There’s this place in Mexico City where my suegro loves to eat. It’s a little family-owned restaurant called Merendera Las Lupitas, and he’s friends with the owner.
Las Lupitas is situated on a corner in Coyoacán facing the Plaza Santa Caterina, in a two-story white building with these beautiful, dramatic thick cobalt blue accents around the windows. They have a heavy, rustic wooden door, and inside there’s colorful papel picado strung across the ceiling. Lots of local art adorns the walls.
What I love about this place is that it’s so traditional. The menu is pretty basic and the atmosphere emits a feeling like you’re eating in a relative’s home. Even the placemats, dishes and furniture are very modest. But don’t be fooled by all the simplicity–each dish on the menu packs as much satisfaction as that of a fancy restaurant, minus the attitude and the cost.
Among the number of delicious, traditional items on the menu there, my suegro almost always orders a mug of atole at the end of his meal.
Atole is a hot drink, made with a nixtamal (corn) base from dissolving masa in water, sometimes with piloncillo, and heating until it becomes thick. It’s a stick-to-your-ribs type drink that’s guaranteed to keep you warm. It can come in many flavors; vanilla, chocolate and strawberry are most typical.
You can usually find quickie versions in a powdered packet in the grocery store, and they taste OK if you’re in a bind and can’t make the real deal. But the packets typically use powdered cornstarch as a thickening agent, so they lack the depth and flavor produced by using real masa as the drink’s base. The chocolate version is called atole de chocolate or champurrado.
The basic steps of this recipe–minus the chocolate–can be used as a base to make plain atole (sometimes also called atole de vainilla; just add a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract). It is also the base for atole de fresa, which I’ll write about in the future.
There are two different ways I make champurrado at my house: the easy way and the hard way. This recipe is for the easy way. The more difficult method (a recipe taught to me by a friend) involves actually roasting cacao beans and grinding them in with the masa to get a more earthen chocolatey flavor. We’ll save that for another day.
In the meantime, this recipe is plenty good, and reminds me of the down-to-earth style of Las Lupitas that our family has grown to love so much.
- 1 pound prepared masa (either pre-made masa purchased from a tortilleria or homemade will work; if making at home using a masa harina product like Maseca, prepare to directions on packaging before proceeding. If you buy masa harina for home use, be sure you buy the one for making tortillas–not the one for making tamales. If you’re really ambitious, you can grind your own nixtamal to make masa. I typically buy mine straight from the tortilleria.)
- 6 cups water
- 1 to 1 1/2 cups milk
- 1 disc Mexican chocolate (Abuelita, Ibarra, or other brand)
- 3-4 small cones of piloncillo
- 3-4 small cinnamon sticks
- 1-2 tablespoons granulated cane sugar (if desired to make it sweeter)
- Either cheesecloth or a very thin-ply cloth diaper to strain the dissolved masa
- A molinillo or a wooden spoon
Measure out 6 cups of warm water into a large bowl. Submerge the masa and using your hands, dissolve the masa in the water until the water is cloudy and the dough is completely incorporated.
Over another large bowl, preferably deeper rather than wider, lay the cheesecloth or diaper cloth across the top of the bowl. I know you must be thinking I’m kidding about a diaper cloth–a friend taught me about this trick & I’ve never used cheesecloth since. The diaper cloth is a much cleaner method and I personally prefer it because you can wash them out and reuse them; the cheesecloth doesn’t strain as finely, makes more of a squirting mess and shouldn’t be reused. The diaper cloths I like came in a 12-pack from Gerber. Again, I know it sounds weird and at first, I was skeptical when a friend shared this method with me, but trust me, it causes minimal mess compared to the cheesecloth.
While holding the cloth in place, pour about a third of the dissolved masa water into the cloth. Bring the ends of the cloth together to close it at the top and gently massage the bottom of the cloth to strain the water through. Be careful not to squeeze too hard because the water will squirt. Repeat until you’ve poured all the masa water through the cloth. Once you’ve massaged the cloth so there’s no more water but still some clumps of masa, squeeze the cloth well to get any remaining water out. Discard the remaining masa from inside the cloth and pour the water into a deep pot.
Place the pot over a medium flame and add the piloncillo (you can chop the piloncillo before adding if you like), stirring with the molinillo or wooden spoon until it dissolves. Add the cinnamon once the piloncillo is incorporated. Constantly stir the water; as it heats, it will start to thicken. If you don’t stir enough, depending on the masa you used, it can start to get clumpy–which you don’t want.
You will know the atole is thick enough to add the chocolate when the liquid leaves a coating on the back of your wooden spoon. Add the chopped chocolate and stir well with your spoon or molinillo. Add the milk, stirring constantly. If desired, add a little raw cane sugar to sweeten.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly; ladle into mugs.
Yields about 6 servings.
- How do you like your champurrado?