Atole: drink of champions

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The first time I met atole It was between Christmas and New Years, at a stall outside a busy department store in Mazatlán where I had gone with a local friend to exchange a gift. She was in a hurry; I lingered by the door, watching the vendor pour the steaming hot something into mugs and hand them over to grateful customers. “What is it? I want some!” I cried as she took me into the store and into the elevator.

Good friend that she is, on the way out we stopped and she explained the delicious drink we were about to try. I never forgot that first, wonderful taste of atole and what a satisfying drink it is for a cold winter evening.

Since then, I have learned a lot about this ancient pre-Hispanic drink. The simplest description is that this is a thick and hot beverage made from corn, sweet and flavored with everything from cinnamon and vanilla to guava, almonds or citrus zest. . (Chocolate atole has its own name: champurrado.) “Corn” as in masa harina, nixtamalized ground dried field corn which is the basis of tortillas, gorditas, etc.

Popular in many Central American countries, in Mexico you will find atole in different flavors specific to different regions, ranging from sweet to savory. For example, in Oaxaca, Veracruz and Michoacán, chileatole, a spicy-salty version made from Chile and ep Nitrogen, is common. In northern Mexico, the famous Tarahumara – known around the world for its incredible long-distance runners – used masa-energy based pinole as a staple in their diet for thousands of years.

We are fortunate not to have to grind dried corn these days; using masa harina para tortillas will give a fine atole. Avoid recipes with cornstarch; the result, admittedly delicious, will not have the same thick consistency that is part of atolecharm. (That said, there’s nothing wrong with keeping a few packets of Maizena cornstarch in your closet for a quick atole-as a solution!)

molinillo
A molinillo can be found in most premises mercados.

Another fun part of atole uses traditional wood molinillo froth the drink just before serving. I guess you saw them in your local Marlet and did not quite know what they were used for; or if you did, I bet you’ve never used one.

They come in all kinds of interesting sizes and designs, and while a wire whisk works just as well, a molinillo is much more fun!

Champurrado (Chocolate Atole)

Usually a breakfast drink, but just as inviting in the late afternoon with a hit of mezcal.

  • ½ cup masa harina
  • 3 cups of water, more if needed (see note)
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 3½ ounces. dark chocolate broken into pieces or chocolate chips
  • 3 tbsp. dark brown sugar / grated piloncillo
  • 1 cinnamon stick or ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • Salt

Place masa in a large saucepan; put on medium heat. Immediately add water in a slow, fine stream, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil. Stir in milk, chocolate, sugar and a generous pinch of salt until chocolate is melted, about 1 minute. Add the cinnamon.

Return to a simmer; lower the heat to low. Continue to simmer, whisking constantly, about 5 minutes. Discard the cinnamon stick. Dilute with additional water, as needed, to create a thick but drinkable beverage.

Add more sugar or salt if desired. Froth with a whisk or molinillo.

Atole by Cacahuate (Peanut Atole)

  • ½ cup smooth natural peanut butter
  • 1 cup of milk
  • ½ cup masa harina
  • 3¼ cups of water, more if needed
  • 3 tbsp. brown sugar / grated piloncillo
  • Salt

Using a blender, combine peanut butter and milk; stir until combined. In a large saucepan, add masa; put on medium heat. Immediately add water in a slow, fine stream while whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil; stir in peanut milk, brown sugar and a generous pinch of salt.

Return to a simmer; reduce heat to low, then simmer for 3 minutes, whisking constantly. Dilute with additional water as needed to create a thick but drinkable beverage. Add more sugar or salt if desired. Froth with a whisk or molinillo. Serve hot.

champurrado
The thick and creamy champurrado is also pleasant with a touch of mezcal.

Orange Atole

Feel free to use lemon or lime instead of orange.

  • ½ cup masa harina
  • 3 cups of water, more if needed, divided (see note)
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 3 1-inch strips of orange zest from one large orange
  • 3 tbsp. grated piloncillo/ brown sugar
  • Salt
  • Finely grated orange zest, for garnish
  • Optional: 2 cloves of star anise

To pay masa in a large saucepan; put on medium heat. Immediately add water in a slow, fine stream, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Bring to a boil.

Stir in the milk, slices of zest, star anise (if using), sugar and a generous pinch of salt. Return to a simmer; lower the heat to low. Continue to simmer for about 5 minutes, whisking constantly, until the drink is infused with an orange flavor.

Discard the zest and star anise. Dilute with additional water as needed to create a thick but drinkable beverage. Add more sugar or salt if desired. Froth with a whisk or molinillo. Garnish with grated orange zest.

Cinnamon-Vanilla Atole

It’s a simpler recipe; use the above method if you feel more comfortable.

  • ½ cup masa harina
  • 3 cups of milk
  • cup of water
  • 1/3 cup grated piloncillo/ brown sugar
  • 1 C. cinnamon + more for garnish
  • 1 C. vanilla

Combine masa, water, milk, sugar and cinnamon, whisking constantly over low heat to avoid lumps. After 5 to 10 minutes, remove from heat; stir in the vanilla. Garnish each cup with cinnamon.

Janet Blaser is the author of the best-selling book, Why We Left: Anthology of Expatriate American Women, featured on CNBC and MarketWatch. She has been living in Mexico since 2006. You can find her on Facebook.

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