Every few months, my family gets together with a Latin group of friends and their families for a potluck.
This winter it was our turn. As tradition goes, the host brings the main dishes to the table and the others bring the rest. I eagerly announced my plans to share Mexican casseroles, also called cazuelas, budines or pasteles. The Mexicans couldn’t hide their joy — “Pati! De veras? Budin Azteca? Cazuela de Tamal?!” — and quickly thought of other “very” Mexican sides to pair with them. The Argentines and Costa Ricans tried to understand what “Mexican casserole” meant and whether it was supposed to be any good. The Americans in the group (though they consider themselves Latin) were clearly not excited about it.
No doubt about it, casseroles have had their ups and downs in culinary history. Their weakest stand seems to have been in the United States, after being fashioned into “two-step-many-can” versions in the 1930s and ’40s. But think of all the bright stars in the casserole universe: French cocottes enveloped in mother sauces; British potpies encrusting fillings as wet as British weather; irresistible Italian lasagnas layered with pasta; Peruvian causas with seasoned meat encased in mashed potatoes; Greek spanakopitas with an extra-savory cheese-spinach mix covered in phyllo dough; Middle Eastern moussakas stacked with layers of eggplant; and the not-so-well- known, yet gloriously tasty Mexican cazuelas.
All of those casseroles are assembled, baked and served in the same vessel, which makes them convenient, practical and savvy. They are cooked tightly covered and without a hurry, giving their fillings time to become succulent with fully blended flavors. Then their messy beauty unravels on your plate. One has to wonder: Why don’t we see more of them around, when we all crave flexible meals that can be made in advance?
In the Old World, casseroles’ prestige may have peaked in the early Renaissance. They were served at royal feasts, with artful decorations fit for competitions and complex fillings; some even had live birds fly out of them with exhilarating song as the first piece was cut. Such a high-pitched recipe is found in the first British cookbook published during the mid-16th century. It also was recorded as part of one of the most extravagant banquets ever: the wedding of Marie de Medici and Henry IV of France, held in 1600 in Florence. This theatrical dish might have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which “four and twenty blackbirds” are baked in a pie.
Fast-forward to 2009: British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal felt obliged to replicate it in his Medieval episode of “Heston’s Feasts” in England.
Surprisingly, I recently found the nursery rhyme’s muse of a pie in the anonymous 1831 Mexican cookbook “El Cocinero Mexicano.” I am always amazed at how ingredients and recipes hop around the globe. But this I found to be absurdly funny: As if Mexican cooks needed any more outrageous ideas of what to do with casseroles.