Xocoatl Brownies

This is the Aztec Nahuatl word for bitter water (xoco – atl). Bitter water was a coveted drink, made only by the wealthy.

From as early as 300 A.D. the cocoa bean was a symbol of life and fertility. It was also a form of currency in the tropical regions of Mexico and Central America. Making and drinking bitter water was extravagant, literally eating your wealth.

Unlike today’s cocoa, ancient xocoatl was sugar free. Cocoa beans were ground with a variety of local spices, which probably included annatto, vanilla, corn, and chiles.

European explorers brought cocoa beans back from the new world, but they didn’t catch on until someone added sugar. Brilliant! The rest is chocoholic history.

Mexican chocolate (Ibarra or Abuelita brands) is about as close as you can get to this ancient drink. It is made by coarsely grinding cocoa beans with thick crystals of sugar and crushed cinnamon sticks. It is sold in discs, and meant to be melted or dissolved in hot water, milk, or molé (sauce). Eaten raw, its texture is strangely course but the flavor is uniquely wonderful. I have used it here to make a more palatable version of bitter water in a brownie. If you can’t find Mexican chocolate, use bittersweet and add a tablespoon of cinnamon.

abuelibarra choc

Notice the recipe calls for chile powder, spelled with an e and not an i. Chili with an i refers to the spice blend used in stew chili con carne that contains a variety of spices that you definitely don’t want in a brownie, including garlic and cumin. For this recipe you want chile powders with an e, which are dried chiles ground to a powder. It is often a blend of several chiles, but it can also be made from a single variety, such as Ancho Chile Powder or New Mexico Chile Powder.

Xocoatl Brownies


3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups Mexican chocolate, chopped
1-1/4 cups sugar
3 eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dried chile powder
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. anise seed, ground
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 cup powdered sugar


  1. Preheat oven to 325˚F. Coat a 9×13″ baking dish with pan spray. Combine butter and chocolate in a large saucepan over low heat and stir until melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Add eggs one by one and combine thoroughly. Sift together flour, chile powder, baking powder and salt, and stir into batter just until incorporated.
  2. Transfer batter to prepared baking dish and bake 25-30 minutes, until firm. Cool 20 minutes before cutting into squares. Sift together anise, cinnamon and powdered sugar, and dust over brownies.


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