Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday — the beginning of Lent. For Catholics in particular, this forty-day season comes with food restrictions: occasional fast days, no meat on Friday, and the like.
In the old days, all of Lent was supposed to be meatless. Knowing the ingenuity of Mexican cooks, it is no surprise that there is a whole set of special and wonderful Lenten dishes that obey the rules but at the same time add flavor and interest to one’s diet. Such a dish is capirotada.
Capirotada is a kind of bread pudding — but how different from others of its ilk! Although I seldom find two recipes that are the same (a good excuse for eating all the capirotadas one is offered!), most versions start with sliced bolillos or french bread toasted in butter. One then adds various kinds of fresh and dried fruit, layers it with cheese, and pours on a syrup made of piloncillo (cane sugar), cloves, cinnamon sticks, cilantro, and sliced green onions. Bake a while in the oven. Try not to eat it all in one sitting.
That’s the rock-bottom basic list of ingredients. I have seen a recipe that lists thirteen separate ingredients for the basic dish, five for the syrup, and then covers the whole thing with a meringue before baking! (I’ve never tried that one.) No wonder that another meaning for “capirotada” is “a jumble, mixture, mess…”
Now we can delve a little bit into history and culture.
Some sources tell us that this sweet and savory dish originated among Spanish Jews as a Passover food. After the expulsion of the Jews from the Spanish peninsula in 1492, those who remained were forcibly converted. Capirotada was recycled into a Lenten dish, and may have been brought to Mexico by those conversos who were uncomfortable in the Land of the Inquisition. When the Holy Office set up in Mexico City, many conversos moved to the northern frontier, where their descendants still live, with a dual heritage.
As I said, capirotada is a Lenten food. For some families it has a strong Good Friday symbolism. The bread is the body of Christ, the syrup His blood, the cinnamon sticks the wood of the cross, the cloves are the nails, and the melted cheese topping, the Holy Shroud.
But the bottom line of this blog is, if someone offers you capirotada, accept! This a true folk food, different in each family, and perfected over the generations.