Cheese-filled capirotada is Mexico's version of holiday bread pudding
Both Easter and Passover wouldn't be the same without eggs, but it's cheese that sets the eggless capirotada, the traditional Mexican Lenten/Passover dessert, apart from other bread puddings.
Made with brown sugar, dried fruit, nuts, stale bread and cheese, every cook's capirotada (kah-pee-roh-ta-da) will be slightly different than the next, which is what makes this dish so interesting. (Some family recipes even call for tomatoes and onions to bring out the savory element of the cheese.)
Cheese in a dessert isn't as odd as it seems. Of course there's the ubiquitous cheesecake, and jam and fruit are often found on cheese plates served before or after a meal. And we all know someone who prefers apple pie with a slice of Cheddar cheese on top.
Like most bread puddings, capirotada is a hodgepodge dish made with leftover ingredients and stale bread that otherwise might end up in the trash. (The name comes from the Spanish root word for cap or hat, which refers to how the dish is layered.) White bread slices or a wheat loaf, brown sugar or granulated, cloves or nutmeg, raisins or dried apricots, pecans or walnuts, Monterey Jack or Cheddar, use what you have on hand or any combination thereof.
I used a cup of brown sugar and a cone of piloncillo, unrefined dark brown sugar found in many Central Texas grocery stores, that had become too hard to use for much else. A half-eaten, now-stale baguette wasn't enough to fill the square dish, so I filled out the rest of the pan with pieces of toasted bolillo, Mexican rolls that were on sale at the store during a recent trip. Dried figs, raisins, chopped and whole pecans went in the dish, because, you guessed it, that's what I had in my pantry.
Use the recipe below as a starting point for your own unique capirotada, letting yourself be guided by the ingredients already in your kitchen.
And don't let the cheese scare you. I served this capirotada at a birthday party for my 93-year-old neighbor last weekend. The one woman who'd had it before said it reminded her of her grandmother's capirotada, and the others, who hadn't heard of the dish, didn't even bother to use forks as they picked at the pan for seconds.
3 bolillos, torn into pieces and toasted
1/2 stale French baguette, cut into pieces
1 cup of brown sugar
1 8 oz. cone piloncillo
2 cups water
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp. vanilla
Zest of one orange
1/4 cup of butter, melted
1 cup of pecans, toasted and chopped
1/2 cup of raisins
1/2 cup of dried figs, chopped
1 cup of Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place bread pieces in a large bowl. In a saucepan, bring brown sugar, piloncillo, water, cinnamon sticks and cloves to a simmer and continue simmering for 10 minutes, stirring the syrup to break up piloncillo cone. The syrup should reduce slightly and become thicker. Remove from heat and add vanilla, orange zest and butter. Strain the syrup to remove cinnamon sticks and cloves. Pour three quarters of the syrup over bread, tossing to help the bread soak up the syrup.
In a square baking dish, place a layer of the syrup-soaked bread. Cover with half the nuts and dried fruit, then all of the cheese. Place the rest of the nuts and fruit on top of the cheese, and then cover with the rest of the bread. Pour the rest of the syrup over the layered dish. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15-20 minutes. Serve warm or cold.