Why It Works
- Using masa harina para tortillas (finely ground masa) allows for the smoothest atole.
- You have control of the thickness and sweetness of the atole by adjusting the amount of water and sugar.
I remember, during the winter of 2003, when Ed Levine 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 chile 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 lunchtime and ride up Furman Street, which runs along the piers under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and is, during the winter months, 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 chile; 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.
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.
"Frankly, all those chefs doing cereal-infused milks to make ice cream and other desserts? They're kinda late to the party."
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?
Champurrado is the chocolate flavor that turned me on to atoles, and I can't get enough of it. 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.
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.
There we go, see what I mean? Now it's smooth. I bring this to a simmer, whisking constantly to prevent it from burning on the bottom of the pot.
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 well here.
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.
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.
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.
After frothing it to your liking, pour the champurrado 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.
1/2 cup masa harina para tortillas
3 cups water, plus more as needed (see notes)
1 cup milk
3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, broken into pieces
3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 cinnamon stick or 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
In a large saucepan, add masa and set over medium heat. Immediately add water in a slow, thin stream while whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a simmer and whisk in milk, chocolate, brown sugar, and a generous pinch of salt until chocolate is melted, about 1 minute. Add cinnamon.
Return to a simmer and lower heat to low. Continue to simmer gently, whisking constantly, for 5 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick, if using. Thin with additional water, as needed, to create a thick-yet-drinkable hot beverage (the exact consistency is a matter of personal taste, see note), reheating as necessary. Taste, adding more sugar or salt if desired. Froth with a whisk or immersion blender, then ladle into mugs, and serve.
Exactly how much water and sugar you add will determine the final consistency and sweetness of the drink. This recipe produces a fairly thick, rich drink that is mildly sweet. You can add more water and sugar if you want a thinner, sweeter version.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 7g||9%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||19%|
|Total Carbohydrate 40g||14%|
|Dietary Fiber 3g||12%|
|Total Sugars 16g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|