After last November, I promised myself that I would build my own altar for el Dia de los Muertos. Though widely observed in Mexico, I only discovered the holiday a couple of years ago. According to tradition, I should prepare some of the favorite foods of my dearly departed, lay them out in their honor, and wait for their promised return. The problem is that while I do have family living in Mexico that I adore, they are in fact living. I may dedicate an altar to welcome my Cuban grandmother’s spirit, but if she returned to find herself on top of a Mexican altar, I would have a lot of explaining to do. Wondering what I could possibly make to welcome her, I thought of hot chocolate.
In Miami, any temperature dip below 65 degrees is celebrated with a run on hot chocolate and churros at Versailles restaurant. That’s where we went with my grandmother one December just before getting on a plane back to New York. It was the first Christmas since we’d lost my grandfather and we’d spent a every possible moment with her, hoping to make the unimaginable, bearable. Of course that meant arguing with her often, cleaning out her closets and agreeing to model her cruise wear so she could decide whether or not to keep it, and making sure her gifts were wrapped hospital-corner perfect. The restaurant was at it’s usual high simmer but our table was quiet, the hot chocolate one more thing to share before our visit was really over.
Of course, there are varying opinions on whether or not the el Dia de los Muertos marks the literal or figurative return of spirits. While I don’t like to weigh in on spiritual matters where I’m a tourist, there is Proustian element to the holiday that I think anyone who loves food and the experiences it evokes could relate to. I don’t know if hot chocolate laid on an altar would bring my grandmother’s spirit to my Brooklyn apartment, but I do know that it brought me back to our table at Versailles. Reason enough to embrace a new tradition.
This recipe from Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico comes from Café Meléndez. Usually made with masa, this version of atole uses a small amount of cornstarch to create the slightly thickened but creamy texture of Mexican hot chocolate. Popular for Dia de los Muertos, it’s also served during Christmas.
2 cups water
Thinly grated zest of one orange
4-inch piece of cinnamon stick, broken up
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, or to taste, depending on the chocolate
4 cups whole milk
3 ounces (90g) Mexican drinking chocolate, coarsely chopped.
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Combine the water, orange zest, cinnamon and sugar and bring to a fast boil. Continue to boil about 20 minutes until reduced to about one cup. Add the milk and reduce to medium heat. Return to a simmer then add the chocolate, stirring until completely dissolved, about 10 minutes.
Place cornstarch in small bowl or measuring cup and stir in about 2 tablespoons of the milk mixture, smoothing out any lumps with the back of a spoon. Add another 1/2 cup of the milk mixture and dilute thoroughly. Stir diluted cornstarch into the saucepan and simmer until it thickens slightly, about 10 minutes. Strain and serve.