Champurrado {Thickened Mexican Hot Chocolate}

When atole (corn-based drinks dating all the way back to the days of the Aztecs) is married with chocolate (another gift from the Aztecs), you get champurrado: a wonderfully decadent, thick and comforting mugful of Mexican hot chocolate that is utterly filling and completely satisfying.

Just a few days left in November and early morning and evenings are finally cooling down. Seems like our hot Santa Ana days are coming later and later in the year, virtually extending summer weather past Thanksgiving. It hasn't been cool enough to justify sweater wearing–yet–but mornings and evenings are starting to call for something warm and comforting.

Enter atole.

Atole is the Spanish interpretation of atolli which is Nahuatlthe language of the ancient Aztecs (Mexica), a version of which is still spoken by their descendants, the Nahua people of central Mexico. It is a pre-Columbian corn-based drink made from masa de maĆ­zthe nixtamalized maize used to make corn tortillas and tamales. It's like the Mexican version of gruel. 

Although atole is traditionally a corn-based drink, some versions call for all-purpose or rice flour (horchata falls under the atole umbrella, for example). The beverage is slightly sweetened and flavored with vanilla, cinnamon, fruit, or even chiles. The warm, thickened drink always reminds me of my Grandmother, who made atole during the winter months, pairing it with the Mexican spiced cookies that she made only once a year.

Slightly sweetened atole is delicious but add some Mexican chocolate to it, and the drink is in an entirely new stratosphere. This particular combination is called champurrado, and it's the recipe I'm sharing with you today.

My version is super simple. I use the more readily available masa harina (if you're buying Maseca brand, make sure the package says for tortillas, not tamales) instead of fresh corn masa. I used to buy Maseca, the brand I grew up with, available at many major grocery stores. However, I discovered an online store headquartered in Los Angeles called Masienda (a combination of the Spanish words "masa," which means dough, and "tienda" which means store). I ordered their chef-grade masa harina and have not looked back. The company works with farmers in Mexico to produce single-source organic heirloom corn (and beans). The flavor of their flour is superior to commercial brands–everything comes out tasting and smelling more of corn. It's available directly from Masienda.

I also don't bother making the flour into dough before adding it to the liquids, mainly because I drastically cut down on how much flour I use. I like my champurrado the consistency of a melted but still cold milkshake instead of a just barely starting to melt milkshake. To that end, I use a generous tablespoon of masa harina per 1 cup serving plus one for the pot (more traditional recipes call for as much as ¼ cup of masa per serving).

I begin the entire process by making cinnamon tea instead of starting with plain water or milk. Another crucial difference in my version from more traditional recipes is that I drastically dial back the sugar. Some recipes call for one or two cones of piloncillo (a Mexican pure cane sugar; the small cones are about 8 ounces), often calling for additional white sugar. Considering that the disk of Mexican-style drinking chocolate is already sweetened, all that extra sugar, in my opinion, overpowers the chocolate and cinnamon flavor associated with Mexican hot chocolate. 

As for the Mexican drinking chocolate, I use Ibarra. The other big commercial brand is Abuelita. An interesting aside about these two brands: are you familiar with the decades-old debate over Coca-Cola versus Pepsi? I mean, both are dark colas and theoretically should taste the same, right? But they don't. Each has its own proprietary recipe and distinct flavor–if you like one, you're probably not going to be much of a fan of the other (I'm a Diet Coke girl, myself). Well, that's how it is with Ibarra versus Abuelita, with most families loyal to one or the other. Our family has always been Ibarra drinkers, and I had never heard of Abuelita until I had it at a friend's house as an adult. I was not a fan (but I didn't tell her, of course!).

The process is simple. Sometimes I use a molinillo (a Mexican whisk specifically used for making hot chocolate); other times, a regular whisk, so don't feel like you have to run out and buy one (Northgate Market sells them, by the way, along with the Ibarra and chocolateras–more on that in a bit). 

You start by boiling water with canela (Mexican cinnamon, aka Ceylon cinnamon). Let it steep for 10 minutes, remove the cinnamon stick and return the tea to the heat. Next, vigorously whisk in the masa harina one tablespoon at a time, working out as many lumps as possible before adding the next tablespoon. Slowly add the milk, whisking to work out remaining lumps until the mixture is smooth. The chocolate goes in next, and as the milk simmers, you'll use the molinillo (or whisk) to break up the chocolate, then whisking to incorporate. At this point, you can taste for sweetness and add up to ¼ cup of packed brown sugar, if desired. Then you just let it simmer for about 10 minutes until it thickens, whisking it occasionally to keep from sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. 

You could stop here but if you want the traditional frothy cap, transfer to a chocolatera (a 2-quart pitcher specifically for hot chocolate usually made of aluminum and also available in clay). A chocolatera is deep enough to submerge the spinning disk on the molinillo. To create the traditional foam head, place the molinillo in the jug with the handle between your palms. Vigorously rub your hands back and forth, causing the disk to spin, which in turn produces the frothy foam.  

This drink is warm, comforting and though it's most often drunk for breakfast, you can enjoy it any time of day. Maybe even paired with some Mexican sweet bread or cookies.

Until next time, my friends ... xo, ani

Champurrado (Thickened Mexican Hot Chocolate)
Substitute the milk with all water (very traditional) or almond or soy milk for a vegan version.

Makes 4 servings


1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick, preferably Mexican canela
5 generous tablespoons masa harina
Pinch of fine sea salt
4 cups milk (I prefer 1% milk)
1 disk Ibarra chocolate
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, optional
¼ cup packed brown sugar, optional


Add water and cinnamon to a 3- or 4-quart saucepan; bring to a boil, turn off the heat, steeping for 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon, turn the heat back on to medium-low and bring the tea to a gentle simmer. 

Vigorously whisk in the masa harina, one tablespoon at a time, working out as many of the lumps as you can between additions. Whisk in the salt. Add the milk one cup at a time, whisking to work out lumps until the mixture is smooth. 

Knock the disk of chocolate still in its wrapper against the edge of a counter a few times to break it up or unwrap the chocolate and use a very sharp knife to carefully cut through the scored chocolate. Add the chocolate to the gently simmering milk and let cook for 3 minutes before using a molinillo or whisk to help you break up the chocolate, then whisk to incorporate it into the milk (this can take up to 5 minutes). Whisk in the vanilla if using. Taste and add the sugar for a slightly sweeter drink, whisk well to dissolve, then keep the heat low and let the champurrado just barely simmer for 5 minutes or until thickened. Whisk again vigorously just before serving.

Note: If finishing the drink with a molinillo to create the frothy foam cap, transfer to a chocolatera or 2-quart pitcher after the final simmer. Submerge the molinillo into the hot chocolate and rub the handle between your palms vigorously back and forth until you get a good head of foam. Serve immediately.