Tuesday, November 1, 2011

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Champurrado for Day of the Dead

One night, when we were still new in San Diego, Dr. Morpheus and I attended a neighborhood party commemorating Día de los Muertos. We live about 20 minutes outside Tijuana; this is a very local tradition. Friends had spent days preparing mole, forming tamales, and doing the other prep work for the feast of traditional Mexican foods.

As we chatted with neighbors, Morpheus suddenly told me “I’ll be right back. Want some hot chocolate?”

“Sure,” I said.

Then I saw that he was headed to a huge, cylindrical Rubbermaid cooler. Guests were coming away from it with cups of steaming drinks. “Wait...” Even from across the room, I could smell what flowing from the cooler’s tap. But he was already gone. When he returned a few minutes later, he handed me a cup. He still hadn’t tried his.

“Don’t drink that,” I warned him. “You won’t like it.”

“It’s hot chocolate,” he explained as if I were an imbecile.

“That’s not all it is. Try it. It’s not something you’re going to go for, though.” We’ve known each other nearly twenty years; I know what the boy likes to put in his mouth. The look of surprise that leapt to his face at the first sip was pretty much what I expected.

“What the hell is that?”

That was champurrado, a subspecies of corn-thickened beverages common to Mexico known as atoles. Atoles can be plain or flavored with pineapple, peach, cinnamon, pumpkin, coconut, guavas, sweet potatoes, plums, peas, mangos, strawberries, sunflower seeds, and, quite literally, hundreds more fruits, spices, vegetables, and seeds.

Champurrado, one of my favorite varieties of atole, is flavored with canela (Mexican cinnamon) and chocolate. At a glance, it does look like hot chocolate, but if you’ve spent any time around corn (ahem), you can pick out the aroma well before tasting it. And if the aroma doesn’t give it away, the consistency certainly does.

An acquired taste? Yeah, sure, I'll grant you that. An acquired texture is more like it, though. Sometimes, it's almost pudding-like, but in general, champurrado isn’t thick like oatmeal or Cream of Wheat cereal. But even the smallest sip reveals it’s thicker than hot chocolate. More like a cream of tomato or pumpkin soup. Use masa if you’ve got it, but the corn that’s most commonly added around here is masa harina, a finely ground dry cornmeal used to prepare tamales and some kinds of tortillas. It’s first mixed with water to make a loose slurry, then added to the chocolate mix, the whole thing then heated a few minutes; if you add the masa harina all at once, the stuff clumps up like cornstarch.

Aficionados are split on whether to use all water, all milk, or some combination of the two, but here’s how we do it when Autumn sets in and the mornings are so chilly. This makes a moderately thick champurrado. If you like it thinner, simply add more water or milk to the pan while heating.

I've got the champurrado covered for tonight; who's making the mole?

One 3 ¼ oz disc of Mexican chocolate (Ibarra brand)
One 5-6” stick canela (Mexican cinnamon) or 3-4” regular cinnamon
2 ½ cups water (divided use)
1 cup milk
½ cup masa harina
1 small cone of piloncillo* (or ¼ to ½ cup turbinado or brown sugar)

Bring 1 ½ cups of water to the boil in a saucepan. In a separate mixing bowl (or the measuring cup if it’s large enough), mix together the remaining 1 cup of water with the milk and the masa harina. Stir together until it reaches a smooth, uniform consistency.

When the water comes to a bowl, stir the masa mixture again to loosen it. Pour it into the boiling water along with the chocolate, piloncillo and cinnamon. Reduce the heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until the chocolate and sugar have dissolved and the canela flavor has suffused the entire mixture.

Serve in squat mugs (to better hold the heat).

* Piloncillo is the small, very hard sugar that comes in cones/pylons and is available at almost every Mexican market. We've used it here before in our pineapple vinegar.


Randy De La O said...

Great post, and thanks for the recipe. I love the stuff, especially when the cold weather sets in.

Matthew Rowley said...

Thanks, Randy ~ and you're welcome! You're absolutely right about cold weather; I wouldn't touch champurrado when it's warm out (but, then, I'm also the guy who drinks iced tea year-round, so what do I know?)

Tiare said...

I believe i would like this thing, i`m quite sure of it but here there is no mexican food whatsoever...Maybe there´s some online sourse that ships out of the states?

Matthew Rowley said...

I wish I knew more about the state of Mexican cooking in Europe, but I'm just not drawn to eat Mexican food while there. Otherwise, I might be able to suggest a mail-order source for the masa. The texture would not be quite the same, but if you were able to get the very finest grind of cornmeal, almost, but not quite — corn flour, then you would have something that might make a decent substitute.