Mexican Atole: The Perfect Winter Drink

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If you love hot chocolate, or if you love cereal, or even if you love pudding, then you need to know about Mexican atoles. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

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Mexican Food

Recetas deliciosas to transport your tastebuds south of the border.

I remember, during the winter of 2003, when Ed wrote a guide to the best hot chocolates in New York City. I clipped out the article and worked my way through his list, visiting just about every place he recommended. His picks were thick and rich, intensely chocolatey—more like melted bars of chocolate in a cup than heated milk flavored with cocoa powder, and I loved every single one of them. But the one I drank over and over was a Mexican-inspired rendition with chili and spice from Jacques Torres's chocolate shop in DUMBO. I worked down on the Brooklyn waterfront at the time, and after Ed's article came out, I'd hop on my bike almost daily around lunch time and ride up Furman Street, which runs along the piers under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and is, at that time of year, a blisteringly cold wind-tunnel. Half frozen, I'd buy myself a cup, then ride back with it in one hand, stopping every block or so to take a sip, its combination of actual heat and spice heat making the frigid air seem like a cooling breeze.

For years, that experience has lingered as my all-time favorite for hot chocolate. Not anymore.

Recently, I've become obsessed with Mexican atoles: hot drinks thickened with corn and flavored with just about anything you can imagine. The gateway atole, at least for me, is the chocolate one called champurrado, and it has quickly eclipsed all the other hot chocolates I've tried.

Once I fell for champurrado, it didn't take long for my love to expand to other flavors of atole. Now I'm not sure which one I'd pick as a favorite. Peanut is definitely in the running, but fruit flavors, like the orange one I share here, could win too. Honestly, though, screw the idea of ranking them. The beauty of atole is in the possible variations. Thanks to that range, my winter hot-beverage drinking has gotten a whole lot more interesting... and delicious.

What is Atole?

In its simplest form, atole (sometimes spelled atol) is made by cooking ground field corn (not the sweet corn we eat on the cob) in water to form a thick, hot beverage. While Mexican-food authority Diana Kennedy says that true atole is made directly from dried corn kernels, which require an overnight soak before grinding and cooking, most recipes call for masa, the corn dough typically used for tortillas and tamales that has been nixtamalized (i.e., soaked with lime mineral, which improves its nutrition and health benefits).

It's a popular breakfast and cold-weather drink in Mexico, as it has been for hundreds—and most likely thousands—of years. Different versions can be found all over Mexico, and span the sweet-to-savory spectrum, including fruit flavors like blackberry and pineapple, nut flavors like peanut and pecan, and unsweetened ones like chili; milk is often added as well for a richer taste.

My recipes here call for masa harina, a flour made from nixtamalized corn that rehydrates instantly in water. It's worth pointing out that, unlike my tamale pie recipe, the masa you want here is meant for tortillas—it's ground more finely.

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I've successfully made atoles from the more coarsely ground masa harina para tamales, but it requires blending before serving or will otherwise have a grainy texture—the masa harina para tortillas doesn't require that step.

You may see some recipes online that call for cornstarch, but I don't recommend following them: In an attempt to make the recipe work for those who can't find masa harina or are too lazy to seek it out (at this point it's widely available in the States, and can be ordered online in those locations where it isn't easy to find), they've gone one step too far; cornstarch thickens but does not deliver any of the great corn flavor that makes atoles worth drinking.

But Wait, Who the Heck Wants to Drink Corn??

Since I started making atoles at home, I've been raving to anyone who will listen about just how great they are. And I've noticed that as soon as I mention the corn part, a glimmer of uncertainty flashes across most people's eyes. Why, exactly, would I want to drink corn? I can see them thinking.

The short answer is because it's delicious. But I know that's not a convincing enough answer. So here's a more specific angle that might work: Do you like Cocoa Puffs cereal? Do you like Corn Pops? Does a bowl of Reese's Puffs appeal to you? What about Fruit Loops?

Well, all of those cereals are made from corn that's flavored with other stuff. And, junkiness aside, they're pretty darn tasty. Now, I know some people reading this will have answered no to the questions above. They'd say that those cereals are way too sweet and artificial tasting. That's fair (though I proudly admit they're a guilty pleasure of mine). But that's the beauty of atoles: You make them using much less processed ingredients, and can sweeten them only as much as you'd like. In fact, my recipes are all very lightly sweetened, since I don't have a big sweet tooth.

I'd argue that Mexicans have been way ahead of the breakfast-cereal curve, making these popular cereal-like flavors for ages in the form of much more wholesome atoles. Frankly, all those chefs doing cereal-infused milks to make ice cream and other desserts? They're kinda late to the party, once you consider what an atole is and how long it's been around.

Atoles, though, go way beyond just being like breakfast cereal. In the case of champurrado, it's just about the thickest, richest hot chocolate you've ever had, yet it won't make you feel sick after drinking a whole mug since much of that thickness and richness comes from the corn—not tons of dairy and chocolate.

Thanks to the thickening properties of the corn, atoles are also a lot like drinkable pudding. In fact, if you let them cool, they will set just like a pudding (tip: aside from the skin that forms on top, they're pretty tasty eaten with a spoon once they've cooled).

So, why would you want a hot corn drink? Because who wouldn't want to drink a mash-up of pudding, hot chocolate, and breakfast cereal, made with simple, minimally-processed ingredients?

Here are three flavors to get you started.

Champurrado

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This chocolate flavor is the one that turned me on to atoles, and I can't get enough of it. The process starts out the same for each of my flavors, so I'll show that here.

I start by whisking water into the masa harina over medium heat, adding the water bit by bit as I whisk to avoid forming lumps.

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It will go through a phase where the mixture looks like doughy clumps, but if you add the water gradually and keep whisking, you'll smooth it out. Reversing this step and dumping the masa flour into the water will guarantee lumps, which can be blended out later, but it's an unnecessary extra step.

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There we go, see what I mean? Now it's smooth. I bring this to a simmer, whisking constantly to prevent it burning on the bottom of the pot.

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I finish the base by whisking in whole milk to add richness. Once it's ready, I add a generous pinch of salt: I love the combination of salty and sweet flavors, and I find that, given the savory character of corn, it really works in all of these recipes.

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Next I whisk in some chocolate and brown sugar. Traditionally, this would be Mexican chocolate and piloncillo (Mexican unrefined cane sugar; for a look at how it's made, take a look at Kenji's behind-the-scenes tour of a Colombian panela factory, which is essentially the same stuff), but I reach for dark brown sugar and any dark chocolate, which gives me a really deep chocolate flavor without having to use a ton of it. I also add some cinnamon sticks (or ground cinnamon) and let it simmer.

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The final step is to thin the mixture with water to your desired consistency. I like my champurrado fairly thick, which makes it seem like so much more of an indulgence, but you can add as much water as appeals to you.

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In Mexico, the drink is often frothed a little with a wooden whisk known as a molinillo. If you have one, feel free to use it. If not, an immersion blender does a splendid job, but if you don't have one, you can also just give it a good beating with the wire whisk you've already been using to make the drink.

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Pour it into cups and serve, but watch out—these hot, thick drinks retain heat like crazy, and if you take too big of a swig, you're gonna burn your mouth. Sip it gingerly.

Get the Recipe »

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Peanut Atole

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It's hard to believe I could like any flavor more than chocolate, but man, peanut atole gives champurrado some serious competition. The method is exactly the same as above, but instead of adding the milk and then following with chocolate, I blend some peanut butter into the milk, then whisk them into the base together.

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I suggest using a more "natural" type of peanut butter—you know, where the only ingredient is peanuts, no salt, sugar, or anything else added—for the best roasted-peanut flavor. Just avoid chunky versions, or you'll end up with scratchy little bits of peanut in the drink.

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Again, in goes the dark brown sugar. I add just enough to very lightly sweeten the drink.

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Then the process ends the same as the champurrado: simmering, thinning with water, and giving it a quick whisking or blending right before serving to froth it a little.

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This stuff is heavenly.

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Orange Atole

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The third flavor I'm sharing is a fruity one, using orange zest to infuse the atole with a great citrus scent.

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The process is essentially the same as the other atoles, with the orange zest acting as the flavoring here. If you have it, a little star anise adds a little more depth and warm-spice flavor, but this is also good with just plain orange.

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It doesn't take long for the orange flavor to infuse into the atole.

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I thin this one a little more than the champurrado and peanut flavors—there's just something about the lightness of the orange flavor that made me want it to be a little less dense and creamy.

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Once you've mastered these flavors, feel free to experiment. The method is basically the same—what flavor do you want to sip while gazing through a window at the snow falling outside?