The Well-Made Cup of Coffee
Note: Although this article was originally written for an audience of restaurateurs and hotelliers, it is equally appropriate for the at-home preparation of coffee, the major difference being that at-home espresso machines will invariably be smaller and more compact than those used in commercial establishments. So saying.....
Ninety two percent of all people in the Western world who dine out or patronize cafes drink coffee and because the coffee they receive is generally consumed at the end of the meal or snack, this is the taste they will take away with them. If they remember the coffee well, there is a good chance they will return. If not, they will seek out another place to sit in the future. Because it is so important to the success or failure of the most simple cafe or the fanciest of restaurants, well made coffee should be strong,, full of flavor and satisfying. It should never be overly bitter, grainy or watery. And, while it is obvious that the quality of the coffee used is important, it should be equally clear that the way in which it is made is no less critical. There are only six major ways in which to make coffee, each of which is described below. Also offered are several hints for making each cup of coffee as excellent as possible.
No one loves coffee more than Italians, and about 150 years ago it was an Italian who first realized that one of the very best ways to make coffee was by forcing pressurized steam through coffee grinds. Thus, eventually was born the espresso machine and modern restaurateurs and hotelliers will do to realize that the most dedicated lovers of coffee consider the espresso machine as important to civilization as the invention of the wheel or the discovery of fire.
Made from finely powdered grinds, espresso should be thick, dark and strong. If made correctly it will never be so bitter that it offends. Unfortunately, the espresso made in many cafes and restaurants is a poor excuse for what good coffee should be and a good many customers are lost because too many cafe and restaurant owners do not take the time or effort to train their staff in this simple task.
First of all, the best espresso will be made from freshly ground coffee. Although it takes a small investment to buy a coffee grinder, this is one of the best investments for a cafe or restaurant. In addition to adding to the quality of the coffee served, the sound and smell of coffee being ground invariably pleases customers. After the coffee has been ground and put in a dispensing unit, it is important to teach staff members that a single espresso requires two full spoonfuls of coffee (most espresso machines come with a device for automatically measuring the coffee grinds). Being stingy with the amount of coffee used guarantees two things - a weak cup of espresso and an dissatisfied customer. Two single cups made at the same time that is to say, using both spouts of the receptacle or a double espresso requires three spoons of coffee. Staff should know that they should never make two double espressos at the same time, for no matter how much coffee is used, the result will always be weak.
New staff members should also be taught that immediately before putting in fresh coffee, the old grinds should be discarded (ideally with a sharp rap on the edge of the plastic container that holds the "dead" grinds). Under no circumstances should the same coffee be used twice. One staff member should be responsible for washing the coffee receptacle at least four times daily, and that person should know that the receptacle should never be washed with soap.
It is equally important to instruct whomever is operating the espresso machine in the method of tamping coffee into the receptacle. The trick is packing the coffee firmly but not so tight that the steam cannot make its way through. If the water in the espresso machine is hot enough (under pressure, the water should be maintained at 160 degrees Celsius/320 Fahrenheit) and the coffee is packed correctly, the finished espresso should have a light foam on its surface when the coffee is in its cup.
The basis for making cafe creme (or laite, cappucino or renverse, depending on your language), which is one of the most popular means of serving espresso coffee, is a double espresso, made in the usual fashion. While the coffee is dripping into the cup, one should steam the milk that goes into the coffee. What most clients want in their grand creme is a moderately strong coffee that fills about 70% of the cup, the rest of the cup being filled with foamy milk. To make sure that the milk has a rich head, fill the milk container (which ideally should be made of porcelain and never of plastic) about half-way with milk. Insert the steaming device of the espresso maker no more than half-way into the milk and steam, moving the container in gentle circles, until the milk foams up and becomes creamy. Many make the mistake of pouring the milk into the coffee. To gain the best cafe creme, only the foam should go into the coffee cup and this should be spooned and not poured over.
Going along with European trends, some cafe owners and restaurateurs have learned that it is stylish (and tasty) to serve small cups of espresso with a piece of lemon peel. Others have learned that a few drops of Tia Maria, Cognac or other fine brandy makes a welcome addition to espresso and is often much appreciated by customers.
Another popular use of espresso is in making cappuccino. The best cappuccino will be made from strong double espresso and on the surface should be floated a generous amount of whipped cream. Sprinkled over the cream should be chocolate flakes. The mistake most commonly made by people making cappuccino is in forgetting that the espresso itself should have a foam. To demonstrate to customers that they are really important, the whipped cream should be made from fresh cream (38% fat content) and should not come from a spray can, and the chocolate or cocoa sprinkled over the top should be of a high quality.
Many connoisseurs consider this the best method for obtaining maximum flavor and avoiding bitterness. An almost foolproof way to make good coffee, this method involves putting coffee grinds in a paper or cloth filter and then running boiling water through the grinds letting the water run through into a container. Whether one simply puts coffee grinds in a paper or cloth filter and then pours boiling water over or uses a more complex machine that automatically boils the coffee and drips it over the coffee is unimportant. What is important is that the container used should be made of glass or earthenware, because contact with metal tends to lower the quality of the coffee. A major advantage of filter coffee is that it can be made in relatively large quantities and then reheated without becoming bitter afterwards.
Filter coffee is also best in making iced coffee or cold coffee. Although many Europeans like their iced coffee "black", that is to say, with no milk, others (especially in Mediterranean countries always want milk with their ice coffee. It is important to remember, however, that the most important taste should be of coffee and not of milk, and it is wise not to use too much milk. It is also worth keeping in mind that granulated or powdered sugar does not dissolve well in cold coffee, and many of the better cafes and restaurants serve a small pitcher of sugar syrup (made simply by mixing sugar together with water and heating it until the sugar is completely absorbed). Many European cafes have also learned that it is wise to make ice cubes from fresh coffee and to use these instead of plain ice cubes when making ice coffee. Again, keep in mind that whipped cream that has been freshly made is always more appreciated by clients than that which comes from a spray can.
Primarily for convenience, many restaurants and hotels have taken to serving pre-packaged, single-serving filter coffees. Although some of these are acceptable, none are excellent and many feel that they are lacking in flavor and aroma. This is probably due as much to the fact that the containers for this coffee, into which the water must be poured, are made of plastic. One bad habit that many restaurants have gotten into is in pouring the water into the container before bringing it to the table. Clients find that the coffee appears more elegant and has a fresher taste if a small glass or ceramic container with near boiling water is brought to the table and they can pour it themselves.
This method, originally French, but rapidly becoming more popular throughout Europe and America, consists of pouring boiling water on finely ground coffee in a glass container designed to be served at the table. The coffee is then held in place between two perforated discs in a glass receptacle called a cafetiere. After the coffee is allowed to steep for several minutes, one presses down on a handle, thus containing the grinds in the bottom of the coffee maker and preventing them from flowing into the cup.
Cafetieres are available for home or restaurant use in 2, 4, 6, 8 and 16 cup sizes. The method is basically good, but coffee that sits to long before being poured tends to become bitter. One is advised in all cases to make just as much coffee as will be consumed in a single pouring. That is to say, it is not wise to serve coffee for 4 in a cafetiere suited for 6 or 8. The best cafetieres to be found are either French or Italian and one should pay more attention to construction than to style. The more glass and metal and the less plastic, the better will be the coffee.
The most primitive method of steeping coffee is probably that unique Israeli abomination known as bots (a word that translates directly as "mud"). One visiting French restaurant critic was so amazed when he came across coffee made this way he wrote that "the system involves simply pouring boiling water over coffee grinds, stirring up the resultant mess and then, taking courage in hand, drinking it. It is reported that there are actually people who enjoy this concoction." Even though connoisseurs scoff at bots cafe, many Israelis seem addicted to it and many restaurateurs and hotelliers keep it in their repertoire. To guarantee that customers will not have coffee grinds in their mouth be certain that the water is at a rapid boil before pouring it over.
Professionals should be aware that even though some of the automatic machines used to make filter coffee are called "percolators", this is a mistake in terminology. It took the perverse ingenuity of an American to invent the real percolator, a coffeepot in which boiling water rises through a tube and is then circulated through coffee grinds which sit in a basket, thus extracting their essence. The problem that arises with percolators is that the continuous recycling of the water through the coffee almost inevitably yields a bitter taste. Although Americans remain devoted to the method, Italians sneer at it, Greeks and Turks find it hysterically funny and some French men and women have been known to become actively aggressive when served percolator coffee.
Electric percolators made for home or commercial use are available locally from the United States, Germany, America and Holland. If for some reason a percolator is required, one should be certain that it has an automatic cut-off mechanism that stops the coffee from percolating after a maximum of 5 - 6 minutes. Also available are percolators that may be used on a gas or electric stove. Such percolators should have heavy bottoms to allow for even heating. Percolators with plastic parts should be avoided.
The Vacuum Method
Everyone knows that Italians are eminently civilized people when it comes to things to eat or drink, and the Italian invented vacuum method is excellent, in fact, the ideal answer to all the problems of percolated coffee. In these highly stylized metal gadgets, that can make anywhere from 2 to 12 cups of coffee, water is placed in a lower bowl. The coffee grinds arethen put into a metal filter which is placed over this and then an upper bowl is screwed on with a firm twist to seal it. As the water boils, steam rises through the coffee grinds to condense in the upper bowl - a kind of upside down filtering process.
Although the coffee thus obtained is rich in flavor and free of bitterness, many say as good as that obtained from most espresso machines, the method is better for at-home than restaurant use because the coffee takes a fair amount of time to prepare. Even though many feel that this system has its advantages for private homes, the only restaurants for whom it will prove practical are those intimate Italian restaurants where atmosphere is especially important and the extra time invested will not put a strain on the staff.
Boiling - The Gift of Turkish Coffee
In Turkey it is called "Turkish coffee", in Greece it is called "Greek coffee" and throughout North Africa it is called "Bedouin coffee". By whatever name, this coffee, made basically by the process of boiling, is highly popular throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin and coffee lovers all over the world admit that a well made cup of "Turkish coffee" is a gift from the gods.
Most people think that the narrow-necked pot used to make their Turkish coffee is called a finjan. They are wrong. Finjans are the small cups in which the coffee is served. The pot is a briki and a good rule of thumb is that the heavier the briki, the better will be the coffee.
There are many ways to make Turkish coffee, but most agree that the most reliable method for producing consistently good coffee is to fill a 250 ml. briki to within 2 1/2 cm. of the brim with cold water. To the water, before heating, add 4 or more heaping teaspoons of coffee. For moderately sweet coffee 2 tsp. of sugar should be added. The mixture should then be stirred and put on a high flame. Some believe that the coffee should not be stirred again after being put on the flame. Others disagree. My own feeling is that occasional stirring during heating is crucial.
As the mixture approaches a first boil it should be removed from the flame for a few moments to let the foam settle. One should take care not to let the mixture boil over, for this will result in a very messy stove top. In the same way, but without further stirring, the mixture should then be allowed to come to a boil for a second and a third time before being poured.
Pouring is also important, and it is considered polite to pour a small initial amount into each cup and only then to pour the rest. This allows the foamy top, the best part of the coffee to be shared by all. Turkish coffee should always be served with glasses of cold water on the side.
Last and Probably Least - Instant
And then there is the abomination known as "instant coffee". First made in 1906 by an Englishman with the unlikely name of George Washington, most real devotees of coffee drink this concoction only in desperation. Paul Prudhomme, the world-famous chef from New Orleans was once offered a cup of instant coffee. He smiled politely at his host and commented: "Thank you, but I would prefer poison." Despite its failings and because instant coffee (both with and without caffeine) remains popular, it should be available in every restaurant and cafe. That sums up my own feelings entirely!
© Daniel Rogov
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