One of the Lenten traditions that we enjoy here in Mexico is a desert called “capirotada”. It is a bread pudding made with stale bread, brown sugar (called piloncillo), cheese, butter, nuts, and raisins and several other ingredients depending upon who makes it. If you have one hundred people making capirotada you will probably have at least twenty variations depending upon regional and ethnic considerations. I noticed that capirotada is often mentioned in cook books as a Lenten-Passover dish and I wondered about the connection. Why do two religious cultures share a particular traditional dish tradition at the same season? It is quite apparent that Hispanic People and Sephardic Jewish people share a fondness for capirotada but the fact they both eat it as a traditional seasonal food made me curious. I decided to delve into the history of capirotada but I soon found myself aimlessly wandering around the attic of history until I stumbled upon some clues.
First of all, let’s examine the word capirotada itself. In Spanish, the word “capa” can mean various things but they all have a common theme. A “capa” generally means a covering or a layer. It can mean a “cape”, a “coating” or a “layer” of something as in a “coating of paint” or a “layer of chocolate”, or it can be a “cap”. A “capirote” can mean a cow or other livestock that has a head that is a different color that the body. Many bird names in Spanish have the word “capirotada” appended to them if the bird has some type of different colored “cap” of feathers on its head. The word “capirote” also signifies a long pointed hood that medieval penitents wore or the cap worn by prisoners put on display for public humiliation or the traditional penitent’s garb worn by cofradía participants during the silent march on Good Friday in Spain, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries. In the United States it might be referred to as the “dunce cap” that the teachers of years gone by made students wear if they acted badly or didn’t know their lessons. A “capirote” is also the name for the little hood that falconers put on the heads of their birds to keep them quiet. Lastly, a “capirotada” can also be a mix of something like a stew, or a hash, or a mincemeat or a layered casserole. Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.
There is a French word, “capilotade” that lends credence to the idea of a layered casserole. There are a multitude of recipes for French capilotade and some involve poultry, some involve red meat, and some involve fish such as “Capilotade de Morue” which is a dish made from salt cod, capers, and wine. If we go back in time, however, and we go as far back as ancient Rome, we come across several dishes that lend themselves to the idea of “capirotada” or “capilotade”. The most prominent of these Roman cuisines is a dish called “Sala Cattabia”. The Romans used a bread for this casserole dish that was little more than flour, water, and salt. After the bread was baked it was broken up and put in a pot, covered with a layer of goat cheese, and then layers of cucumbers, boiled chicken, onions, and pine nuts. The whole thing was cooked with some kind of dressing that contained vinegar, raisins, honey, pepper, and various herbs.
Okay, now it is time to “fast forward” quite a bit to around the year 1500. It appears to me from my wanderings through time that the various evolving forms of the Roman dish divided into two branches, one with meat or poultry or fish and the other meatless but still utilizing cheese. During this casserole evolution there were all types of breads evolving as well and the bread used could make a distinct difference in the dish. In Spain at that time there was a strong Arab Islamic presence and so no doubt some of the ingredients came from North Africa. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established in by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Until 1492 the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Catholics. However, in 1492 the Jews were banished from Spain and in 1502 the Muslim Moors were also given the boot. The only way that a Jew or Muslim could remain under the jurisdiction and protection of the Spanish Crown was to adopt Catholicism. One of the main tasks of the Inquisition was to make sure that the so called converts or “conversos” had really converted and were not just faking it to avoid being burned at the stake.
I found several garbled references on the Internet that referred to the Inquisition and the year 1640 and Inquisition archives containing recipes for capirotada. Most of the references seemed to be nothing more that people copying each other’s errors which is something that the Internet is famous for. The date 1640 intrigued me though and upon checking further I learned that in 1640 there was a book printed called the Regimento de Inquisitor General that gave detailed instructions on how to search for fake converts from Judaism to Catholicism. By this time the Inquisition had learned how to ferret out the Crypto Jews (as they later came to be called) fairly well. Knowing this, many of the Jewish “conversos” emigrated to New Spain, and in Mexico in particular they tried to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Inquisition by moving to the northern frontier. Being supposedly “good” Catholics they would have been expected to eat traditional Lenten foods such as capirotada prepared in the traditional way.
In Northern Mexico and Southern Texas there is a bread called “pan de semita” which some people call “Jewish bread” because they claim the word “semita” means “semite”. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “semites” along with Arab people because both groups are said to have evolved from Shem, the oldest son of Noah (if one is to give credence to the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis). The exact details are not crystal clear in the Genesis account but Shem being the father of both the Arabs and the Jews was taken by many as historical fact in the days when anthropology was still bound by the Bible. The actual word “semite” didn’t even emerge until the early 1830’s. The linking of “pan de semita” strictly to Jews is probably an error. No doubt “pan de semita” was a flat, course bread linked to both Jewish and Arab cultures. What may have set the pan de semita apart is that it can be baked as a type of nomad’s bread without the use of yeast. Some people speculate that pan de semita was a substitute for the traditional matzo unleavened bread at Passover and it may have been camouflaged by the Catholic capirotada. Another thing, and even more important, most bread made in those days was made using lard. The pan de semita of Northern Mexico is made using vegetable oil instead of lard. In the Inquisition days vegetable oil or olive oil was hard to come by on the frontier and so the inquisitors were no doubt on the lookout for anyone making unleavened pan de semita using oil instead of lard.
I am satisfied that I have a general idea about why capirotada is linked to both Lent and Passover but I reached this point by tugging at little random historical threads and my theory may not be entirely correct. If I find out that I am all wrong I will print a retraction and if I find some new and interesting information I will edit it in. We can never be certain about History because we are only seeing shadows of it. My great grandmother from Poland had a way of dealing with this uncertainty. Whenever she heard someone speaking with great authority about what happened long ago she would say, “And how do you know? Vas you dere Charlie?”. Tomorrow, Gina and I are going to make capirotada and to put out own personal stamp on it we are going to use English walnuts instead of peanuts or almonds and instead of using raisins we will use dried blueberries. Perhaps one hundred years from now someone will be searching the internet to learn about capirotada and after stumbling upon a remnant of my blog they will infer that the people of Irapuato were unique in the ingredients that they used in capirotada. Good grief! I certainly hope not.
Here is the traditional recipe for Irapuato, Guanajuato style Capirotada:
1 kilo piloncillo. These are the little cones of raw brown sugar. One kilo sounds like a lot but believe me it isn’t. There are about twenty little cones to the kilo.
2 cups water
3 sticks of Mexican cinnamon
1 laurel leaf
4 black pepper corns
1 to 2 cups of raisins
1 to 2 cups of unsalted shelled and halved peanuts
1 dozen or more fine dinner rolls. Here they are called “bolillo amasijo”. They are pointed at both ends and about the size of your fist. You can use other kinds of bread but fine dinner rolls with a light crust work the best.
Slice the bolillos on an angle into pieces about one half inch thick. Put the slices on a cookie sheet out in the sun or into a warm oven until they are hard. Fry the slices in hot oil on both sides until golden brown. You can also deep fry them in a fryer in very hot light vegetable oil. Drain the bread slices on a paper towel. Place the piloncillo sugar cones into a pot with two cups of water, the cinnamon sticks, the laurel leaf, the pepper corns, and the cloves. Melt the piloncillos over low heat stirring frequently until you get a nice light semi-thick syrup. Dip each piece of bread into the syrup and put them into a big pot until the bottom of the pot is covered. Then sprinkle in some raisins and some peanuts. Put in another layer of bread slices and then more raisins and peanuts etcetera until the pot is full or you run out of slices. There should be enough for a four quart pot. Pour the remaining syrup over the top layer, put on a lid and cook over very low heat for five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing cool down. You now have some wonderful Capirotada. Serve it in small bowls. Don’t even ask about the calories though. I can’t even count that high.
The above recipe was used by Gina’s mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother going back for many generations. The only difference is that now we use vegetable oil and years ago they used “manteca” which is very fine lard. This dish was served on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent and of course, Good Friday. It was eaten as a desert to compensate for not eating meat on those days. On Saturday mornings, the leftover Capirotada was eaten for breakfast with a cup of “atole blanco” which is a hot drink made from finely ground corn meal. Some people would also eat “platano macho” that was sliced and fried in butter along with the Capirotada. The “platano macho” looks like a large hard banana and is generally referred to in English as “plantain”. Capirotada was a very expensive dish to make in the old days and for that reason it was reserved only for Lent when people ate less regular food and could afford to spend a little more for the ingredients. I only eat it at Lent because if I ate it all the time I would look like the Goodyear Blimp. I can tell you one thing though. It really is delicious!For more about "pan de semita" and other interesting things regarding Mexican cuisine you can check out the blog of my friend and food expert Rachel Laudan.