Friday, February 19, 2010

How To Brew Espresso

3 December 2009

Maurizio and I arrived at JoAnne's apartment on a mission of mercy. JoAnne, needing a consult, was thrilled when Maurizio agreed to make a house call. If you want Maurizio to talk about coffee, you don't have to ask twice. Just the day before, he had sat on our balcony (the one that overlooks the beach, I think I've mentioned the beach) and, drinking a cup of tea, of all things, explained the four elements needed to brew good espresso. These are written on each bag of Cafe Maurizio:

Miscela -- Macchina -- Macinino -- Mano

Standing in JoAnne's kitchen, Maurizio put words into action, teaching her how to get the most from her new espresso machine. Following is my reconstruction of Maurizio's explanations and demonstration of how to make espresso and, in turn, cappuchino. This may be a bit rough as it's my translation (with the occasional embellishment for which I make no apology - as usual) from the Hebrew, Italian and English, accompanied by ample hand and body language.

Miscela are the dark roasted coffee beans themselves. The varieties of beans that may be used for espresso are too numerous to list here. Suffice it to say that the roasted beans may be a blend or a single variety. This is a matter of taste and, as with wine (or anything else), you should drink what you like. Also, in an ideal world, you buy whole beans and grind them only as you need them. If you just don't have room in your kitchen or your heart for another appliance and really hate the thought of cleaning up specks of coffee, it's OK to buy ground coffee. Just don't buy too much.

You need enough coffee to assure that you won't run out at a critical moment. Say you're really stuffed with a great meal and more than a little drunk on an outstanding wine and you've got to wash down dessert with espresso. There's no way you are going to make it to a store and back before you lose the mood(to say nothing of what such a delay may do to your chances of getting lucky with the person you just shared all that food and wine with). On the other hand, even the best roasted beans have a shelf life and you don't want to buy so much that the coffee loses flavor. Just like bananas, you never, ever put coffee in the refrigerator (or freezer). The preservation of coffee with cold temperatures is an urban legend against which Barista heroes such as Maurizio wage a never-ending struggle for truth, justice and coffee stored at room temperature.

As for the coffee itself, I'm a fan of Cafe Maurizio, a blend whose recipe is known only to Maurizio and Rotshield, his roaster. When in the USA, and lacking Cafe Maurizio (when we run out I start planning for next winter's trip), I've been drinking Phonecea from La Columbe (a Philadelphia outfit that supplies the Museum of Modern Art with it's coffee) which is 100% Arabica. We buy the beans and grind as needed. Thanks to Liz, we now own two coffee grinders - one grinds smooth for our macchiato (an Italian forced water pot) and drip machine (to Maurizio's horror Liz brews his coffee in a Mr. Coffee) - the other produces a rough grind for our coffee press (yeah, it's French but Maurizio is willing to be ecumenical, up to a point).

JoAnne was using Illy - a good dark roast that I like and of which Maurizio approves - and a local store's blend (both of which now live outside the refrigerator). The Illy came in cloth packs to brew one cup at a time. Her problem was that the coffee she was brewing just was not as good as she knew each blend could be. This brings us to The Machine.

Macchina is the machine. It has to allow manual control of water flow, water temperature and steam. Then you need, with proper body English (or, perhaps more appropriately, body Italian), to use the machine to it's full potential. JoAnne had recently purchased a DeLonghi, a good, Italian-made machine, which should have done (and now does) the job. She had even made the sales people open the box to assure her that the set up instructions were written in English but was, nevertheless, missing something.

First, when dealing with a machine set up to make one cup at a time, you need to make all the cups of espresso you want to serve before you steam the milk for the cappuchino drinkers. Why? If you keep going back and forth between espresso brewing and milk steaming you will clog the steam spout and have to stop everything to dismantle the mechanism and clean it. Leave the milk for last.

Next, before you bolt the armature with the coffee onto the machine you need to move water from its reserve (or from the wall if you're hooked directly to a water line) to the heating chamber. Then heat the water, testing it by releasing a bit of water and steam (this also assures that you have no clogs in the line). Serious tea drinkers know this maneuver as priming the pot. As with tea, you never, ever allow cold water (defined here as water at less than boiling point) to touch your coffee.

Now you can bolt the armature onto the machine and start the brewing cycle. You repeat this until you have the number of cups you need. Then move on to prime the steam pipe by releasing some steam and then steaming the milk. Afterwards, you release some more steam to make certain that the pipe is clear. Now you are ready to drink your espresso, provided you've got it in the right cup.

Maccinino is a small, ceramic cup with a narrowed or rounded bottom. Glass or, G-d forbid, paper, do not preserve and will even ruin the taste of espresso (and Turkish or Arabic coffee for that matter). The shape counts as much as the material, as you want to pursuade the foam to concentrate as it rises. It's like the difference between drinking champaigne from a flute as opposed to the classic, but taste killing, flat, wide glass. JoAnne's variety of cups allowed Maurizio to prove this thesis beyond all doubt. To say nothing of the fact the JoAnne's machine was suddenly turning out really good espresso.

Mano is the barista, the person who pulls it all together. You can have the right ingredients but without someone who knows what to do with them you may as well go out for Dunkin' Donuts' coffee. Has JoAnne joined the ranks of baristas worthy of the title? Well, her housekeeper and handyman have stopped buying coffee on their way in to work for her and instead gladly let her make their morning brews. Time to go, our work here is done.

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