Few holidays capture the imagination like El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. From November 1 (All Saints’ Day) through November 2 (All Souls’ Day), families throughout Mexico and Central America build elaborate altars to lay out the favorite foods of their dearly departed. Platters of rice and beans, moles, tortillas, tamales, calaveras (candy skulls) and brioche-like pan de muertos dusted with sugar welcome the spirits home — albeit for a brief time — before the food is shared by family and friends.
Atole, a hot beverage thickened with fresh corn masa, corn flour or cornstarch, is a holiday staple, though it’s enjoyed for breakfast year-round. Traditionally sweetened with unrefined cane sugar, or piloncillo, and flavored with fruit, a chocolate version called champurrado is served at Christmastime. This atole de calabaza is made with fresh pumpkin slowly cooked with aromatic spices like anise, allspice and clove. While the Day of the Dead is a time to reflect on the past, this richly textured drink will keep you looking forward to the crisp fall days ahead.
Atole de Calabaza/Pumpkin Atole
Atole will keep well refrigerated for two to three days. though it will thicken. To reheat, combine with a small amount of milk or water and stir over low heat until warmed through.
3 cups fresh pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cubed into 1-inch chunks
3 ounces piloncillo, roughly chopped*
1 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger 1/2 teaspoon ground clove
1 pinch of kosher salt
3 cups water
2 cups whole milk
1 cup masa harina (corn flour)
1 cinnamon stick, whole (preferably Mexican canela)
Sugar to taste
*Whole cane sugar also known as panela and sold in Latin American markets.
In a large heavy pot, combine the cubed pumpkin, piloncillo and spices with 1/4 cup of water. Set over medium heat and stir frequently until the the piloncillo melts. Continue to cook, covered, until the pumpkin falls apart, about 15-20 minutes. Purée in a blender or food processor until smooth.
In a large heavy pot, combine the water, milk and cinnamon stick and bring to a high simmer. Lower heat and whisk in the masa harina in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly to eliminate any lumps. Add the puréed pumpkin and simmer until slightly thickened but still pourable, about 5-10 minutes. Serve warm with added sugar to taste, and garnish with candied ginger.
Ana Sofia Peláez covers the spectrum of Spanish and Latin American cuisine on her blog hungrysofia.com. From the rich smells and flavors of the Cuban food she grew up with to modern Peruvian causas, hearty Brazilian feijodas and delicate Mexican flor de calabaza soup, she’s always looking for her next great meal.