I love how you can take sad, all but forgotten old bread and make it brand new, perhaps better than brand new, in the form of bread pudding. In the run up to Holy Week, the week before Easter, I was excited to discover capirotada, a spiced, syrup-based bread pudding that's a Lenten favorite in New Mexico and throughout the southwest.
Capirotada (pronounced cah-pi-ro-ta-da), is a dish of Mexican origin that dates back to at least the 17th century, and perhaps even further to Spain at the time of the inquisition. Like most old dishes, it's evolved with time and iterations abound. Some use nuts. Some don't. Some include different types of dried fruit. Others use only raisins. While it's unclear if the true genesis of the dish comes from Spanish Catholic or Sephardic Jewish traditions—versions of capirotada can be found in communities settled by the Jews who fled Spain for the New World and lived as Christians while practicing Jewish customs in secret—there's no doubt about its deliciousness.
The flavors in capriotada are chiefly concentrated in the rich, mulled syrup that's made from nutmeg, cloves, a couple cinnamon sticks and piloncillo, a dark brown, minimally processed, Mexican cane sugar. Imagine a bolder, more intensely caramel-flavored dark brown sugar and you have piloncillo. If the piloncillo gives capirotada depth, the true delight of this dish is the cheese. Yes, cheese. Shredded Monterey Jack or Longhorn Cheddar is layered in the middle and sprinkled on top. For anyone thinking of omitting the cheese... don't. The cheese makes the capirotada, adding that sweet-savory balance that's so great in desserts, while adding richness and fat to an otherwise relatively lean dessert.
The bread puddings I grew up with tended to be eggy, milk-logged affairs. While there are many ways to make capirotada, this version will be especially appealing to anyone who likes a little more texture in their pudding. The bottom layers soak up the syrup and cooks to a wonderfully sticky caramel-like consistency in the oven while the top gets a little bit crispy. Add in the crunchy nuts, the little bits of dried fruit, and the chewy, stringy cheese and you'll find there's never a dull bite.