January 07 2015
Though it has yet to catch on in much of the non-Spanish speaking world, atole—a hearty, versatile, old-fashioned standard—is a must for your winter food arsenal. It is a cold-weather and breakfast mainstay from southern Colorado to Chile with far-reaching cultural currency: curanderas (and abuelas) swear by it, and it remains a common folk remedio for whatever ails you. It makes for both a fantastic, filling breakfast and a soothing anytime warm drink that’s healthier than hot cocoa and heartier than any tea.
Atole comes in dozens of localized varieties, differentiated by types of corn and spices. It is prepared much like a simple polenta, but is generally served sweet instead of savoury and is much more liquid and drinkable. Often it is eaten alongside tamales, and in Mexico it is commonly combined with chocolate to make for a variety called champurrado. (Try it once. You’ll never drink marshmallow hot chocolate again.)
Here, we show you how to prepare our favorite version: the minimalist New Mexico variety, which is always made with blue cornmeal and often spiced with cinnamon and anise. In New Mexico and elsewhere, atole is usually sweetened with chunks of piloncillo (sometimes called panela and referred to as jaggery in Indian cuisine), that semi-cone of dense, hardened sugar cane juice you may have seen in supermarkets, but good dark brown sugar or agave nectar are fine substitutes. Milk is also added, just like in porridge, both to alter consistency and add protein. Your preferred variety will work fine.
– Blue cornmeal*
– Piloncillo, dark brown sugar or agave nectar
– Cinnamon sticks
– Milk (of your preference)
– Garnish (as desired)
– A heavy pot and whisk
*Traditional New Mexican cooking is done in measurements of pinches, dashes and handfuls and so there is little consensus on an exact water to cornmeal ratio — a good rule of thumb is to use twice as much water as cornmeal. About 3/4 cup of cornmeal and 1 1/2 cups of water is a good rough estimate for 1 serving. More water will make for a more liquid consistency, while less will make for a pasty, more viscous consistency similar to polenta.
Combine cornmeal with just enough cool water to moisten all of the meal, then whisk the two together until you’ve created a uniformly thick paste. Bring double the amount of water as cornmeal to a boil (if you’ve used 1 cup cornmeal, it’s 2 cups water and so on), then add cornmeal paste and whisk rapidly to fold into boiling water.
Reduce heat slightly and stir intermittently with your whisk for 8-10 minutes while water reduces, being careful to avoid allowing the bottom to burn. Add additional water if mixture thickens too quickly—optimal consistency is on the liquid side of thick. Once desired consistency is achieved, turn off heat and quickly whisk in desired piloncillo or sugar to fold in.
Pour into a bowl, mug or Thermos as desired and adjust thickness with milk to taste. Garnish with additional cinnamon and, if desired, a sprinkle of raisins, slivered almonds or piñon nuts.