We made it. January is over. Winter always feels the harshest in January. The holidays are long over which means that the season and its icy winds goes on without Christmas as a buffer. It is pretty easy to not notice the freezing temperatures in Germany when one has a large glass of mulled wine in one hand and gingerbread cookies in the other. January takes the comfort of Christmas Markets away. We're on our own, without those markets, for the rest of the season.
Now that Gluehwein stands are scarcer in Munich, I've been making hot beverages at home and, in my opinion, there is no hot beverages that is more comforting than hot chocolate. It is childhood served in a mug or sometimes a bowl. When I look into a mug of hot chocolate, just like with a crystal ball, I see far beyond the vessel. Instead, I see the canal in Ottawa and the thrill that my brother, sister and I would feel each year when our mother announced that it was finally frozen. I see a family wearing hockey skates over two or three pairs of socks. I see noses as red as Rudolph's and post-skate appetites as big as the deep-fried dough with lemon juice, sugar and cinnamon that we Canadians call Beaver Tails.
But because of my recent travels to Mexico, I also see beyond childhood and nostalgia and even the coldness of winter in that cup of hot chocolate. Now I see that morning that a good friend and I woke up earlier than the Mexicans in our hotel and went to the market in Oaxaca. In addition to garments with intricate hand embroidery (the kind that Frida Kahlo used to wear), Oaxaca is known for its chocolate. It was January 31st and we started the last day of the year with large bowls of hot chocolate with pan de yema on the side.
I am thankful that hot chocolate now also reminds me of Mexico as I've been drinking a lot of it recently and I can't really think of a place better to be reminded of. On a grey, snowy day I will happily think about the smooth, long strip of highway from Mexico City to Oaxaca. I will think about the cactus desert in between the two, the rolling hills, and a sky that couldn't be any more blue. I will think about how small the landscape made me feel and how warm the sun felt on my skin. I will think about our road-side-stops for mushrooms quesadillas and guave paletas.
The sun in Mexico made my cheeks a little rosier and the fresh fruit juices put a spring in my step. It is amazing what only a few days somewhere else can do. Travel is the best medicine I know. It makes me walk a little faster, stand a little straighter and open my eyes a little wider. And, always, it a) feeds me foods that I've never tasted and b) makes me wish that I had Anthony Bourdain's job (seriously, Anthony, I would be happy to assist you anytime).
The one thing that strikes me most about the food that I ate in Mexico is that I liked it all. Seriously, everything I ate was good, really good. I did not once have a bad meal. I already told you about my new fondness for nopales and my new belief in adding pomegranate seeds to guacamole. However, there was so much more that filled both my belly and my heart. In Oaxaca I ate cactus fruit ice cream at a square devoted only to ice cream. I repeat: an ice cream square. Vendor after vendor surrounded the circumference offering flavours from chili mango to mezcal and from coconut to rose. And then there were paletas. I always was into popsicles as a child, but now I wish that I had had an earlier introduction to paletas because they are without a doubt a more flavourful, fruitier and superior version of ice pops. I have big plans to buy this book and to catch up on all the time that I could have been eating homemade paletas instead of grocery store popsicles.
The food epiphanies that I had in Mexico go on and on and on. Hibiscus flower enchiladas. Washing down a spicy taco with ice cold and smooth horchata. Blue corn everything. Deep fried quesadillas. Tres leche cake. Squash blossoms everywhere (from tacos to soups). Learning that Mexicans know how to make anything into a taco. Mango enchilado - dried mango with chile - is now my favourite candy. I even smuggled some passed Homeland Security. It was well worth any potential risks or fines.
When I was living in Berlin I became acquainted with hot chocolate made with coconut milk. Once again, the New York Times whet my appetite and made me look at both hot chocolate and coconut milk with fresh eyes. But now that I've been to Mexico (beyond a beach holiday as a teenager), I'm hooked on champurrado, a spicier and thicker version of hot chocolate.
So what makes champurrado different from hot chocolate? Masa, and that is about it. The same dry corn dough that you use for your tortillas and tamales thickens the hot chocolate, giving it a bit more texture, a bit more depth. Any masa based drink in general is an atole and the types of atole are endless: from spices to fruits (such as wild cherry or strawberry) and from seeds to various types of corn. Champurrado particularly refers to a chocolate atole. It can be basic as chocolate, milk, water and masa, or that can be the base for adding spices, orange zest and even an egg. The classic champurrado spices are vanilla, cinnamon and star anise.
My version of champurrado is inspired by the Mexican classic, but it takes a detour as instead of using of using panela (which I haven't even seen in the Mexican grocery store here in Munich), I use maple syrup as a sweetener. A total scandal it is, I know, I know, but I am Canadian and I simply cannot help myself from using maple syrup when an opportunity arises. That, and it just tastes so at home with the melted chocolate and spices. Once again breaking from tradition, I make my champurrado with an ordinary whisk, whisking and whisking away to make my beverage frothy. If you want to go the traditional route, get yourself a rather sweet looking molinillo. How I wish that I had picked one up in Mexico. Why say no to a wood whisk that looks good in your kitchen and that does a mean job at making a drink frothy?
So Mexico, I will keep drinking champurrado until the two of us meet again. Trust that I will be back. I still haven't had a chance to drink a michelada and for that alone I will return (trust me, I'm pretty sure that mixing beer with lime juice and spices is against the law in Germany). However, the inspiration continues. I have enough to last me until my next trip, and I still have a bit more to share. I will save Frida Kahlo's house (and her kitchen) for another post. Let's just say for now that a month later I'm still feeling inspired from just a week in Mexico.
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp masa
1 disk of Mexican chocolate, coarsely chopped
1 star anise
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
2 cups milk
1.5 tbsp maple syrup, or to taste
In a small pot over medium-high heat, bring the water to a simmer and add the masa. Stir with a whisk until the masa thickens and there are no chunks. Add the cinnamon, star anise, sea salt and chocolate and stir until the chocolate is completely melted.
Add the milk and keep stirring until very smooth. Add the maple syrup, taste for sweetness, and then bring the mixture to a steady simmer, whisking constantly for frothiness.