Recently, I stopped at one of my favorite Mexican carts to grab some tamales. As I waited in line, I noticed that most people were being served a steamy light-brown liquid out of a large cooler. As the temperature was biting and bitter, I wanted something warm, so when I ordered my tamales I pointed towards the cooler and asked for a cup of what the vendor was selling. I took a sip and it was like an extra-thick cocoa—somewhere between chocolate milk and porridge—spiced with cinnamon, vanilla and the burnt sweetness of piloncillo, a unrefined Mexican brown sugar. I asked what it was called and the man told me in Spanish, “Champurrado.”
Has this ever happened to you—you learn about something new and suddenly it seems to be everywhere? I had never heard of champurrado before, but when I went into Queens last weekend almost every taco stand had large signs saying that they had champurrado. And everywhere I went, people were all ordering cups of champurrado.
How had I missed this? I’ve been a longtime fan of Mexican hot chocolate and my molinillo—the traditional tool used to mix Mexican hot chocolate—is one of my favorite kitchen gadgets as it’s both useful and beautiful. I also love atole, which is a thick, warm drink made with masa. Champurrado is the marriage of these two—an atole flavored with Mexican chocolate. Imagine a sweet chocolate tamale made liquid and you have yourself a cup of champurrado.
It’s traditional for Mexicans to make tamales at Christmastime and often these tamales are served with a cup of champurrado. It’s also popular in the morning with churros or as part of the early-evening refreshment known as a merienda. I also learned that cups are offered to carolers as they make their rounds.
Making champurrado took a bit of trial and effort for me. I like the Ibarra brand of Mexican hot chocolate, which is made with cocoa nibs, sugar and cinnamon. It comes in discs with six discs to a box and each disc makes enough hot chocolate to serve about eight. I looked on the box to see if there was a recipe for champurrado, but there wasn’t (nor were there even instructions on how to make hot chocolate from the discs. I thought this was strange, but I reckon this is just information that everyone already knows.)
When I did a search on the subject, there were countless variations on how to make it. The problem with most of the recipes I saw, however, was that they weren’t clear on the best way to incorporate the masa harina into the hot chocolate. When I followed their methods, the masa harina solidified too fast and clogged my molinillo, which left me not only with a pot of hot chocolate filled with thick yellow lumps but a tricky mess to clean.
I then took the masa harina and mixed it with water in a blender. I added the hot chocolate and blended the two together to create a smooth beverage. Perhaps not the most traditional way to make champurrado, but at least it had the texture and consistency I had grown to love. To spice it up, I added cinnamon, vanilla and a pinch of cayenne for heat. I also added brown sugar as the masa harina does dilute a bit of the sweetness of the hot chocolate.
Now that I’ve learned about champurrado, I can’t seem to stop drinking it—I’m very thankful to the Mexican cart vendor who introduced me to this luscious liquid. I find that it makes for an especially fine breakfast as it’s thick enough with the masa harina to fill my belly and spicy enough with the cocoa, cinnamon and cayenne to awaken my mind. And while I can’t recall ever having carolers stop by my New York City apartment, they can be certain that I’d be glad to give them a cup of thick, sweet and warm champurrado.
1 3.3 oz disc of Mexican hot chocolate
2 cups water
2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup masa harina
In a pot, place the hot chocolate disc, 1 cup of water, and milk into a medium saucepan. Add the cinnamon, brown sugar, vanilla, and cayenne. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted.
In a blender, mix the masa harina with remaining 1 cup of water. Add the hot chocolate mixture to the blender, and blend with the masa until smooth.
Return the chocolate and masa to the pan and heat on medium low, stirring occasionally until thickened. If too thick, slowly add a bit more water until it reaches your preferred consistency.