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Pati Jinich, host of Pati’s Mexican Table, explains the importance of Capirotada, a traditional Mexican holiday dish.
Sliced bread brushed with melted butter, toasted until golden, layered with handfuls of nuts and dried fruits, drenched Piloncillo syrup, topped with crumbled salty cheese and baked until it all comes together…. Once out of the oven, it tastes like a cross between French Toast and Bread Pudding. Crisp-on-the-top and moist-in-the-center, every spoonful a delightful mess. That is Mexico’s most well known version of Capirotada. Being a lover of delicious Mexican style food messes, I am one big fan of it. And I am not the only one.
Traditionally served for Easter, and deeply rooted in Mexican traditional cooking -there are records of its existence since the XVI century!- Capirotada has transcended that holiday and is also a favorite for Christmas tables. It has become a symbol of family gatherings, warmly spent holidays and special occasions. As for me, I start to crave it as soon as it gets cold outside. The perfect comfort food, warm, sweet and filling, it can be made ahead of time and just popped in the oven.
However long we have been eating it, it seems to require an acquired taste: newcomers to the dish -generally served as a dessert or a sweet breakfast or light supper- seem taken a back by the addition of salted cheese on top. But as far as I’ve seen, once they dive into it, they can’t help but ask for seconds. What is the need for the cheese? Well, that salty tease makes the thick feel and sweet taste of the dish come out in bold strokes in your mouth.
It reminds me of how my father loves to slice sweet bananas over his savory lentil soup; or how my family goes crazy over piling ates (fruit pastes) with Manchego cheese, as so many Mexicans do; or how I used to love eating a handful of chocolate covered raisins right after a handful of salty pop corn at the movies growing up. Capirotada has that same wild yet welcome mix. Once you finish your piece, I bet you will beg for a bit more of that addicting combination. That’s probably why I have received so many requests for a recipe.
There are countless versions. Some use a crusty bread -like a baguette, bolillo or telera- while others call for soft yeast based bread, pan de huevo, similar to the brioche or challah. Some crisp the bread with butter in the oven, and some fry it in lard or oil. The most traditional have handfuls of peanuts and raisins and colored sugar on top, while others add other kinds of nuts, fresh fruits like oranges, bananas, plantains, guavas, and grapes and dried fruits like candied figs or acitrón (candied biznaga cactus). Some bathe and bake the entire mix in a Piloncillo syurp (raw cane sugar but can be substituted with dark brown sugar), while others do in a milk-custard style one.
After trying one too many versions, what I like to combine the most, are pecans and prunes. And I can’t resist adding a full blown layer of bananas, like many cooks in Central Mexico. I am very fond of these three ingredients, and they seem to mingle so happily together, especially tugged between pieces of buttered and toasted slices of bread drenched in syrup…
Capirotada with Bananas, Pecans and Prunes
Enjoy this traditional Mexican holiday favorite for breakfast or dessert. Recipe courtesy of Patricia Jinich.
- 8 cups water
- 1 pound piloncillo, grated, or about 2 cups packed dark brown sugar
- 1 ceylon or true cinammon stick
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 challah or brioche, preferably a couple days old, cut into 1/2 inch slices or cubed
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted for brushing bread, plus more for greasing the casserole
- 2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
- 2/3 cup pitted prunes, chopped
- 1 cup pecans, roughly chopped and toasted
- 4 oz, or about 1 cup, crumbled Queso Fresco, Añejo or Cotija
- Ground cinnamon, optional, to sprinkle ontop
- In a medium sauce pan, pour the water and set it over medium high heat. Once it comes to a simmer, add the grated piloncillo, cinnamon and cloves, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 25 minutes, until it has all dissolved and has a light syrup consistency. Turn off the heat and remove the cinnamon and cloves.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the bread slices with unsalted butter. Place in a baking sheet and into the oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden.
- Butter a 9 x 13 casserole. Place a layer of bread in the bottom covering the entire surface. Cover with the banana slices, prunes and pecans. Pour half the syrup on top. Add another layer of bread, pour the remaining syrup on top and sprinkle the crumbled cheese. Sprinkle with cinnamon if desired.
- Cover with aluminum foil and place in the oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the syrup has been absorbed. Remove from the oven. Let it sit for at least 20 minutes for the Capirotada to settle and for the entire syrup to be soaked up, then serve. You can also serve it lukewarm or cold. It can also be reheated.