Saturday, March 16, 2013

Mixing Cultures: Capirotada for Alex

Our son was raised in a household where his Italian father and Mexican mother reigned in the kitchen with battling cuisines. The Italian cuisine won the battles more often than not, but never to anyone's disadvantage. Frankly, during these last thirty-five years of marriage, it has become as easy for me to cook a good risotto as an arroz a la mexicana. So, often it's me cooking Italian with a wary eye to my husband who is known to slip into the kitchen at the least expected moment in a badly timed effort to straighten up the kitchen counter, inadvertently sabotaging my cooking (ie; throwing down the disposal a pound of orange sections from which I've just removed the membrane and put aside.)

Needless to say, meals have been important to us. Through the years we learned to settle for Mexican breakfast: taquitos, quesadillas, atoles, frijoles, huevos a la mexicana. But the rest of the day has often been reserved for Italian family favorites. It hasn't always been easy to 'mix' things, though, because one always wants to reproduce things as they were in our taste bud memories. One morning, discovering I was out of corn oil, my husband and I argued about whether I should mix olive oil with refried beans. The conversation went something like this:

Me (with fanatic conviction): I'm not cooking my pinto beans with olive oil!
My husband (testy): Why not?
Me: Not gonna do it!
Alex (attempting to mediate with the hope of getting breakfast at some point): Papá, she doesn't like to mix her cultures.

So, Alex had gotten to the crux of the matter, as usual. He was mostly right. I've liked to keep my cuisines compartmentalized. But, here, to honor and remember my baby who was born in April almost 32 years ago, I've made a special capirotada. Capirotada is a Lenten-Passover bread pudding that has been made in Mexico in a myriad of ways. The three main ingredients that give this dish its Mexican essence are dark brown sugar (piloncillo), cinnamon and clove.  It is not a typical bread pudding with egg and milk and usually falls limp and floppy on the plate. I've adapted the recipe, keeping the three main ingredients but adding milk and egg to give it the elegance of the mold it is baked in.

I've used my husband's homemade Italian bread which is slightly sour, but you can use any good quality artisan bread. In addition, I have added orange peel and walnuts that bring to mind the desserts of Italy. The fragrance of orange, cinnamon, and clove will fill your kitchen for hours.

Alex, your teasing, lop-sided smile is always with me in the kitchen...looking over my shoulder, prodding, taste-testing, keeping my wine glass filled, putting on my favorite salsa music to cook by. How precious, how short, how bittersweet, the times we shared...



1 large egg
1 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
4 cups water
1 stick cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
4 cloves
1/3 cup walnuts
1 small loaf French bread or any artisan style bread sliced and left to harden and then toasted, torn up into small chunks and placed in a bowl
3 tablespoons butter
zest of one large orange
2/3 cup whole milk or heavy cream
To garnish: crème fraiche, clotted cream, or Mexican crema if you can find it.

In a saucepan bring the water to boil with the sugar until it dissolves. Add the cloves and cinnamon, cooking at a boil for about 20 minutes, until it becomes syrupy. Remove from the heat, discarding the cinnamon sticks and cloves, adding the butter to melt in the hot syrup. Add the zest as an effusion of flavor into the hot syrup. Let it sit for 10 minutes.

In a bowl beat the egg and the milk or cream together. Pour slowly into the warm syrup mixture taking care not to curdle the eggs. Stir well.

Pour the syrup, egg and cream mixture into the bowl with the bread. Be sure to moisten all the bread with the poured liquid. Add walnuts. Pour this into a buttered flan dish.

Cover with foil and bake for about half an hour at 375 degrees. Remove the foil for 15 more minutes to brown the Capirotada. Set aside for 10 minutes before serving. It can be topped with crème fraiche to counterbalance the sweetness of the piloncillo.

Option: add ½ cup yellow raisins when you pour the syrup, milk and egg mixture into the bread.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Recipe Review: Diana Kennedy's Lenten Beans

I recently purchased Diana Kennedy's book Oaxaca al Gusto, a 400 page tome on the indigenous food of Oaxaca, which, in many cases, is unknown even to many Mexicans outside of these valleys. Here you will find recipes with the fundamental building blocks of the food of the region: chocolate, chiles, and corn. And, as Adriana Legaspi has argued, these meals are not just a means of nourishment, but, rather, an important way to understand how they fit within ancient traditions practiced by the community.