle Ages. Back then capirotada was a savory dish, probably created to stretch stale bread out for one last meal. These days capirotada is a dessert and is one of those recipes that every family makes differently. (Of course, your family's version is the only "right way" and everyone else's is wrong.)
At its core capirotada requires dried bread (usually bolillo rolls) soaked in a mulled syrup of unrefined piloncillo sugar and then some combination of nuts, dried fruit, and fresh cheese, such as salty Cotija or mild queso fresco. Some families combine a custard base of milk and/or cream and eggs with the mulled syrup; some use fresh and dried fruit, some use pecans or almonds or peanuts or a combination; some top the whole thing with brightly colored sprinkles. And then there are the old-school families who still use some savory ingredients, including onion and tomato, but still serve it as a dessert.
No matter how you slice it, capirotada has made an incredibly long journey to the dessert table. Were you to give a bite of most modern capirotada recipes to someone from the Middle Ages, they'd probably vibrate at a frequency that could tear a hole through time and space from the resulting sugar rush. So how did we get from savory, utilitarian dish to festive dessert with optional sprinkles?
Back in the Middle Ages, sugar was in much shorter supply than now, and the earliest versions of capirotada weren't sweet (or appropriate for Lent, when many eschew meat). In El Llibre de Coch, one of the first cookbooks of Spanish cuisine, the recipe for capirotada includes mutton broth, toasted bread, and cooked partridge breasts, with no mention of sugar. A later book, El Libro de Guisados, describes a recipe for capirotada that contains no meat, but does call for some sugar. "Sugar was considered a spice and used as such in savory dishes," says Ana M. Gómez-Bravo, PhD, professor of Spanish at the University of Washington, who has studied the food history of the region. "It was very expensive and would only have been used in the cuisines of the very wealthy."
The dish most likely made its way to North America when Hernán Cortés colonized what is now Mexico in the early 16th century. (Cortés, incidentally, is rumored to have killed one of his enemies with a poisoned capirotada.) Over the next several hundred years, the dish slowly evolved from a savory dish to a sweet one. One 19th century cookbook includes a rather meat-heavy recipe, while the follow-up book in the series contains a recipe specifically for "capirotada dulce para vigilia" (sweet capirotada for Lent). But that latter recipe still contains onions and garlic fried in butter with "just a little bit of sugar to suit the tastes of your guests."
Roughly 100 years later we start seeing recipes for capirotada that call for a much heavier hand when it comes to sugar. One version calls for a full two cups piloncillo alongside savory ingredients like tomatoes and onions. The sweet-savory blend of ingredients in some of these older recipes for capirotada make sense in the context of a cuisine famous for a dish like mole Poblano. "Those are very standard kinds of medieval-style recipes," explains Jeffrey Pilcher, PhD, professor at the University of Toronto, and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Cuisine. "Things like raisins, other dried or fresh fruit, and nuts would get mixed all together in a big pot with meat and other savory ingredients. Mole is kind of an example of that style of cooking that survived."
Unlike mole, however, capirotada made a definitive switch from savory to sweet. "Cookbooks would have two versions of lots of dishes," Pilcher says. "You'd have your meat version and then your 'de vigilia' for Lent, and it seems like this is one of those dishes where people ended up preferring the Lent version."
These days most capirotada recipes are unquestionably sweet and typically served for dessert. Members of my extended family still make it-my aunt prepares capirotada the way her aunt taught her when she was young, and she plans on making it this year, a tradition that made its way from Mexico to Chicago, where most of my family lives.
Angie Horta, owner of La Estancia and neighbor of my mom in suburban Guadalajara, Mexico, serves a sweet version of capirotada at the restaurant during Lent, which is the only time of year she makes it. "I've had savory versions before, outside of Lent, and I don't like them," she says. "To me, it's only a sweet dish."
Sandra Contreras Mendez, a history teacher in Guadalajara, shared her own recipe with my mom. "I use milk and cream in mine, which is a more modern style. The traditional way is to make it with water, but this is how I like it." She adds that there are regional variations and then family variations within those regions: "Some people slice the bread and layer it like a lasagna. Others tear the bread up. Some line the bottom of the baking dish with tortillas so the pudding won't stick." Capirotada recipes are legion.
Josef Centeno, the chef-restaurateur behind L.A.'s Bar Amà and the now-shuttered Bäco Mercat, included a recipe in his cookbook Amà that hews sweet. It includes both cinnamon and clove, but he also adds fresh chopped banana and toasted coconut.
I was a little skeptical about the full tablespoon of ground cloves his recipe calls for, as clove can easily overwhelm more delicate flavors. But the cloves play beautifully with the banana. The two share aromatic compounds so the cloves actually enhance the banana notes and fill every bite with warm, aromatic tropical flavor. Molasses and caramel from the piloncillo, along with the natural sweetness and nuttiness from the toasted coconut, add complexity, so it isn't a dish that's just pure sugar sweetness. Adding crumbled queso fresco rounds out the flavor with gentle bursts of creamy saltiness.
This modern capirotada recipe may not have mutton broth, but I think it works without it.