When It Rains, Make Champurrado

It’s not raining today, but I can feel it coming. We’re supposed to have a rainy weekend here in Los Angeles, so I’m preparing early. The ingredients for caldo de pollo have been bought and ready to take to Eagle Rock, where I will be spending a long weekend with the grandkids. We’ll make the soup, bake some cookies and make champurrado.

Here, at home I’ve already got a pot on the stove. There’s nothing like it for chasing the cold away. Think hot, cinnamon-flavored chocolate that is thick and creamy, with a slight undertone taste of corn. Yes, corn as in the masa we use to make tortillas or tamales. We use it to thicken our champurrado until it is almost porridge-like. The result is creamy, chocolatey goodness that both fills and warms your belly. It keeps you WARM.

When I was a kid, as soon as it got to be a little cold my grandmother would whip out her atole/champurrado pot; a battered and heavy old metal thing with a wooden handle. Nothing said comfort like seeing that familiar pot on the stove. She’d start by boiling water with cinnamon sticks in it. Soon the house would be redolent with the spicy scent and that was comforting as well. The water would turn a deep, dark red – almost black and the cinnamon smell would overpower any other scent in the house. Even the heavy-scented roses climbing up the kitchen window would bow down to the spiciness of that water.

Once the water was dark enough, she’d fish out the cinnamon sticks and start her base for the champurrado. She’d use either flour or Maseca depending on her mood or what was handy. The Maseca went into a cup or bowl with hot water and she whisked it briskly so that it would be smooth. Whisk in hand, she’d stand over the pot and slowly pour in the slurry of Maseca and water, while whisking super fast. The dark red water would swirl and turn almost pink with the addition of the masa. I’d watch, peering over my chair and it seemed magical. I think I fell in love with cooking at moments like that.

When the masa cooked into the water and thickened it, she’d add scoops of dark chocolate powder and whisk that in too. Now the mixture was dark again and the smell of chocolate married the cinnamon; producing something decadent and rich. Once the chocolate was fully mixed in and no stay lumps appeared, she’d pour in a couple of cans of evaporated milk, then regular milk – about half and half (I make mine with just evaporated milk – it’s creamier).

Finally, she’d add the sugar. She never measured except with a new recipe, and with her champurrado, she knew that pot so well that it was almost automatic the amount she poured in from the cup I handed her. By then, my anticipation was almost frenzied. I was dying for that first cup. She’d taste the champurrado, stir it a few more times, then ladle out cups for my grandfather first, then me and Aunt Jessie, then herself. She always served herself last, but she was first in all our hearts.

I always burned my tongue. I couldn’t wait until it was cooled enough to drink. Matter of fact, I still do that.

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