Enjoy a Cup of Atolé or Champurrado – Culinary Delights From the Land of Enchantment

It’s autumn. Time to enjoy the longer evening hours with family, and all those special treats we make when it’s not too hot to bake! Autumn is also a great time to try atolé and champurrado, traditional drinks from south of the border that are also part of New Mexican culture. I tasted my first atolé in college and still remember my first sip.

Every afternoon that summer, enormous thunderheads surged over the New Mexico mountains. The earthy scent of rain mingled with pine, delighting my senses. We had rented the one-bedroom adobe behind our landlady, Mrs. Sanchez, whose white house faced a tree-lined street in our little college town.  Ice cold droplets soaked my blouse and I would barely make it in the door before the deluge.

Drenched and chilled after my walk home from campus, I stupidly ran a bath in the claw foot tub and luxuriated in the hot water, listening to the crackle of lightning and clap of thunder.  All too soon the monstrous clouds  had rolled by, rumbling and moaning on their way out to the plains.

One night in autumn we heard footsteps at the door, and then a knock. It was Mrs. Sanchez. In one hand she clutched a shawl between her bosoms, and in the other she held a jar. “I brought you atolé,”  she said.

I had no idea what atolé was.

“We make it when it gets cold in New Mexico,” she said, speaking for her culture, primarily a blend of Spanish and Mexican. “It helps you sleep.”

[Atole a traditional cornstarch]

I thanked her for the gift and took the concoction inside, not knowing what to make of it. I didn’t expect much from the mudlike liquid. but when it touched my lips, I knew I had discovered something amazing.

Years later I Google-searched Mrs. Sanchez’s nightcap. It seems atolé  is Mexican in origin. Not only is it served on cold winter evenings, but in the morning, to warm up hungry bellies. And, according to the hearty drink’s mostly word-of-mouth history, it’s great for stimulating lactation.

The last time I visited my son and his family in Albuquerque, I watched his dark-haired wife stir a pan of atolé over the stove for breakfast. It’s a healthy food and a beautiful custom that she’s passing down to their children.

The blue cornmeal I buy is organic, dull violet in color, and rather finely ground. The secret to making blue corn atolé is first toasting the blue corn meal. Raw cornmeal won’t turn out the same. The recipe is simple:

½ C. Blue cornmeal

1 cup water

1 cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla

Stick cinnamon

1-3 Tbsp. turbinado sugar or honey, depending on taste

Dash of salt

Optional – Dash of ground cinnamon or red chile powder

*Note – can be made thicker as a porridge. And can be made with only milk.

Over medium-low heat, toast ½ cup blue corn flour in a cast iron skillet for about 10 minutes. Stir to avoid over-toasting. (This can also be done on a cookie sheet in a 350⁰ oven. Toss occasionally with a spatula.)

Add water to a medium sauce pan and turn heat to medium. Immediately add toasted corn meal. Whisk to dissolve before the water heats.

As the mixture thickens, add your milk, stick cinnamon, and salt. Lower heat if necessary, and keep stirring to avoid sticking. When liquid is bubbly and slightly thickened, add sugar or honey. Remove from heat and add vanilla.

Serve in mugs of bowls and sprinkle with either red chile powder or ground cinnamon.

Or, make it a cup of champurrado, a chocolate version of atolé. Just add a chunk of chocolate and stir to melt. Toss in a few pinches of red chile powder. Now this is the stuff dreams are made of.

Photo: How often do you introduce your family to a new food or flavor? One of the presents I received for Mother's Day was a bar of chile, ginger and orange chocolate. Mmmm. (And thanks, Meg!) My kids grew up on chile, and they still love it. But it wasn't until I saw the movie Chocolat that I began to experiment with chile chocolate. It's not actually a new concept, as the ancient Mayans combined the two. The next time we have a family gathering, I am going to make some for everyone.</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>The Fiery FoodsShow in Albuquerque (Now the Annual National Fiery Foods and Barbeque Show) was the first place I ever tried it, and what a revelation. That sweet, chocolate taste hits you first. Then the spice creeps up on you.</p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>There are many brands of commercial chile-chocolate bars out there. It may require some searching. But you can make your own chile-hot chocolate drink at home. Here is a link to a recipe inspired by the movie, Chocolat. </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p> </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>Here's a bit of background: The original hot chocolate recipe was a mixture of ground cocoa beans, water, wine, and chile peppers. It didn't take long for Spaniards to begin heating the mixture and sweetening it with sugar. After being introduced in England, milk was added to the then after-dinner treat. </p><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br /><br />
<p>The word chocolate is said to derive from the Mayan word xocoatl; cocoa from the Aztec word cacahuatl. The Mexican Indian word chocolat comes from a combination of the terms choco ("foam") and atl ("water"); as early chocolate was only consumed in beverage form. (Source-

Delicious in the morning or as a warming bedtime drink.

Where to buy blue cornmeal: Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods Market, and at grocery stores and Mexican markets, especially in the Southwest. Bob’s Red Mill makes blue cornmeal available in stores and online.

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