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Cooking with a Pinch of History: Atole

by Brittany Avila

On February 6, former SBTHP Higman Intern Mika Thornburg and I made a traditional Mexican drink, atole, while interpreting the cocina at the Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight event. I researched the various ways to make this recipe, and concocted my own by merging recipes from the Internet and my using my personal favorite historic resource, the California Missions Cookbook. Although I’ve prepared my share of complicated and traditional recipes, this one proved to be intimidating since I was preparing it for the first time in a kitchen with “antiquated” style. Minus the camper burners and a modern measuring cup, Mika and I prepared this relatively simple recipe with replicas of old cookware, in a small reconstructed 18th century cocina on the Presidio site, and purely by candlelight! Amidst these factors, the final product still received applause from our audience of volunteers that evening.

Disclaimer: The dim lighting from only candles in the cocina made photography difficult, so we apologize for the quality of some photos.

Ingredients (Many of these ingredients can be found at your local Hispanic or international foods market.)

6 cups of milk (whole is better)

1 piloncillo (sugar) cone

1 cup masa harina

2 cinnamon sticks

1 chocolate disk (Ibarra chocolate)

2 tsp. vanilla extract

**This recipe makes appx. 6 servings.

Begin by mixing the milk, masa, vanilla and cinnamon sticks on low heat in a pot.

You can simply shave up your piloncillo cone with a cutting knife. As you cut down the sides the shaving crumbles easily fall off. Photo by Brittany Avila.

You can simply shave up your piloncillo cone with a cutting knife. As you cut down the sides the shaving crumbles easily fall off. Photo by Brittany Avila.

Continuously stir this mixture. While you wait for the masa to become translucent in the mixture, begin to shave up your piloncillo cone. I did this simply by cutting thin slices off the cone, beginning at the fatter end.

Piloncillo cones were imported to the Santa Barbara Presidio along with chocolate once a year from the port of San Blas in Mexico.

Add your sugar shavings to the mixture and stir in until they are dissolved.

Once this is complete, you have your atole! If you feel it’s a bit thick, stir in some more milk until it reaches your preferred consistency.

If you’d like to make this treat even sweeter, make it champurrado by shaving up your chocolate disk and stirring it into the mixture.

If you missed out this year, make sure to stop by our Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight event next February!


Cleveland, Bess Anderson. California Mission Recipes. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1965. p.34.

Perissinotto, Giorgio ed. Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California: The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810. Santa Barbara, CA: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998: p.353-363.

For more photos of Presidio Pastimes by Candlelight, visit our Flickr set here.

Brittany Avila is SBTHP’s Office Manager and is enjoying pursuing her dream to be a maestro de la cocina



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