Oh coffee. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. You’re there for me every morning, when I’d rather be asleep. You give me reason to look forward to the mid-afternoon slump. You warm me up on chilly days, but taste great iced in the summer too. I’m always in a better mood in your presence.
But not just any coffee will do.
Coffee is believed to originate from Ethiopia, from where its cultivation spread to the Middle East and Europe as early as the 15th century. Today it is consumed all over the world, even becoming ubiquitous in regions, such as much of Asia, where tea is traditionally preferred. It is one of the world’s most important agricultural commodities, thanks in part to World Bank/IMF structural adjustment programs, and is now grown all over the developing world. It is a major source of income for many families in the Global South; when I was in Costa Rica this past January, I learned that the school year revolves around the coffee-picking season so that children can assist their families, who are paid by the number of beans picked. Fair trade-certified coffee allows farmers to receive a more equitable share of profits.
There are two predominant varieties of coffee: arabica and robusta. Arabica is considered superior; robusta beans are bitter in flavor and thus typically reserved for instant or “filler” coffees. Most likely, “real” coffee you purchase from the store will be arabica.
There are many aspects of coffee cultivation and preparation that affect its quality as well. Coffee plants are an evergreen, understory shrub, and are meant to be grown under the shade of tall forest canopy trees. “Shade-grown” coffee, as it is known, is therefore superior not only in taste but is also more ecologically sound: a mixed-use forest is more “spatially heterogeneous” and thus can support higher biodiversity, particularly birds. Growing coffee in vast monoculture plantations is cheaper and more efficient, because direct sunlight spurs higher berry production, but if you are seeking the highest quality and most eco-friendly coffee, choose shade-grown. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center certifies shade-grown coffee, make sure you look for their “bird friendly” seal.
Coffee berries are usually picked by hand, after which machines remove the seeds or “beans” from its fleshy covering.
The beans are then roasted to varying degrees to become what we know as coffee. A light roast tends to preserve the characteristic flavors of the coffee bean; with a dark roast, the smoky, roasted flavor tends to dominate.
Most Americans are probably accustomed to preparing coffee using an automatic drip coffee machine. I prefer to use my french press. It provides a more intense, espresso-like flavor. I also like that it is easy to clean and doesn’t take up precious counter space.
Like many people, I enjoy the annual ritual of purchasing my first seasonal latte at a major coffee retailer that shall remain nameless. But (and I don’t know why I was surprised) I was disappointed with my pumpkin-spiced latte this year. Thus began my quest to re-create it in my own kitchen, instead of wasting the $5 on a poorly-prepared drink.
I don’t have an espresso machine — but I have a french press, milk, spices, a hand blender and a stove top — so why not?
First I made the syrup. A simple syrup is really one of the easiest things to make — one part water, one part sugar, bring to a boil, voilà. I used a combination of raw turbinado and maple sugar. To give it a “pumpkin spice” flavor, let the syrup simmer for about 30 minutes with a cinnamon stick or two, some whole nutmeg, a few cloves and some allspice. Some dried ginger pieces would have been nice too. Strain it and you have essentially the same syrup used at a coffee shop. This will keep in the fridge for about 2 weeks or in the freezer for up to 9 months.
Brew your coffee normally in a french press, adding a dash of salt to the grounds to cut the bitterness and intensify the flavor of the syrup. Add a few spoonfuls of syrup to the coffee:
I “steamed” the milk by heating it in the microwave, and frothing it with my hand blender:
This is perhaps more of a dessert than a beverage appropriate for breakfast — but it’s perfect on a cold autumn day like today.
A cup of coffee doesn’t have to be a mundane morning routine. It can be truly divine. Experiment with coffee from different regions and different roasts, and don’t be afraid to be creative in the kitchen!