June 19, 2012 Comments Off on Caffe


After a year and a half or so of exercise and trying to eat well, I still have a vice or two. A glass of red wine a night is one. And the other has been coffee. Gallons and gallons of coffee. Like three 16 ounce cups a day. There’s just been research out that shows that drinking that much is actually good for your heart, which flies in the face of my physician’s stern advice regarding my fondest and most unshakable habit. “Jesus,” she said. “That’s a lot of coffee. Your heart might be better off sticking with hamburgers.”

So I’m pleased to report that I’m down to about 8 ounces a day here in Italy. Of espresso, of course, but still, I’m going to count this as a victory. Coffee here of the drip variety is a rare thing, and good drip coffee hardly exists. But espresso and its less manly counterpart, cappuccino, are of course extraordinary here, and they come with rituals and settings that make the entire morning (and, ok, afternoon) caffe a genuine experience.


First, there’s the question of where to go. Our studio is in the old Ghetto, and Bar Toto there served as home base in 2008. The service is legendarily brusque, but quick. I’ve branched out a bit this trip–Caffe Sant’Eustachio, above, is a good choice if you can get there before the tourists start moving–it’s halfway between Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, and given it’s location it’s better than it probably needs to be. They roast their own beans, and the stainless steel counter and all of the fixtures are old school in the best way.

You have to find a regular place, though, because there is a code. Traditionally you pay first on one side of the bar (always called that, not a cafe), then take your receipt over to the guy working the machine (always a guy). But not everywhere, and getting it wrong marks you as an outsider. Not that getting it right makes you a regular, of course, but it puts you in the flow of the morning, and at least makes you less likely to be the topic of conversation around you.

Always, always, you get your saucer and spoon right away, and then the espresso gets made. This, I think, is to give you some claim to territory at the bar itself. There’s no seating, unless the bar is next to a piazza. Instead, you stand shoulder to shoulder with the other customers, defending politely your saucer’s position on the counter from all possible threats. Your cup gets placed, with a bit of a flourish, on your saucer, and you then have about five minutes to drink it, say “grazie, arrivaderci” to your server, and get the hell out. Rome is not a morning city. People are drinking coffee not to be social, but to wake up. The turnover is extraordinary, and you’re taking up space. No one is really rude about it, but the conversations around you are always brief, to the point, and generally about the weather (or, this morning, the Italian football team–Balotelli, fantastico!). Not deep, and not lengthy.

And there is a pretty strict drink code, Men order espresso–which is just a caffe. Women can order either espresso or cappuccino. Older men get to order cappuccino, too. If you time it right, some places scoop up all of the espresso foam and keep it in a chilled ceramic bowl. Once this reaches a critical mass, they stir sugar into it and whip it into a frothy concoction that gets dumped on top of your espresso, if you ask for caffe con crema. That, friends, is a powerful burst to start the day.

When the American walks in and orders a doppio, or double espresso, some heads turn. And the guy running the machine gives a skeptical eye sometimes. But that’s my regular order, and I’m quite happy to report that at a handful of bars throughout the ghetto, it now comes no questions asked, and I can slam one down in the universally agreed upon five minutes with the best of them.



baking frenzy

December 12, 2011 Comments Off on baking frenzy

I cleaned the oven last week–the easy but scary way.  It was carnage in there–layer upon layer of corn meal from baking, burned-on olive oil from overgenerous pan-roasting, etc.  It was to the point that you couldn’t really see through the oven window.  All of that really demanded the nuclear option, but it also made me think for a bit.  What would happen when all of that oven funk was exposed to the 800° heat of a hardcore cleaning cycle?  The option, of course, was to bury my head in the oven with a can full of corrosive oven cleaner.  Blech.  I’d rather set the kitchen on fire.

L offered nothing but encouragement.  “It’s a normal oven function,” she said.  Get over it.  She admitted, though, that her preferred method of oven-cleaning was to change apartments.

Anyway, it went off without a hitch.  It took five hours, and the thing made some amazing noises, but it had the bonus side effect of keeping the kitchen super-toasty on the coldest winter day yet.  When it finally let me open the door, the inside was pristine, totally clean save for a thin film of white dust on the oven floor.  I’ll admit to spending several minutes a day ever since just opening the door and staring at the inside, and realizing that I’d never really known what color it was.

With that brave task accomplished, I baked some stuff this weekend.  Part of me thought that the magic flavoring qualities of the oven grime would be sorely missed, but I also figured that I was now much less likely to set the smoke alarm off at random intervals (so far, true).  My studio had its review this weekend, and I figured that I’d make some stuff for them.  I baked a batch of oatmeal cookies during the final-week-deathwatch, and thought that the review could use some home-baked goodness.  That’s a rye loaf up above, out of Hertzberg and Francois’ Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It’s the recipe that, apparently, got them started on the cold fermentation kick, and it was pretty lovely.  I’d never made rye before, and it was definitely a different feel getting the dough together.  But it also baked up flawlessly, and with a little cornstarch wash and some caraway seeds it tasted like every good New York deli I’ve ever been to, with a super-crunchy outside and a chewy, moist inside.

The other big experiment this weekend was biscotti.  Afternoon coffee in Rome was always accompanied by a couple of these, and they’re a serious weakness these days.  Nothing’s better than a lightly flavored, super-crunchy cookie dipped into a hot cup of strong coffee–the biscotti gets nice and soft, and the coffee gets sweeter (and, OK, a bit grainy).  I’d been eyeing the recipes in Cynthia Field’s Italian Baker, but there was a simpler-looking on in one of the Cooks’ Illustrated books, and I’ve learned to start there before moving into the more serious stuff.  Cook’s is really good about telling you why things get done the way they do, and what to watch for in other (often more traditional) recipes.  These biscotti were simple–orange zest, almonds, and vanilla, all mixed in to a straightforward mix of sugar, flour, butter, and baking powder.  You bake them in a loaf, then slice them thin and bake them again to dry them out–making them thirsty for coffee, just like their baker.  The recipe says they’ll keep for two weeks, but in a studio full of hungry, coffee-starved students, they lasted 15 minutes.

the perfect cup of coffee

November 17, 2011 Comments Off on the perfect cup of coffee

Quite some contraption, no?

The New Yorker’s food issue comes out next week, but us Kindle readers get things a week early, so I’ve been devouring it (ha) a few days early.  And in amongst paeans to west African spices, pine nuts, and heirloom tomatoes there’s a fine article by Kalefa Sanneh on coffee grower and guru Aida Batlle, who produces top notch cherry in El Salvador that fuels, among others, Stumptown, which I’ve been staggered by ever since trying my first cuppa at my Seattle-based brother’s insistence a few years ago.

The article includes an ace bit of kitchen wonkery–how does one create the perfect, purist cup of coffee?  Simple question, but it’s perplexed me for a while.  I’ve gradually learned to keep the beans in the freezer, to grind them fresh, to let the water boil and then cool for a few seconds, etc., etc., etc.  L convinced me that the single drip cone pour-over was the easiest and most foolproof method of brewing, and every cuppa we had in Portland came this way, which has largely sidelined the french press.  The burr grinder was the final piece, or so I thought, but borrowing a bit of widsom from the baker’s arsenal, Sanneh reports that Batlle’s method relies on measuring both beans and water precisely.  Which means using a kitchen scale, not a plastic scoop.  And it turns out that L, not surprisingly, is right–the pour-over is the method of choice.

So, OK.  According to the New Yorker and Battle, here’s what you do with that cone:

Boil water.  Grind eighteen to twenty-two grams of beans.  Fit the filter into the cone and flush it with boiling water….Put the mug on the scale, put the cone on the mug, and put the ground coffee in the cone.    Pour forty grams of water over the grounds and watch them bloom: if the coffee is fresh, it should swell and release small bubbles of carbon dioxide.  After about forty-five seconds, start pouring the rest of the water, beginning in the middle of the grounds and circling outward.  Pour slowly and pause often: the grounds should never drain dry, but the water level should remain low.  Pour three hundred and twenty-five grams of water, including the initial forty, and remove the cone once the trickle has become a slow drip.  The process should take about four minutes.

I’ve managed to out-nerd this process already, since I’ve got metal cone filters.  And I used water from the filter pitcher, mostly for grins but I suspect it didn’t hurt.  The result?  Pretty freaking perfect, at least for the everyday beans I was using (French roast, but other than that nothing spectacular).  Not bitter, not overpowering, but flavorful and nicely balanced.  And it’s not hard or overly time consuming–just requires some attention and some patience.  Or, as the article says,

Done properly, a pour-over should produce a cup that is rich but also slightly tangy, and complex enough to make the ostentatious tasting notes on the bag seem plausible…


burr grinder

October 27, 2011 Comments Off on burr grinder

My general philosophy to re-stocking the kitchen has been to not to.  I had to get some pans, a handful of gadgets, and  a toaster oven, but have managed three months without a stand mixer and I’m happy with the lack of clutter.  You don’t, it turns out, need a pickle fork.  A regular fork will do fine.  And there’s not much you can’t do with a chef’s knife, really.

So if I have a perfectly good propeller coffee grinder, why upgrade?  I was reading up on coffee science in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking and realized that I’d been doing it wrong for years.  McGee is usually balanced about techniques or ingredients–this is one way to do it, this is another, both are fine in their own ways.  But about grinding coffee?  There’s this:

“The key to proper coffee grinding is obtaining a fairly consistent particle size that’s appropriate to the brewing method….Small particles may be overextracted and large ones underextracted, and the resulting brew can be both bitter and weak.  The common propeller grinder smashes all the bean pieces until the machine is stopped, no matter how small the pieces get, so coarse and medium grinds end up containing some fine powder.”

Well.  I had always assumed that my coffee-making was being held back by the coffee maker, or by cheap beans, or by hard water.  I’d thought that grinding your own beans was a way to ensure good flavor, but suddenly my world had been utterly rocked.

McGee’s solution is the burr grinder, which has a grinding mechanism that only allows particles of a certain size out into the collector, so you get a completely consistent powder.  More expensive, he warns.  So I slept on this one for a week.  And then I realized that I could re-purpose the propeller grinder as a spice grinder.  I had thought about making it do double duty, but can you imagine forgetting to clean it after grinding ancho chiles?  Quite a wakeup call.

So I saw a Bodum burr grinder on sale on Amazon, and after seven days of careful thinking I splashed out for one.  That’s it up above; it arrived today, which coincidentally was chili day–lots of spice grinding needed.  I spent half an hour tinkering with it, reading the extensive instructions, and then I dove in and made…an exceptionally good cuppa.  The grinder worked exactly as advertised–perfect, finely ground powder at the touch of a button.  The cone on top keeps a few days’ worth of beans, and the cup at the bottom keeps things neat.  The coffee was really, really good–since losing the coffee maker I’ve become a convert to the simple cone filter on top of the cup, which is simple to make and easy to clean.  I drink a lot of it, especially when I’ve got a writing day at home.  So I’ve amortized the cost of this thing and I figure it will pay for itself in about six months.  It will certainly get used every day.

decaf mocha

March 23, 2011 Comments Off on decaf mocha

Now that O has discovered decaf mochas, she can’t drink them fast enough.  We did homework at the local cafe yesterday afternoon, and our usual waitress came over and had her chat with the kids–how was spring break, what do you have for homework, etc.  Then she took out her order pad, and O casually threw the decaf mocha bit at her.  The waitress looked right at me and I shrugged.  “Just make sure it’s actually decaf,” I said.  Or I’m leaving her here for the afternoon.

K expressed mild concern at this new habit.  “It’s like a gateway drug,” she said last night.

“Yeah, but it’s a gateway drug to coffee,” I said.  “Which isn’t so much a drug as a religious sacrament for us.  So it’s kind of sharing a family tradition.”

O doesn’t seem any more wired than usual.  And track season starts Thursday, so she’ll have someplace to burn the extra calories and energy.  But I do have visions of her ordering doppio espressos next spring in Rome and the Polizia hauling me away on child endangerment charges…

jollyball and just jollying around

March 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

The Museum of Science and Industry may be the greatest 20 acres or so of stuff on the planet.  OK, scratch that, it’s second to the Exploratorium in San Francisco.  Still, it’s another of our favorite stops in the Big City.

They redid the entrance a few years ago, so you come in from an underground parking garage through the bowels of the place.  It’s not as impressive as the stairs, but at the top of the escalators is…Jollyball.  A giant pinball machine made of junk that the sculptor found around Switzerland that takes a large stainless steel ball on a tour of the (admittedly not very huge) country.  Every trip to MSI we’ve watched a few rounds, and pick up something new every time.  Oh, look the ball’s drunk when he’s walking out of the tavern!  This time we had the added excitement of a real live mouse running across the floor in the middle of the show.

Sunday was just a jolly around the Loop.  K and I could walk the city for a whole day and not really do anything, but we always seem to forget that for the kids just being downtown isn’t that big a deal.  So as we’re walking up N. Michigan Avenue and noticing that the kids are clearly on another forced march, I saw a couple of LEGO shopping bags coming the other way.  I pulled out the iPhone as discretely as I could and showed K the results.  “Yup,” she said, and we successfully guided the kiddos into LEGO paradise.  Not too badly damaging, either.  C wanted the $400 Death Star (down from the $600 version he saw a year ago), but settled for some Ninjago.  O got some LEGO Kingdom stuff, and I picked up a seriously bad-assed LEGO Boba Fett keychain.  C wanted the giant MechaGodzilla there behind him, but took ‘no’ for an answer.  Thank goodness.

And, as we’ve learned, there is no afternoon jaunt complete without the obligatory coffee and pastry stop.  This is a fine mood elevator for all concerned…

elementary school carnival and chorus concert

February 18, 2011 Comments Off on elementary school carnival and chorus concert

I always managed to get out of the annual elementary school carnival.  “You’ll hate it,” K would tell me.  “Total chaos.  I’ll take them.”  OK, I always thought.  Off you go.  I’ll crack open a nice glass of wine instead.

And now I’ve figured it out.  While the kids are zooing out on carnival games, pop, candy, and karaoke, the grownups have their own room.  With hot coffee, cakes, scones, and candlelit tables. The only thing missing was incense and a masseuse.  Had I known this–had someone told me about this, I would have jumped at the chance to ‘share’ this experience with the kids.    Who, of course, couldn’t wait to shuffle me off to the old folks’ room and get on with the business at hand.

They did well, turning twelve bucks worth of tickets into several cents worth of plastic prizes.  But the school also paired the carnival with a chorus concert, and C and his friends put on a great show.  He’s almost dead center in the photo above, there, singing his heart out.  It was, as always, heartwarming.

Not to be outdone, the girl belted out a couple of karaoke hits with her alumni friends.  She asked me afterwards, honestly, how was it?  What’s a dad to say?  “It was good,” I said.  “The two of you had real stage presence.”

“But what about our voices?”

“Honestly?  It was a little pitchy, but you were certainly better than some of the contestants.”

That little bit of Idol critique was fine with her.

She had a vegetarian walking taco for dinner, which I have to say is like saying sans serif braille.  But she enjoyed it.  “What do they make a vegetarian walking taco out of?”  I foolishly asked her.

“Vegetarians, of course.”

As C would say, “NICE.”

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