Tuesday, February 18, 2014
The Rancilio Silvia is an Italian-made espresso machine, producing high quality results while being both compact and rather easy-to-use. Clive Coffee named it one of the best single-boiler espresso machines under $1,000 (as many of you may or may not know, espresso machines are generally, expensive). Though I’ve never owned a more expensive machine in comparison, I can say that this machine has been my at-home savior.
After a couple of months, and perhaps 400 cappuccinos later (not all imbibed, don’t worry), I’ve learned a thing or two. And I wanted to share my amateur findings. There is, as always, much room for improvement. I’m only two months in to being top barista of my household.
The Rancilio Silvia is a single-boiler espresso machine — meaning there is only one water-heating source for both brewing and steaming. Therefore, it will take a bit more time to prepare a milk drink; after an espresso shot is pulled, there is a waiting period for the machine to heat up to optimal temperature again before steaming milk. Since I’m usually only making one or two drinks at a time, this isn’t a concern for me.
First of all, as always, good coffee is required for a good result.
When pulling espresso at home, one of the most important elements is your grind. Grind is an important aspect of any coffee-making, but one honestly can’t pull a good espresso shot unless a proper grind size is used. I received the Baratza Maestro (since discontinued) as a gift, and it has really made all the difference. There are even more efficient grinders for espresso use, but I have found that this one is doing the job for now.
The espresso should be fine and powdery, which allows a uniform and compact tamp (that little silver hammer which baristas use to pressurize the grinds in the group-head). While tamping, one should apply even, forceful pressure for about 30 seconds. There should be no holes or cracks in the espresso once it is tamped.
The extraction time is the final variable one must watch carefully. It is, quite simply, the time it takes to brew an espresso shot. Optimal time varies between machines, but generally lies between 20-25 seconds from the time you flip the switch to the end result. I am currently extracting espresso for about 20 seconds. A proper shot of espresso should be topped by a thick crema (that cream-colored frothy layer that sits on the top of an espresso shot, an effect of the gases being released during extraction.)
Next up, I’ll tackle the highly difficult art of steaming milk. Stay tuned!
I produced a short film on my iPad — grainy and pixelated — to give you some visuals.
Monday, April 22, 2013
A growing group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews in Mbale, Uganda have sought to create change in their own community, by taking on a lofty goal: interfaith peace through coffee and music. Led by Jewish musician J.J Keki, the cooperative calls themselves Peace Kawomera, or “Delicious Peace.” They grow, pick and process organic coffee, side-by-side, in a country that remains divided by religious and ethnic barriers. Music is a strong part of Ugandan culture, used for communicative and joyous purposes; the farmers of Peace Kawomera follow in this tradition, writing and performing songs which promote their peaceful worldview, educate those around them, and celebrate the crop that brings them economic prosperity.
In 2001, J.J. Keki was invited to visit the states on a lecture tour. While in line at the World Trade Center to view New York City’s skyline from above, he found himself in the midst of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, running for survival after witnessing the first plane strike the towers. After Keki’s experience in New York, he returned to Uganda on a mission: to use his gifts and the resources around him to promote religious peace. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, a research ethnomusicologist and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University in Boston, met Keki while recording his Grammy nominated album, Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2005). After being introduced by a friend to a recording of Peace Kawomera’s songs, Summit felt compelled to visit Mbale to hear the music himself.
Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music, and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 2013) was recorded and produced by Summit. Speaking to the rabbi by phone, the day after two bombs tore through crowded streets during the Boston Marathon, I remarked on the timeliness of the album’s release. “What better thing to put into the world right now, a project about peace,” I said. “You know, I wish it wasn’t so relevant,” he replied, clearly shaken by the events of the previous day.
In a short documentary filmed by Rabbi Summit in Uganda, Keki explains his driving philosophy: “Whatever you have, use it for peace. If you have music, use music,” he says. “We have coffee,” he explains. And coffee may just be the perfect crop for peace. He holds a ripe coffee cherry in his hand, peeling the skin to expose two beans inside. “We should copy the example of coffee to bring peace” Keki says. “You see this one?” he asks. “Two beans in each coffee. Which means it is friendly, it doesn’t want to live alone.”
Rabbi Summit traveled to Uganda three separate times, recording 400 farmers. “Recording in East Africa is its’ own special challenge,” Summit told me. Originally they set up recording sessions right in the middle of the vibrant, chaotic goings-on of the village, which, though beautiful and authentic, proved to be “very distracting” while recording. “We [along with recording engineer John Servies] were out in the bush,” Rabbi Summit recalls, recording in rural landscapes, as well as finding acoustic solace in synagogues, mosques, and churches. The music itself is a layering of women’s choral voices, African guitar music, and indigenous instruments — including the tube fiddle, shaker, and wooden xylophone — and even a Casio keyboard.
The songs are performed at community events, in an effort to attract others to join the cooperative. Sung in various languages — including English, Swahili, Arabic, and Hebrew — the impact is far reaching. These songs are used as engaging ways to transmit information. Many are educational or instructional, such as “In Uganda, everyone grows coffee,” and “Construct a processing factory;” others celebrate peace, such as “Let all religions come together.”
An integral part of the success of Peace Kowomera is Fair Trade. “It’s not just about paying people more,” Summit explained. It helps fund important practices, including providing credit for famers to expand their coffee farms, preventing harmful child labor, and protecting the environment. The benefits of Fair Trade are less obvious when the volatile coffee market is high, Summit told me. “Coffee prices dip precipitously,” he explains. During these market lows is when large companies, taking advantage of desperate circumstances, offer attractively higher prices to farmers. This short-sighted relief does not maintain stability; if during the the following year, the market jumps again, the farmer will sustain large cuts to prices. Fair Trade provides a stable income, helping farmers weather the highs and lows of the market. Most importantly, “For many farmers, the Fair Trade price is literally the difference between abject poverty and being able to afford malaria medication, basic health care, and school fees for their children,” Summit writes in the liner notes of the album.
The results of Keki’s efforts are nothing short of astounding. In the liner notes of “Delicious Peace,” Rabbi Summit tells the story of two farmers of Peace Kawomera –Patrick, a Christian, and Mohamud, a Muslim — sitting down to lunch. They told Rabbi Summit about their childhood, under the dictatorship of Idi Amin, when they were not permitted to socialize with people of other faiths. “When I asked if it was usual for a Christian and Muslim to eat together, they both laughed and said that even four years ago, before they joined the cooperative, it would have been inconceivable to them,” Rabbi Summit writes; he notes that outside of the cooperative, tensions and divisions are still present, an acknowledgement that interfaith cooperation remains an issue in Uganda.
How can we work to overcome religious and ethnic divisions in our own communities? The answer is shockingly simple, according to these farmers. “These communities have made peace a priority,” Summit explained. They often speak of the importance of “being one” with others. Summit recalls a time he was lectured about America’s fighting in Afghanistan. “They didn’t understand,” he says, why we couldn’t “be one person” with all people.
Indeed, perhaps all citizens of the world should see the world as such.
Purchase Delicious Peace through Smithsonian Folkways, here. All proceeds go towards supporting the children of Peace Kawomera members. Buy a bag of Delicious Peace coffee through Thanksgiving Coffee Company, here.
All photographs below taken by photojournalist Richard Sobol.
Monday, March 18, 2013
At Abuela’s Kitchen, a newly opened Cuban restaurant on Lincoln Road — Miami’s crowded and eclectic outdoor shopping mall — the women at the counter greet sólo en español. Since I don’t know much Spanish, I stick to what I do know: coffee. “Cortadito, please,” I ordered on a breezy Friday morning. “Non!” the waitress countered, shaking her head. “Too small. You want a cafe con leche — very strong and good.” It was early, and Cubans, like Italians, drink their heavy milk drinks in the early hours of the day.
Cubans are one of the many cultures that make up the multifaceted community of Miami, and the influence on the culture is unmistakable. Walking around Miami Beach often feels like wandering through foreign streets, from Brazil to Paris, Haiti to Cuba; as one Colombian immigrant told me, “Everyone in Miami is from somewhere else.” While I’m sure Miami natives exist, the city’s strong Latin presence is evident in Miami’s coffee scene. In nearly every cafe, one will see a café cubano on the menu.
A café cubano is a shot of espresso, often made with Bustelo beans, pulled with sugar, or sometimes, poured over sugar. The sugar caramelizes and turns into a kind of syrup, creating the notable sweetness Cuban coffee is adored for. Bustelo beans are darkly roasted, so the sugar is never overpowering because the undercurrent of the coffee is so strong.
A café con leche is one part café cubano, two parts steamed milk. Often, condensed milk is used, creating an extra sweet treat.
Finally, a cortadito is the perfect blend of the two. It is a Cuban version of the macchiato: a potent shot of Bustelo, laced with sugar and a drop of steamed milk.
Cuban coffee is engrained in Miami culture. Gazing at the crowd huddled around the the outdoor window at Abuela’s, it’s full of locals, tourists, Latinos, Haitians, and Europeans alike: a snapshot of Miami, all drinking a café cubano.
Monday, October 29, 2012
As I settled into the cold iron seat resting lopsided on the uneven sidewalk, I sighed heavily — a release of the stresses from travel mixed with the exhilaration of my first morning in Paris. I love mornings everywhere, in any city. There’s always a quiet buzz, a certain energy still anchored by sleepiness. It’s a transition period; we are waking from our slumber, adjusting to the bright light of the sun, breathing in air consciously and deliberately. I hadn’t spoken French in a few years, and anxiety crept in as the waitress approached my tiny bistro table. “Que préférez-vous, mademoiselle??” she asked. “Un cafe crème, s’il vous-plaît,” I replied, hoping my American accent wasn’t obvious.
The sidewalk café in Paris is a universal meeting place. Found on nearly every street corner, sometimes three or four in a row are adjoined, all equally boisterous, full of tourists and locals. The only criteria, it seems, is that there’s a table available. People are seldom alone (though there are few single patrons, like me), and the entire experience is intimate. The tables are mere inches apart from each other, the groups sit closely, leaning in, lost in conversation.
The café is literally part of the sidewalk, one feels connected to the rhythm of the city. Tables litter the path of pedestrians: people walking to and from somewhere, entering and exiting the metro, in and out of the cafe. Though transient — new patrons fill freshly opened tables immediately — the cafe is a place where one may stay for an hour, longer. There is no rush, no limit to the conversation, no haste in time spent with those accompanying you.
As a writer who seeks good coffee for a living, and relishes her morning coffee the most, I found this cafe experience to be a conundrum. The time spent was rich and rewarding, yet the coffee, far from. I expected this, as I’ve been to Paris before. And I’ve talked to many Parisians who acknowledge this, too. The coffee in Paris simply isn’t very good. Most brew low-grade beans, usually ground days — perhaps weeks — before, prepared in automatic machines.
Recently, a handful of specialty coffee shops have popped up in Paris. Skilled baristas, quality roasted coffee, and beautifully designed spaces are growing, connecting those who love coffee in one of the most culinary cities in the world. Yet as soon as my plane lands in Paris, all I can think of is sitting at a sidewalk café, notebook in hand, and a cup of bad coffee on the table.
Paris is where many of my favorite writers drew inspiration before me, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin all wrote at cafés still standing today (perhaps nursing a cafe crème, I imagine). Rarely, one’s environment may outweigh good coffee; in this case, it’s the people that occupy the iron seats, past and present, who truly have my attention.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
Located on a Rue Villedon, a tiny side street near Le Palais Royal, owners Nicolas Clerc and David Flynn came together in hopes of revolutionizing the Paris coffee scene. Nicolas, a photographer, fell into the coffee business when asked to photograph for an article about coffee in Paris. “At the time I didn’t know there was any interest in coffee,” Nicolas explained. “When I understood what it was about, and how amazing it could taste, it quickly became an addiction, and a passion.”
“Paris was drastically missing a coffee shop the way we intended it,” Nicolas told me as he prepared my coffee on a beautiful fall day in Paris. And their intention is arguably modern and minimalist. The space is tiny, white and airy. The palate of sky blue and white creates a peaceful energy.
Friday, June 15, 2012
This bar, located upstairs from the Blue Bottle Cafe in Chelsea, is a romantic little space to have a full siphon-coffee experience. Designed for those with time on their hands, since the brewing method is not speedy, and an affinity for the technicalities of coffee making.
Monday, April 2, 2012
More known for its soaring architecture than the art it houses, the Jepson Center in Savannah is a physical manifestation of the contemporary climate of the city: simultaneously artistic, modern, southern and traditional.
White, airy, full of light and undulations, the Jepson is part of a trio of museums overlooking Telfair Square. The Jepson is, of course, the most modern; built in 2007 and designed by architect Moshe Safdie, it showcases contemporary art while the Telfair Academy and Owens-Thomas House are historical examples of early American art and architecture. The center’s open design does not intrude upon the historical block, its’ white facade and large windows make it nearly transparent.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
Traditional Italian spaces center around the bar — no tables, no chairs, just a bar. It’s more of a place to pause rather than linger. Zibetto is a perfect, modern bar with stylized lines in white tones. It reminds me of a very mid-century modern New York space, even the near-perfect, symmetrical designs in the cappuccinos — as well as the thick gradation of crema color in the espresso — seem to blend in with the surroundings.