Coffee was one of those things I always wished I liked but didn’t. Many foods once fell into that category: sushi, beer, olives, wine. I got over my sushi phobia when I dined at Trader Vic’s in Beverly Hills many years ago and ordered a dish comprised mostly of greens and ahi tuna. When I asked the waiter what was in it — I was so blissed out while eating it that I’d forgotten what the menu description had said — he smiled and said “raw tuna.” From that day forward, I’ve been a huge fan of sushi. Living in Germany initiated me into the world of fine beer; during a trip to Spain in 2009, I fell in love with plump green olives … and those wrinkly little black ones, too (although I still can’t stand the pimento-paste-stuffed mushy things in glass jars). During that same trip, I finally started to like wine in the form of Riojas and anything made with tempranillo and garnacha grapes. It’s a far — and far less tannic! — cry from the taste-bud-obliterating Merlots and Cabs I had tried to like in years past but just couldn’t.
This year’s trip to Spain ushered in another foodstuff I had always wanted to enjoy: coffee. I realized that the coffee here I’d come across (mostly stuff out of the office coffeepot or the mass–produced, rather-burnt stuff at coffee chain whose name I won’t mention but which seems bent on world domination in form of a coffeehouse on every damn corner) was generally rancid. Coffee beans, after all, are like cocoa beans: they contain fat. When you don’t store them properly and don’t prepare them properly, the fat goes rancid and gives off a bitter taste. Grinding beans and letting them sit around speeds up the rancidity process because you’ve torn away the lovely protective outer hull and have exposed those tender fats to oxygen. In short, it’s the organic — i.e., carbon-based — form of steel rusting, or “oxidizing.”
The coffee I sampled in Spain, on the other hand, had a distinctly chocolatey, fresh-tasting aspect to it. Nothing at all like the office/generic chain coffeepot stuff I’d had before. And the addition of fresh whole milk was lovely as well. Made me relish the thought of coming home and playing with the organic coffee beans I had picked up at the culinary conference in NYC this spring and had stashed away in my freezer awaiting the perfect occasion to use them. Fortunately, I also have a coffee grinder (which I had used exclusively for grinding almonds and other soft grindables) and a French press (which was more for show and the occasional cup I would brew for a guest).
Once I got back home and started grinding and French-pressing my own cups of joe, I decided to branch out into international coffee styles. This Vietnamese version includes cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon — kind of like a coffee version of chai. The spices add a whole new dimension to the freshly ground coffee beans. Unlike the traditional Vietnamese version, though, I skip the sweetener and use regular whole milk in place of condensed milk. To me, the vanilla extract and spices and milk add plenty of sweetness. You could also add a few ice cubes to make a cool-down treat for a day like today.
Spiced Vietnamese Coffee
Freshly ground coffee beans of your choice*
Dash of cardamom
Dash of ginger
Dash of cinnamon
Slightly smaller dash of cloves
Whole milk, preferably from grass-fed cows
After grinding your beans in a coffee grinder or small food processor, add them to your French press (or the filter cup on a conventional coffeemaker). Sprinkle on the spices, using equal amounts of the first three and a little less of the cloves. Brew coffee. In a French press, this consists of letting the beans soak in freshly boiled water for at least 3 minutes before slowly pushing down on the plunger to smash the grounds to the bottom and allow the filtered coffee to rise to the top.
Fill your mug/cup about halfway or three-quarters with coffee and the remainder with milk. Stir in a dash of vanilla. If you’d like to make this into iced coffee, add ice cubes; for a frothy effect, blend the coffee with ice cubes and then let stand for a moment or two. The whole milk will form a lovely foam on the top that you can slurp or spoon off. And if you do want to use a sweetener, I’d stir a pinch of sucanat into the piping-hot coffee before adding the milk. Or if you’re a big fan of maple (I am), stir in a splash of maple syrup (which is how I sweeten my hot chocolate).
* It’s worth noting that the roasting process causes some of the caffeine to dissipate, so although dark-roasted beans have a stronger taste than their less-roasted cousins, they contain less caffeine. If you want maximum caffeine, opt for a lighter roast.
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