Posted on January 01 2015
Atole is a corn based drink and champurrado is an atole with added chocolate. This is by far my favorite hot drink from Latin America; it’s rich, creamy, sweet, and comforting. It is often compared to egg nog but atole is always enjoyed warm or very hot and truth be told there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is ubiquitous during the December holidays and Day of the Dead or every morning if you are in Mexico. It’s a drink, a meal, a celebratory food and it can most certainly be a dessert. There are hundreds of recipes for corn based drinks throughout Latin America. Some are made with fresh sweet corn, others with ground toasted corn and others with masa (boiled corn in lime salt). And all of these can be called atole. My favorite recipe is milk, masa, coconut and panela. If you add chocolate instead of coconut the name changes to champurrado.
In California we grow our own corn to make atole but most city dwellers in Latin American make it with corn flour. Atole recipes vary depending where you are in Latin America and even vary by region within a country.
On the border of Michoacan/Colima, Mexico, where my parents were born, the atole is made with fresh ground corn that has been boiled in lime salt, better known and nixtamal.This is the same dough that is used for making tortillas or as a thickening agent for stews. You can buy masa from nixtamal at any Latin grocery store or the second best option is to make atole with Maseca - dehydrated masa from nixtamal. The flavor of fresh masa is irreplaceable. If you have the option please opt for the masa not the corn flour. If you are in Texas, California, New York, Illinois, Arizona, Colorado or Nebraska chances are you can find masa from nixtamal. When you go to the store and ask for masa they will ask you, “para tortillas o tamales?” Don’t panic. You need masa for tortillas. The masa for tamales is the same as the masa for tortillas except it has lard and spices added. Or sometimes they ask in a different way, “con manteca?”. There is a time and a place for lard but not in your atole. Always remember to buy masa for tortillas. Once you understand the basic idea of atole you can make any flavor. I have seen atoles made with chocolate, almond, cinnamon, allspice, ginger, blackberry, and strawberry to name a few.
You are more likely to find atole sold by street vendors than in a coffee shop or restaurant. And you are more likely to see them early morning or late evening. Both images below are in Mexico City early morning; breakfast.
In Guatemala I found an atole that blew my socks off, here it is called atol de elote. I was expecting something made with masa but this was a puree of fresh sweet corn topped with whole sweet kernels. And it was water based. I never thought I would accept a water based atole into my life but I was transformed.
This recipe is for my favorite style of atole, I will add more varieties later. If you want to start from scratch kudos to you. Follow these 8 easy steps:
- Grow some corn
- Let it dry on the stalk
- Or cut from the stalk but leave corn kernels in tact on the cob. Let dry completely, about 2 months
- When completely dry, remove the kernels from the cob and rinse
- Remove 100% of the kernels
- The process of nixtamalization needs to happen to make masa, whether it is for atole or tortillas. This means you have to boil the corn in water with an alkali. The most widely used is calcium hydroxide/slaked lime or cal (kahl). Sometimes this can be replaced with wood ash. I bought these large cal rocks in Oaxaca.
- Set your corn in a large pot and cover completely with water. Add 1 tablespoon of cal per 1 pound of maize. Boil the pot for about 2 hours then remove form heat and let sit in its water for about a day or overnight. Until the corn begins to release it’s outer skin.
- Rinse thoroughly about 5 times to remove all the dirty water. Don’t drink it. Now that you have your clean nixtamal you need to grind it. At home we have a electric molino but you can pass this through your meat grinder. Grind it and feel it, if it’s still gritty grind it again. It’s ok if its a little dry, you can add a bit of water to make it hold together.
Congrats! You can make anything with this golden masa: tortillas, sopes, tamales, tostadas and much more! You have unleashed our greatest secret and also the reason so many Spaniards died of malnutrition; they thought it efficient to skip this process of nixtamalization and use their big powerful machines to grind the corn. It turns out this process unlocks vitamins and minerals. At this point you can use it OR I make a few balls and freeze them. These come in handy when I want to make atole but don’t want to go through this process again and they also thicken soups, stews, and sauces very well.
If you want an easier route, go to the store and buy corn flour, Maseca is the most popular brand in the USA. Whether you start with corn, store bought masa, or corn flour the next steps are all the same.
Coconut Atole & Champurrado recipe
- 2 cups whole milk (or water), I prefer milk but you can absolutely do this with all water or all coconut milk or any other type of milk substitute.
- 1/2 cup of water
- 4 oz. masa
- 1 can of coconut milk
- 1 large piloncillo or 1 cup of brown sugar (you can adjust the sweetness level)
- 1/2 cup of shredded coconut- optional
- 1 cinnamon stick- optional
For the champurrado, replace the coconut milk and shredded coconut with 50 g (2oz) of chocolate. I added Dandelion 85% dark chocolate from Camino Verde Ecuador.
- Dissolve the masa in 1 cup of your milk or water. Since I keep my masa balls in the freezer, I have them pre-measured to make 1-2 cups of atole. Use your hands to help it dissolve.
- In a pot place the water, sugar, chocolate (if using), cinnamon (if using) and heat to dissolve everything.
- Strain the mix into the pot.You will have left over corn masa, use the remainder of your milk to dissolve this again.
- You can add all your ingredients now and let heat slowly. You want this liquid to come to a boil but not to spill over or burn.
- Allow to thicken, about 20 minutes. Stir constantly.
- If it doesn’t want to thicken it means that it does not have enough masa. Dissolve a little bit more in milk or water and add strained. If it thickens too much add more liquid. The correct consistency is egg nog-like. But you can prepare thinner. Consume immediately. Preferably with tamales. You can let cool and refrigerate up to 2 days but when you reheat you will need to add more liquid.
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