Traditional specialty of Honduras but also of Guatemala, Mexico, the Caribbean and El Salvador, atol de elote is a true delight that is both sweet and comforting but also a vestige of the glorious past of the Mayan civilization.
Its flavor is truly unique and exquisite. For the Mayans, corn was sacred and it was consumed at many religious ceremonies but also in homes on a daily basis. The entire corn plant was then used, including its leaves, which were used for making cottages and some tools. Tolli is the Mayan word for corn. According to Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, it was the Spaniards who created the word maize by exporting it to the West Indies and Spain. Hernan Cortes mentions atol in his Letters of Relations, which he describes as a very energetic drink. The Spaniards did not like the traditional version and modified it to suit their tastes. The contemporary version resembles that prepared by Spanish settlers.
The Mayans had atol as a breakfast drink and also prepared tamales and tortillas with corn. Its name remains atol in the Nahuatl language. If the contemporary mode of preparation differs from the one used by the Mayans, certain principles remain, and above all, its main ingredient remains unchanged. Corn is also part of many desserts such as riguas, which are delicious corn fritters.
Nowadays, at four o’clock sharp, Hondurans visit the nearest stands looking for a glass of atol de elote and tamales or toast. Some add cinnamon, others do not. It is the ultimate warm comforting drink. Children get used to drinking atol at school and this tradition continues because it is not uncommon to be served a glass of this Central American beverage in the afternoon at companies in Tegucigalpa.
Several variations of atol exist such as some including vanilla, chocolate, orange blossom, anise or coffee instead of cinnamon but they are much more rare and are not really to everyone’s taste. Sometimes, milk is replaced by water, as it was done by the Mayans. It is also not uncommon to find fruit purées of all kinds (guava, pineapple, blackberry, plum, mango, coconut, nuts and even cheese) as the basis for atol but these have not nothing to do with the traditional version in which corn gives such a unique taste. With the presence of chocolate, this drink then takes the name of champurrado. The Mexicans call this drink chileatole and drink it with chili pepper, epazote and sometimes even meat.
Atol de elote is a rather thick drink because the corn makes the milk rather dense. Sometimes, you have to use a spoon to taste it. The most traditional versions are served in a dried calabash bowl.
Usually, the traditional drink is sweetened with piloncillo, an unrefined solid residue of sugarcane juice. It is usually replaced by sugar or honey whose taste is appreciated by many. In Mexico, atol is also used to prepare another traditional drink called chilate, which is supposed to be the favorite drink of the gods. To make it, they add chocolate, one of Mexicans’ favorite foods.
Many proverbs from the Spanish-speaking world mention atol, for example:
“Giving atol with your finger” means deceiving or defrauding.
“Having atol in your veins” defines someone who does not react naturally to certain situations.
The arrival of fall is for us a real joy where we feast on hot and comforting drinks. Now, the atol de elote will absolutely be part of it!
- 7 ears of yellow corn , cooked
- 2¼ cups water (boiling)
- 2 cups milk (boiling)
- ½ cup water (cold)
- ¾ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 stick cinnamon (optional)
- Using a sharp knife, slice down along the cob to remove the kernels
- Reserve a few corn kernels for the decor.
- Mix the remaining corn kernels until they are puréed.
- Push the corn purée through a colander into a large saucepan and discard any solid pieces left in the colander.
- Add the sugar and salt.
Pour over the boiling milk and water and bring to a boil over medium to high heat, stirring constantly.
- Reduce the heat, cover and simmer over low heat for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened.
- Mix the cornstarch and ½ cup of cold water and pour into the simmering liquid. Whisk until creamy.
Pour the hot atol in cups or bowls, sprinkle with a little cinnamon. Sprinkle with a few reserved fresh corn kernels and serve hot.
Garnish with a cinnamon stick (optional).