Espresso Cuisines : American Style Drinks

Americans have begun to subject the classic espresso cuisine to their own brand of cultural innovation. In general, it would seem that we are frustrated by the brevity and simplicity of the classic Italian and Italian-American cuisines, and want bigger drinks with more in them. Perhaps an ounce-and-a-half of coffee in a tiny cup does lack comfort in a coffee shop in the middle of the Great Plains or a café in Manhatten.

The majority of these creations appear to have originated in Seattle, where a passion for Italian coffee and a shortage of actual Italians seem to have fueled a veritable orgy of home-grown espresso creativity.

Americano. A single serving of espresso with hot water added to fill a 6-ounce cup. Note that simply running 6 ounces of hot water through a single dose of ground coffee will not produce an Americano, but will produce 6 ounces of thin, bitter, overextracted espresso. The Americano allows a regular 1 1/4-ounce serving of espresso to preserve its integrity and perfume, while stretching it to 5 or 6 ounces by adding the hot water.

Double Cappuccino. If this innovation is made correctly, you should get no more than 3 ounces of uncompromised espresso, brewed with double the usual amount of ground coffee, topped with 3 to 5 ounces of hot milk and froth, with emphasis on the froth. Usually served in an 8- to 10-ounce cup or mug. If the ground coffee is not doubled, and the operator simply forces twice as much water through one serving’s worth of ground coffee, you’re getting a bitter, watery perversion, rather than a taller, stronger version of a good drink.

Triple Cappuccino. Simply three cappuccinos, usually served in a 12-ounce mug or 16-ounce glass, made with three doses of ground coffee. On behalf of the medical establishment, I should point out that this drink is probably not good for one’s health.

Double Caffe Latte. The amount of ground coffee is doubled and the amount of coffee brewed is doubled. Usually, the amount of hot milk and froth remains about the same as in a single caffe latte, or enough to fill a 16-ounce glass. Consequently, a double caffe latte is usually a stronger tasting drink than a single, but represents the same volume of liquid. As with the single caffe latte, the head of froth should be modest, and the drink still relatively milky.

Triple Caffe Latte. See above. Simply a very strong caffe latte, made with three servings of espresso brewed with a triple dose of ground coffee, together with enough hot milk and froth to fill a 16-ounce glass.

Mocha Latte. A taller, milkier version of the classic mocha (see above). If I were to suggest proportions for this invention, they would be one part properly strong espresso, one part properly strong chocolate, and three parts milk and froth. These proportions produce a drink that is milkier, taller, and more muted than the classic mocha, but still rich enough to satisfy.

Café Au Lait. In some American cafes, a drink made with about half American-roast, filter coffee, and about half hot milk and froth, usually served in a 12- or 16-ounce glass or bowl. The proportion of coffee to milk has to be larger than with the espresso-based caffe latte, because American filter coffee is so delicate in flavor and light in body compared to espresso.

Flavored caffe latte. The new American espresso cuisine’s most ubiquitous and purist-offending invention is the flavored latte, in which a caffe latte is transformed into a chocolate-mint latte, grenadine latte, cherry latte, or any number of other lattes, each through the addition of a dollop of the relevant Italian fountain syrup. The flavored caffe latte, made correctly (about 1/2 to 1 ounce of syrup to every serving of espresso and approximately 8 ounces of hot milk), should strike a judicious balance between the milk-muted bite of the espresso and the seduction of the syrup.

Iced Cappuccino. Best made with a single or double serving of freshly brewed espresso poured over crushed ice, topped with an ounce or two of cold milk, then some froth (not hot milk) from the machine to top it off. This drink should always be served in a glass. The triple contrast of coffee, milk, and froth, all bubbling around the ice, makes a pleasant sight on a hot day.

Espresso Granita. Traditional Italian-American granitas are made by freezing strong, unsweetened or lightly-sweetened espresso until it is slushy, removing it from the freezer, mixing it, putting it back in the freezer again, and repeating this process until a wonderfully grainy consistency is achieved. This strong, dark icy stuff is served in a parfait glass or sundae dish topped with lightly sweetened whipped cream.

Granita Latte, Granita. Frappucino (Starbucks). The granitas now popular in the United States are tall blender drinks that combine espresso, milk, sugar, and sometimes vanilla. The best are made fresh on demand in a commercial blender. Icy cold but laced with the perfume of just-brewed espresso, these can be splendid summer drinks. Less successful are granitas produced by dispensing machines, the kind with big see-through tanks filled with various colors of slush. Dispensing-machine granitas typically are made with either stale espresso or pre-made espresso concentrates. They tend to be flat and cloying compared to the fresh-made blender versions.

Chai, Chai Latte. Chai is a drink made with a mix of intensely flavored spices (ginger, cinnamon, cardomom), black tea, and honey or sugar, all mixed in frothed milk and typically served in a tall, latte-sized glass. Although chai is based on traditional recipes from central Asia, the current American version was developed and popularized by the espresso cart culture of the Pacific Northwest. Chai drinks contain no espresso or coffee, but the use of frothed milk as their vehicle most definitely make them an important component of the new espresso cuisine. To my palate, the best versions of chai are the most traditional, those that combine fresh honey, a liquid concentrate made by boiling actual ground spices, and good black tea. Chai made from “instant chai” mixes can range from decent to absolutely awful: shallow and brassy sweet.