Atoles, milk-based, flavored drinks traditionally thickened with masa harina, date back to Aztec and Mayan times and were probably being made before Christopher Columbus was even born. Flavored with a variety of fruits and spices, they were made with everything from the classic Michoacan blackberries to tamarind from Veracruz to the native chiles of Oaxaca. Perhaps the most famous is champurrado, or atole laced with chocolate. Wind your way down a street in Mexico on a crisp fall morning and you’re still likely to stumble upon a street vendor ladling the thick, creamy concoction into small cups, a nourishing, stick-to-your ribs start to a day.
For today’s healthy recipe, I’m giving the classic atole a slight makeover, replacing the masa harina with finely ground whole grain oats to amp up the drink’s overall nutritional value. (This is a great way to sneak a whole grain into your diet if you’re not the kind to reach for, say, a plate of brown rice.) Since the whole milk is also replaced with 2% milk, I wanted to raise the volume on flavor, so in went a cinnamon stick, a real vanilla bean (yes, you can use extract but nothing replaces the warmth of actual scraped vanilla seeds.) Last, rather than regular sugar, I used a piloncillo as a sweetener. Piloncillo, almost as ancient as atole, is an unrefined sugar made of reduced and dried sugar cane juice. Its flavor is earthier and more caramel-y than regular sugar, and it adds just the right depth to an atole. Today, it’s widely available at grocery stores and Latin markets.
1/3 cup rolled oats
4 cups 2% milk
1/3 cup piloncillo shavings
1 cinnamon stick, plus 1 more for garnish
1 vanilla bean, sliced in half, seeds scraped
A pinch of salt
Place the rolled oats in a small processor or chopper and grind until the oats are almost entirely a fine powder. In a small bowl, whisk together the ground oats with 1 cup of the milk, making sure there are no lumps.
In a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat, place the remaining 3 cups of milk, the piloncillo, cinnamon stick, the vanilla seeds as well as the scraped out bean itself, and the salt. Gradually whisk in the milk-oats mixture, stirring constantly to make sure everything remains smooth. Bring to a boil, continuing to stir, and reduce heat slightly. Keep stirring and cooking until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. (If it gets too thick, you can thin it out with a little milk.) Pass through a fine strainer and serve warm in small cups, sprinkled with ground cinnamon. Makes about 6 servings.