It’s the time of year for warm, comforting, indulgent drinks. But while hot chocolate may get all the love, I prefer a different option: champurrado.
Champurrado, as it’s known in Mexico, is a thick and creamy chocolate corn-based drink that dates back thousands of years. It’s made with just a few simple ingredients: water (or milk of your choice), masa harina, chocolate, piloncillo or dark brown sugar, and spices (typically cinnamon, though anise, cloves, or nutmeg are sometimes included, as well as vanilla).
Champurrado is the chocolate version of a category of drinks known as atole: A thickened, warm, sweet drink made with masa, originating in Mexico and Central America. Though widely popular during November and December holidays (such as Posadas, Christmas, and Día de los Muertos), champurrado can be enjoyed any time of year and at various times of the day. Despite the sugar, it’s often served as a fortifying morning meal alongside a side of toast or pastry that you can dunk into the velvety drink (perhaps Conchas de Maíz?). You can also have it later in the day, as an afternoon snack or a satisfying nightcap before bed.
Notably, champurrado incorporates maize and cacao, two staple foods of ancient Mesoamerican cultures that provide sustenance and flavor. When we drink it, we’re connected to this human history and time-honored food traditions: chocolate, known as cacao in its raw form, was held in high regard in Mesoamerica and considered a ceremonial food, worlds apart from the candy we experience today, while masa was the foundation for the cuisine of entire civilizations throughout the Americas.
The drink gets its porridge-like texture and a nutritional boost from the nixtamalized maize that is integral to the recipe, either in the form of fresh masa (corn dough) or masa harina (corn dough flour). Both are made with nixtamalized corn, which has been treated to unlock a variety of vitamins and minerals in the kernels. Since fresh masa has a short shelf-life and is harder to find, masa harina is a great option, and beyond champurrado can be used to make a number of other delicious recipes, like tortillas or gorditas.
The addition of masa also gives champurrado its characteristically creamy mouthfeel, which means you can make this beverage with just water as your base and still get a luscious drink, or you can make it with milk or cream, which further enriches the drink. (Plant-based milk works fine, too.)
How to make champurrado
The process of making champurrado is quick and simple. First, select the liquid of your choice (water or milk) and heat it gently in a small pot along with the spices you’ve selected.
Next, add the chocolate and stir until melted. The chocolate component is key here: While hot chocolate is typically made from cocoa powder, champurrado uses melted chocolate to give the drink an unparalleled silkiness. I typically look for stone-ground options, like Taza, because of the distinct flavor and texture they provide. Usually found as discs, they are a blend of whole toasted cacao beans delicately ground with sugar, with spices and nuts sometimes added in.
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Finally, whisk in the masa harina and continue to stir on low heat until it reaches your desired texture. The ultimate consistency is up to you: the hotter and longer you cook it, the thicker it can get. If it feels too thin just cook and stir longer, and if it gets too thick you can always add more liquid to thin it out. Champurrado also tends to thicken as it cools, so if you have extra that seems too thick, simply add it to a blender with more liquid, blend until homogenous, then transfer to a pot to reheat gently.
Beyond just a warm, sweet treat, making champurrado is a way to experience the comforting combination of two very special native ingredients in modern times, a tasty history lesson in a cup.
Cover photo and food styling by Liz Neily.