Horchata Three Ways

Horchata does to me now what Yoo-Hoo did to me as a kid, and probably would still do to me as an adult if I had weaker convictions. I can't get enough of this chilly elixir, served in Big Gulp-sized portions at taquerias everywhere. The irresistable thing is how it tastes like drinkable rice pudding, without the heavy, bloated sensation that makes you want to crawl into a dark corner and pout. I can never get enough horchata, and while my options are certainly not lacking in Chicago, it's a thrill to see the stuff popping up on non-Mexican menus around town.

At Big Jones, executive chef/owner Paul Fehribach has gone horchata-happy, adapting recipes to come up with an oat horchata drink and horchata sorbet. He had been tinkering with horchata recipes using Laurel-aged Charleston gold rice from Anson Mills, an aromatic rice he figured would make great horchata (spoiler alert: it did). When he made sorbet with it and shared a picture on Facebook, his friend Todd Appel mentioned how he makes oat horchata for drinks. Cue the intrigue. "I thought it sounded like a great idea because oats pair really well with the flavors of horchata and has a creamier texture than rice," says Fehribach. The chef uses toasted peelcorn oat flour, a colonial-era throwback from Anson Mills, spiced with coriander. To make the horchata, he toasts almonds, zests oranges, splits vanilla beans, and breaks cinnamon sticks, adding it all to the oat flour and soaking it overnight in cold water. The next day, cinnamon sticks and vanilla beans are removed and it's all pureed and splashed with a bit more cold water and simple syrup. For the sorbet, sugar is increased and xanthan and gum arabic are added to stablize the mixture and prevent ice crystals, resulting in a creamy, dairy-free sorbet.

Peelcorn oat horchata
(Peelcorn oat horchata. Photo: Paul Fehribach)

Since horchata and sake are both rice-based drinks, it makes perfect sense to marry the two. And that's precisely what they're doing at MANA food bar. "I thought that sake and horchata would be a natural pairing, as both are rice-based," explains executive chef Jill Barron, who formulated a dairy-free almond horchata recipe a few years ago for the restaurant. When she was at de cero, she had made horchata using condensed milk, but for MANA she opts for almond milk, not only because she loves it but because it goes beautifully with the vanilla and Mexican cinnamon. The cocktail features Ozeki Nigori, a filtered sake, and the almond horchata, garnished with Mexican cinnamon. "I think it is an awesome spring cocktail," says Barron. "It is light, a bit sweet and has great rice texture from both the sake and the horchata."

Horchata cruffle and Mexican hot chocolate cruffle
(Right: horchata cruffle. Left: Mexican hot chocolate cruffle. Photo: Lizzie's Bake Shoppe)

Now for dessert! With its rice pudding-like flavor, horchata lends itself quite well to sweets (see also the Big Jones sorbet for further evidence). One whimsical option is the horchata cruffle at Lizzie's Bake Shoppe, a retro-inspired bakery with a grandma-esque feel to it. Namesake owner Liz Isaacs jokes that in another life she must have been part Mexican, due to her insatiable love for Mexican flavors. This is apparent in her horchata cruffle (she also has a Mexican hot chocolate cruffle, which pairs nicely). The cruffle is her signature item, a cake truffle striated with flavors and textures and decorated like a masterful mignardise. The cruffle features horchata-flavored cake made with all the requisite flavors, such as rice milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg, enrobed in white chocolate and sprinkled with crispy rice cereal. It packs the flavor of a Big Gulp-sized horchata into a bite-sized confection.