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Our daily bread: Although I haven't seen capirotada on any menus in town besides La Loma's (see review above), this Lenten bread pudding has been around at least since seventh-century prophet Mohammed, according to Western food historian Sam Arnold, who owns The Fort restaurant in Morrison. In his book Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, Arnold writes that it was a popular dessert "mentioned by many travelers along the Mexican part of the Santa Fe Trail." Since American mountain men sometimes had trouble with Spanish words, they gave the dish another name, "spotted dog," because of the raisins that stud it.

Whatever it's called, in our family capirotada has been the annual Christmas breakfast since we discovered a sensationally sweet and rich recipe for it in another book, Spirit of the West ($35), by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs. (Arnold, who wrote the introduction for that book, provides a recipe for capirotada in Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, too, but it's a little less rich and contains apples, which makes it taste more like a traditional bread pudding.)

I'm eating the leftovers as I write this: The recipe serves ten to twelve, and since we don't know that many people who can stand to see us in our jammies, we make it knowing there will still be some come New Year's, so I can attest to its durability.

Cox and Jacobs got the recipe from the Gamez family of Benson, Arizona, and it calls for piloncillo, the brown-sugar cones used in Mexican and Southwestern cooking. But American brown sugar, tightly packed, works just fine. We leave out the cilantro--we're usually not making anything else that calls for cilantro around Christmas, and it seems a waste to buy a bunch of the stuff just for a tablespoon--and we've always gone with the cheddar instead of goat cheese, because it makes for a chewier dish. And though it may sound strange to have a dessert-type dish that contains onions, you'll just have to trust that it all works out in the end--and how. (In fact, because it's filling and such ingredients as cheese, raisins and onions are quite nutritious, capirotada has long been an alternative during Lent to fish-fry Fridays.)

Capirotada
(from Spirit of the West, reprinted with permission)
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter
6 green onions, thinly sliced
2 1/2 cups crushed piloncillo or firmly packed brown sugar
2 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon minced cilantro
1 pinch ground cloves
1 cinnamon stick
8 cups cubed day-old French bread (about a 1-pound loaf)
1/2 pound or more of shredded cheddar cheese or crumbled mild goat cheese
1 cup raisins
1 cup shelled pine nuts, or chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup heavy cream (optional)

To make the syrup, place 3/4 cup of the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the green onions and stir-fry until you can smell them cooking, but do not let them brown. Add the sugar to the pan and stir briefly. Carefully pour in 2 1/2 cups of water and cook, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Add the cilantro, cloves and cinnamon stick. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer the syrup gently for five minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and discard the cinnamon stick.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and brown lightly in the oven, turning to toast on all sides. Butter a 9-x-13-inch casserole dish. Arrange half of the bread cubes in an even layer in the pan. Sprinkle half of the cheese and raisins over the bread and drizzle with half of the syrup. Repeat the layers, finishing with the syrup. Sprinkle the top of the pudding with the nuts.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until the top is browned and crunchy. Serve warm or at room temperature. Top with cream if desired. Serves 10 to 12.

Now that I've found La Loma's cream of cilantro soup, I might rethink my position on cilantro at holiday time. This herb isn't everyone's favorite--when it's overused, it makes things taste like a freshly mowed lawn. But La Loma's soup is wonderful, a distinctive, tongue-teasing brew that gets its bite from serranos and its richness from a hefty portion of heavy cream.

Because the cream cools the capsaicin--that's what makes chiles hot--I found that upping the serranos to four makes for a livelier dish, but it also kills a little of the cilantro flavor (which for some might be a good thing). I also discovered that a really rich chicken stock overpowers the blend, so I diluted my homemade stock by substituting 1/2 cup of water for 1/2 cup of stock (if you use canned chicken broth, dilute it even more, because its high sodium content will be intensified by the cream). One final warning: After you bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat quickly so that the cream doesn't burn.

La Loma's Cream of Cilantro Soup
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 medium garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon butter
2 bunches cilantro, stemmed
2 serrano chiles
juice of two limes
2 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 1/2 cups heavy cream
extra cilantro leaves for garnish

Saute onion and garlic in butter over medium-high heat until translucent but not brown; remove from heat and let cool. Transfer to food processor or blender; add cilantro, chiles, lime juice and stock. Puree and pour into heavy saucepan. Add cream and bring just to a boil; quickly reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Garnish with whole cilantro leaves. Serves 6 to 8.

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