Hot Atolé and Champurrado, Cold Weather Drinks from the “Land of Enchantment”

Autumn is a great time to try atolé and champurrado, traditional drinks from south of the border that have become part of New Mexican culture. I tasted my first warming cup of atolé on a cool autumn night while still in college – compliments of my landlady.

That summer, enormous thunderheads had gathered over the New Mexico mountains, every afternoon like clockwork. Earth and rain mingled with pine, delighting my senses. We had rented the one-bedroom adobe behind our landlady, Mrs. Sanchez, whose white bungalow faced a tree-lined street in our small college town. At that altitude, rain turned into ice-cold droplets, even in summer.

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 crack of lightning and thunder overhead.  All too soon the monstrous clouds would have rolled by,  moaning 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 to her bosom, 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 here in New Mexico,” she said. Her accent reflected the state’s diverse culture, primarily a blend of Spanish, Mexican and Native American. “It helps you sleep.”

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.

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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