This simple dessert, a hybrid of bread pudding and flan, combines the wisdom and thrift of centuries of cooks. As I stir together sugar, milk and eggs and pour them over day-old bread, I think about all the hands that have done the same in the past. In these movements, as clever as they are common, practical ingredients are transformed into a dish that not only nourishes but also gives pleasure. A slice of pan de calatrava is optimism, a reminder that even with little, good can be made.
I discovered the joys of pan de calatrava in a restaurant shortly after I had arrived in Murcia, where it is considered a local tradition. After a few bites of the silky, cinnamon-infused custard, I would never forget what the words pan de calatrava meant, at least on modern menus.
From then on, I have ordered the dessert every time I get the chance. I only recently decided it was time to learn to make it myself. But before I get to that point, a historical diversion….Throughout my brief personal history with pan de calatrava, I have also been intrigued. Why was this bread from Calatrava typical in Murcia, I wondered? And where was this Calatrava in the first place?
Starting with these questions, I did some preliminary research. My first conclusion is that one resource leads to another, and that the exact origins of the dish will likely remain a mystery. Nonetheless, some aspects of the pan de calatrava story have come into focus, forming a loosely spun narrative in my mind. I am not sure how or even if the dots connect, but here is what I have found so far.
The fact that pan de calatrava can also be found today in parts of Castilla La Mancha, just to the north of Murcia, was the first trail I followed (virtually-speaking). This led me to the historic Calatrava itself, once a strategic settlement along the often-shifting border between Christian and Muslim lands in medieval Spain. Here, in the 12th century, the Order of Calatrava was founded, a military limb of the Cistercian Order that remained active well into the 15th century. The name Calatrava itself, however, has been traced even further back, to the Arabic Qal’lat Rabah, meaning “fortress of Rabah.” This referred to the 8th century nobleman who once held sway here.
Even though I find it hard to imagine warring knights savoring pan de calatrava, it takes no effort to picture a similar dessert on medieval monastery and convent tables, where priests, monks and nuns were not known to abstain from good food. To give an example, based on evidence from 15th century monastery account books from Toledo, Clifford Wright observes in A Mediterranean Feast, “When and if the poor ate meat at the monastery, it was always boiled and tough meat, while the friars enjoyed veal and partridges and chickens stuffed with eggs, saffron, cinnamon, and sugar.”
In that list, we have several ingredients often found in medieval Spanish monastery cooking, three of which – eggs, cinnamon and sugar – very easily could have been transformed by some religious order – and perhaps even the Cistercians of Calatrava, too – into a dessert resembling the pan de calatrava. This would have been a variation on other flan-like puddings in history. Flans, both savory and sweet, have been documented in the Mediterranean as early as Roman times and were also found in Moorish traditions. All of these influences have undoubtedly contributed to the pan de calatrava.
Another mystery is how this dessert “from Calatrava” ended up in Murcia, although the process could have easily involved the convents and monasteries, which have spread many recipes throughout Spain. Murcia, like Calatrava, was long hotly contested territory on the frontier between Catholic and Muslim lands. Not coincidentally, a sanctuary in the northwest corner of Murcia became an important Christian pilgrimage site, where members of different religious orders have often shared tables over the years.
Images of all these people and places from the past now flicker through my mind as I stir milk and eggs together for pan de calatrava. Knowing more about the evocative title certainly flavors the dish. Nonetheless, I am particularly thankful for all the anonymous hands that have continued to repeat this practical and giving bit of history, blending traditions along the way.
Pan de Calatrava – Calatrava Bread
Recipes for pan de calatrava range from the simple – coat the bottom of the loaf pan with a store-bought caramel syrup for flan, mix the rest of the ingredients together and pour them on top and bake – to the slightly more complex – make your own caramel, infuse the milk and assemble the ingredients in layers.
I am going with the slightly more complex version here, because I think it is a few notches better, although the other is good in a pinch. The main inconvenience is that you have to use (i.e. wash) several different pots and pans in the process. (One thing many of those cooks in the past had more of, in addition to time, was hands in the kitchen.) Once it comes out of the oven, pan de calatrava must be chilled for at least several hours and up to a day before serving, which provides plenty of cleanup time.
For the caramel: Adapted from Claudia Roden’s flan recipe in The Food of Spain
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
For the rest:
4 1/4 cups milk (1 liter)
1 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick (If you don’t have one on hand, add a dash of cinnamon to the milk instead.)
1 strip lemon peel (about the size of your thumb)
Day-old bread (something like a baguette), crust removed and cut into 1-inch cubes (enough to form a compact layer in the pan you are using – I used about 3 packed cups)
Baking dishes and pans needed:
1 9-by-5-inch glass or metal loaf pan (This is the most traditional shape in Murcia, but if you do not have a loaf pan, any shape will work as long as it can hold 2 quarts. And the wider the base, the more bread you’ll need.)
1 9-by-13-inch baking dish for the water bath for baking
1 small heavy saucepan for the caramel
1 medium heavy saucepan for heating the milk
To prepare the caramel:
Have the loaf pan handy so you can pour in the caramel as soon as it is ready.
Heat the water and 1/2 cup sugar together in a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the liquid turns amber in color, like maple syrup. Allowing the amber to deepen too much can result in a bitter caramel. Very quickly pour the hot caramel (before it hardens) into the loaf pan and immediately tilt to coat the bottom of the pan and partway up the sides, too.
To prepare the rest:
Preheat oven to 350 ºF.
Combine the milk, remaining sugar, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar has melted and the milk rolls to a boil. Remove from heat, fish out the cinnamon stick and lemon peel and allow to cool for at least 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat 4 cups of water, which you will need for baking.
Place cubed bread in the pan on top of the caramel, making a compact layer. (I have seen recipes that skip this step, instructing instead to stir the bread in with the milk and eggs, which in a way makes sense, as the bread will rise to the top when you pour in the custard. I like packing in the bread first, however, as this helps me know how much bread to use.)
Lightly beat the eggs in a large bowl, then gradually beat in the cooled milk. Pour over bread in the pan. (Like I said before, the bread will rise to the top here, forming what will be the base when you later invert the pan.)
Set the loaf pan into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour in the hot water until it comes halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the custard is set and the top layer is golden (a knife inserted comes out clean). Remove the loaf pan from the water bath and allow to cool for 1 hour at room temperature before placing in the refrigerator to chill thoroughly before serving (ideally at least 3 hours and up to a day ahead).
To serve, run a knife along the edge of the pan to loosen the custard. Place a serving dish (deep enough to catch the caramel) over the top of the loaf pan and with a swift movement turn upside down. Carefully lift off the pan. If the custard does not fall onto the plate, gently encourage it with a knife. And, of course, pour any remaining caramel over the top.
Many restaurants in Murcia serve slices of pan de calatrava garnished with whirls of whipped cream from a can, but I prefer it plain and simple, allowing history to speak for itself.