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Capirotada, Mexican Bread Pudding with Vegan Variation

Capirotada is probably the most well-known Lenten dessert in Mexico. Everyone agrees it has bread, raisins, a spicy syrup made from dark brown sugar (piloncillo) and most cooks include cheese, but from there the variations are enormous.

Mexican dishes differ from household to household, but capirotada may be the most diverse of all. One recipe calls for dipping toasted bolillo or French bread slices in an egg batter and frying until golden brown. The bread is drenched with syrup made from piloncillo (dark brown sugar), cinnamon sticks, clove anise and rum or marsala. Then this combination is covered with raisins, peanuts and almonds and sprinkled with grated cheese.

Another recipe for this Lenten bread pudding starts with toasted bread torn into a small pieces and layered in a baking dish. On top of the bread layer are spread peanuts, raisins and grated cheddar cheese. Additional layers are added depending on the number of portions desired. The final layer is a bread layer topped with more grated cheese and perhaps colored sugar balls (grajea) or mini chocolate chips for decoration.

A syrup of piloncillo and water, plus cinnamon, cloves and anise to taste, is boiled until thickened and then poured over the entire dish to flavor and soak the bread. The capirotada is then baked in a medium oven with an additional dish of water placed on the rack beneath so that the pudding will steam. Once cooked it is moist and sweet with a surprising variety of flavors.

Tia Elena's Capirotada for Art

9x13 pan, 10-12 servings
Starts in a cold oven turned to 350 degrees, about 30-35 minutes
This dish combines sweet and savory elements, which is uncommon in North American desserts. Anyone who likes traditional bread pudding will probably like capirotada. For a vegan dessert, use a vegan bread and a vegan brown sugar. Omit eggs/ frying, use oven toasting method and a cheddar type soy cheese. You can also use soy nuts in place of other nuts.

3 loaves (1 pound) Mexican pan dulce (sweet bread), about 7 inches in diameter
OR 1 large 1 pound soft Italian baguette sliced, heels not used
to make about 6-7 cups of bread slices or cubes
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 piloncillo cones (Mexican raw brown sugar; see note)
OR about 1 packed cup of dark brown sugar
8 inches of whole cinnamon sticks
4 whole cloves
1/2 large tomato, chopped (authentic, but unusual- strained out)
1/2 large white onion, chopped (authentic, but unusual- strained out)
OR 6-9 green onions
2 bay leaves
3 cups water
1/4 cup Marsala OR rum, OPTIONAL
Fruit and nut add-ins (OPTIONAL): 1 cup of dried fruit such as raisins, chopped banana, peeled chopped apple, citron, candied pineapple, grated candied orange peel, shredded coconut; 1/2 to 1 cup nuts such as chopped roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped walnuts, slivered blanched almonds, pine nuts
8 ounces dry Mexican cheese (queso seco OR queso ranchero), grated (2 cups)
May substitute white cheddar OR Monterey Jack
OR cream cheese cut in little cubes OR crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup colored sugar balls, mini chocolate chips OR decors for garnish, OPTIONAL

Cut the bread into 1/2-inch slices and save the heels for another use. To prepare in the oven, paint the bread slices on both sides with oil. Place on cookie sheets and bake at 350 degrees until toasted and rather dry but not brown, about 5 minutes. Remove bread from oven and set aside.
Alternately, you can fry the bread by dipping the slices in an egg batter made of 4 eggs, which are separated, whipped and then the whites and yolks folded back together. Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks. Fold in the beaten yolks. Heat enough oil for frying in a non-stick skillet. Dip each piece of bread lightly in the egg batter and fry, turning until golden on all sides. Drain on paper towels.

In a large saucepan on low heat, cook the sugar cones, cinnamon sticks, tomato, cloves, onion and bay leaves in water until the sugar cones are melted, about 5 minutes. Bring to a boil and simmer syrup until thickened, about 7 minutes. Strain out tomato, cloves, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves and onion and discard. Stir in the rum or Marsala if used, set syrup aside, keep warm.

Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish or pan. Layer in the following order: a third of the toasted bread slices, a third of the fruit and/or nuts, a third of the cheese, a third of the syrup. Use only about 1/4 of the syrup on the first layer. It trickles down as you add the other layers, and you don't want it to get too mushy- unless you like mushy. Repeat layers until all of the ingredients are used. End with a layer of the raisins and cheese, then the almonds, syrup and finally, the colored sugar decors if used.

Cover the dish with foil, place in oven with an open pan of water below it in the stove. Turn oven to 350 degrees and bake until the syrup is bubbling, about 30 minutes, or until heated through and syrup is absorbed. With fresh apples, it may take a little longer. The top of the pudding should be brown and the cheese melted. Cool slightly, then spoon onto plates and serve warm. Some people also like it cold.

Notes: Piloncillo, panela or rapadura are all brown, unrefined sugar in the form of small hard cones or flat cakes which have a molasses-like flavor and have to be grated or dissolved for use. They are made by cooking the natural juice of sugar cane until it dries into a cake.