Sliced bread brushed with melted butter, toasted until golden, layered with handfuls of nuts and dried fruits, drenched in 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.
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 salty pop corn, and then repeat it again and again at the movies growing up, as long as the movie lasted. Capirotada has that same wild mix.
As it is baked casserole style and it has such a sweet warmness to it, it is perfect for the holidays and for making ahead and just popping in the oven.
There are, as all popular dishes, many versions of Capirotada.
Also, some versions call for a crusty bread, like a baguette, bolillo or telera, while others call for Pan de Huevo, an egg and yeast based bread similar to the brioche or challah. Again, I go for the later....
Aside from which kind of bread and how to make it crisp, there seem to be two main camps where Capirotada has fallen in the last couple centuries. The Capirotada de Agua (water based) and the Capirotada de Leche (milk based). De Agua is baked in a piloncillo syrup while De Leche goes in a custardy style sauce, with sweetened milk and yolks. Yet, the most traditional is the Agua.
Yet the most common, and the one I've been asked for the most is De Agua. The syrup tends to have the rich tasting piloncillo, true cinnamon and many times whole cloves.
There are many variations as to the additions. Most versions call for peanuts and raisins. So if you are looking for the most traditional Capirotada, no need to add anything else. But there are many versions that add other kinds of nuts, fresh fruits like oranges, bananas, plantains, guavas, and grapes and dried fruits like candied figs and acitrón (the oldest recipes I researched about from a couple centuries ago even call for cooked onions, tomatoes and ground meat...)
After the first layer of bread, in go the bananas, prunes, pecans and a bath of syrup.
As for the question of the cheese.... De Leche camp of the Capirotadas don't have cheese, while De Agua ones do.
And again...there are many options. While in Michoacán, they tend to sprinkle a dried and crumbly Cotija Cheese or a Queso Fresco, in other regions they use melty stronger cheeses like a Mexican Manchego. So you could go for a Cheddar, a Monterey Jack or a Muenster. You have the chance to play with your taste buds. But as funny as it may sound if it is the first time you try it, don't skip the cheese...
CAPIROTADA WITH BANANAS, PECANS AND PRUNES
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
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.