For Lent, I finally cooked my mother’s capirotada recipe. It was OK – and it is OK

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Maria de la Luz Arellano, making gorditas at her home in Anaheim in 2018. (Arellano family photo)

The bread was burnt. Smoke swirled around the frying pan. Most of the cheeses had mold. And where was that last crucial tomatillo wrapper?

i was trying to do capirotada, the bread pudding that Mexicans on both sides of the border prepare every Lent. I was already letting my late mother down.

In 2019, I wrote a eulogy about her for the Times through the lens of my all-time favorite dessert, the one that Mami would never offer me again. Maria de la Luz Arellano died at 67 of ovarian cancer 10 days after my story was published.

I wrote the eulogy to praise her during her lifetime but also as a warning to the living: learn the wisdom of your elders before it’s too late. Accompanying the piece was a recipe for my Mami’s capirotada, with a promise to myself at the end to make it for my family the following year even though I had never attempted anything more complex in the kitchen than a quesadilla.

But when Lent came in 2020, we were all in quarantine in our respective homes – and capirotada for one is no fun. I couldn’t bring myself to try last year because spring made me sad. Well-meaning aunts fed me other Lenten dishes to cheer me up — chili rellenos, shrimp fritters, potato tacos, bean gorditas and more — but I couldn’t bring myself to try. their capirotada.

When Ash Wednesday came around this year, I swore to make my Mami’s capirotada again… and the apology came faster than a Fastball Shohei Ohtani. I was too busy with work. I wouldn’t be able to find the right ingredients. In no way would I equal the heights of my Mami’s soft and succulent capirotada.

Also, whatever I do would be disgusting and disappoint my family.

But when my father narrowly avoided a catastrophic car accident, I realized once again that we should cherish our parents as long as they live.

So last week I went there.

I dusted off Mami’s recipe and went to Northgate González Market, my family’s favorite Latino supermarket giant since its first location on Anaheim Boulevard in Anaheim opened in 1980 just minutes from our house. I bought raisins, almonds, lard and bread in the form of bolillos – soft French rolls. Two pounds of piloncillo, four cloves, five tomatillo pods, and six cinnamon sticks for the syrup that gives the capirotada its distinct sweet-salty flavor. Northgate did not have the cheese from my ancestral state of Zacatecas affectionately nicknamed queso de pata – foot cheese – for its funky taste and scent, so I called a friend who had the hookup.

I cut the cheese and the bolillos into strips, and let them air dry for a few days, like Mami used to do. You’re supposed to make capirotada on Friday, the big party after a meatless day. But one column got in the way, so I planned to do it all over the weekend. Oops – an appointment with my tax specialist. Monday, I said to myself, then the meetings followed.

Tuesday morning I woke up earlier than usual. No more excuses. Better to be wrong than not to try at all. Either I’ll make my mom proud or I’ll make her and the saints laugh in heaven.

I screwed it up at first – to the point that my wife went into the kitchen to hear what the fuss was about. But I got deep enough into the groove that I could reminisce about my Mami throughout the process.

As I fried the bolillo slices and stacked them neatly in a baking dish while sprinkling with almonds and raisins, I thanked God for taking my mother past the Covid-19 pandemic. The parade of people who visited Mami in her final weeks gave her strength to face unbearable pain. The hundreds of people who attended his wake and funeral were the support network my family needed.

Without them, I don’t know where we would be mentally. In fact, I do. We would be as sorry as the loved ones of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died from COVID-19 and couldn’t be properly cried.

When I prepared a jar to make the capirotada syrup, I wondered what Mami would think of the pandemic and 2020. She would have been in the front line to get vaccinated, would have laughed at my Grandpa being a pandejo as long as he did, and bully anyone in a block into stinging. She would have generally supported the racial reckoning of the country, although I’m sure my siblings and I would have spoken with her about colorism within our own family.

And though she was a rancho libertarian, Mami never liked Donald Trump, whom she always called mistaken, in reference to her ever pouting lips and wide mouth. She would have thought that his attempts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election were nothing less than traitors.

Once the syrup was done, I poured it evenly into the pan, then placed the capirotada in the oven to cook. I marveled at how Mami has made capirotada or arroz de leche (rice pudding) almost every Friday during Lent for decades without fail. While working full-time as a tomato canner, then part-time in her later years while caring for immigrant children who were learning English. All while raising four children and then babysitting her first grandchild. While dealing with my father.

Mami had a lot more reason to skip a capirotada session than I did, but she never did. She even cooked for us while she was battling cancer – until she couldn’t cook anymore.

The familiar cinnamon smell of dessert filled the kitchen as I took it out to cool it. This look at ok – but would that be good? I took a bite. It wasn’t that bad – I should have used more cheese, I should have soaked the bolillos a little better.

I gave a bite to my wife, who asked for another.

Capirotada ready to eat.  Optional coconut flakes and nonpareils — who cares, they're a must

Capirotada ready to eat. Coconut flakes and nonpareils optional – who cares, they’re essential (Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

Tears welled up in my eyes as I texted my siblings to see if maybe they wanted some. “I’m not really a fan, but I’ll give it a try,” my brother said. “I was never a fan,” said one sister. Later that night when my youngest sister who Is as capirotada ate it, she said it was “amazing” and “my mom would be proud of you” before complaining that I added too many raisins and almonds.

Brothers and sisters, I tell you.

As we playfully argued over text for the rest of the day, I realized what Mami actually was doing capirotada. The dish wasn’t just his way of treating us to the ultimate Lenten dessert. It was a method of imparting multiple lessons with every step and bite.

Good things take time. Take the time to do good things.

Tradition matters, but love matters more.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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