Friday, March 21, 2008

Cue the Spanish guitars.

Watch out - I'm going to get ethnic!

As a general rule, I don't like Mexican desserts [castanets snap angrily in the background]. With the exception of my maternal grandmother's rice pudding (more on this in a later post) and flan made by certain people, Mexican sweet stuff is usually that: too sweet, too sugary, too doughy, too too. I hate Mexican chocolate. I'm very sorry, but the desserts and pastry of my cultural antecedents usually leave me cold [mournful Herb Alpert-ish trumpet solo wails overhead].

Take capirotada, for instance. This Mexican bread pudding is full of things I just don't like: piloncillo, the hard brown cone sugar that is, to put it mildly, a bitch to work with; canela, the flaky weird faux-cinnamon dear to the hearts of Mexican cooks everywhere; peanuts (although sometimes almonds are substituted, an even more irritating old world ingredient) and Colby cheese. In big horrible lumps! Gross. Sometimes apples are tossed in as well, but by then it's too late.

But I've been thinking -- what if I made a variation on all this, but using indigenous-y ingredients I actually like? Say, swapping the piloncillo for regular brown sugar, or using pecans (which are native to northern Mexico and Texas, lands of my forebears) instead of peanuts? What if I steal an idea from the late, lamented City Restaurant and use cream cheese instead of the Colby? It actually started to sound good [poignant guitar strumming].

So here it the result. Capirotada is actually more of a bread-based charlotte than an actual bread pudding made with an egg custard, which to my mind makes it all the more interesting. I love apple charlotte, and I can never eat it again (too much butter - this has too much butter too, but you can't have everything). Remember to bake it until it gets crusty. And the beauty part is, it has no eggs and so can be converted easily to a vegan dessert [mariachi band and salsa combo duke it out until fadeout] !

Capirotada, retooled (Mexican-ish bread pudding)

Makes about 8 servings.

2 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar

1 cup water

1 1/2 sticks or 3/4 cup (6 oz.) unsalted butter (or stick soy margarine), cut into chunks

1/2 teaspoon sea salt (omit if using margarine)

3 (2 1/2" or 3") cinnamon sticks

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (or one large pinch)

7 cups lightly packed cubed day-old, dryish French or Italian bread, not sourdough, hard crusts removed (3/4 of a huge Italian loaf was enough for this)

1 cup toasted pecan pieces

1/2 cup golden raisins (you can use dark raisins if you want)

6 oz. (2 x 3 oz. packages) cream cheese (or soy cream cheese)

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 tablespoons sugar mixed with 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 tablespoons butter (or soy margarine), chopped into bits

For the sugar syrup: combine brown sugar, water, butter, cinnamon sticks and cloves in a 2 quart saucepan. Bring to boil over medium heat and then boil for 2 minutes (don't let it go any longer than this or you'll end up with caramel). Remove from heat and let steep for at least 15 minutes (preferably 30 minutes).

In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350°F. Whisk together the softened cream cheese with powdered sugar and vanilla extract until smooth. Spray a 8" by 3-1/2" deep ceramic souffle dish (or another similar deep casserole) with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

Place bread cubes in a large bowl. Remove cinnamon sticks from the steeped syrup and pour about two thirds 0f it over the bread cubes, tossing lightly with a spoon to mix. Add pecans and raisins. Place about half this mixture into the prepared dish and dollop 3/4 of the cream cheese mixture over it. Cover with the remaining bread cubes, nuts and raisins. Dollop the remaining cream cheese mixure over the pudding and scatter the sugar/cinnamon mixture over the top. Dot with butter (or soy margarine) bits.

Bake the pudding for 25 minutes, then pull out from oven and pour the remaining syrup over the top and down the sides. Return to oven and bake again until browned and a bit crunchy on top, about 15 to 20 minutes more. Remove from heat and let cool for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm with barely sweetened whipped cream [final flourish of maracas].

© 2008 Sandy Soto Teich

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