geoff fernald

Important Tamper & Puck revision January 2013

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I believe home espresso ( the heart of Cappuccino) demands only four things:

1- A simple espresso maker costing $24 shaped like an hour-glass into which

2- you pour good tasting water and

3- tamp down a good espresso bean ground fine

4- and patience to heat the water, pressurize the maker, push the dark non-bitter elixir up into the top half of said maker for ready use in a warm cup.

5- Once the espresso is made, warm skimmed-over milk* of whatever fat content tastes good and feels good to you, tossed into your blender, will provide all the 'steamed' milk you'll ever need.

(* Skimmed over means milk heated long enough to form a skin on top. Also note that this method for frothed milk provides a lite (1/4" (6mm) layer of froth similar to that done in Florence. This does not provide the multi-inch (multi cm) froth you get in the USA)

Credentials: I have been making espresso since 1973 when my wife and I traveled in Europe for 14 months in a Volkswagen camping van. We believe the best Cappuccino in the world is available in Florence. (see note below on lost art even there now) That is my model.

Now some details.

Your drinking water may be good most of the time, but gets back flushed now and then. If it tastes bad it will make bad coffee. I use tap water most of the time, though we have generally good tap water.

THE COFFEE: I believe you must have a dark bean, but not too black. (Starbucks Espresso, Pete's and French Roast tend to be too dark). If it is too black you will lose the smooth tasty finish at the back of the coffee swallow. A black bean will provide good front taste, but no creamy finish. The Italian espresso bean is best for this mix of brown and darker bean. Try several before settling. Consistent bean and water are essential to repeat performances. (I use Black Bear Florentine Espresso from Tuftonboro New Hampshire, but several others will do) There are good decaf's too.

Grind the coffee as fine as you have ever seen it ground, like fine sand. I have a Braun flow-through type of grinder I set to 4. It goes down to 1. The chopping kind of grinder is ok too, just hold the lid down until it sounds fine, a smooth fine sand sound on the lid. The particle size will be about the size of salt.

The exact country the bean comes from does not matter as much with beans roasted espresso dark since country variation is more subtle and shows up most in light brown beans.

THE MAKER: Just buy one of those three section aluminum pots which have water in the bottom chamber, coffee in the middle, and hold the finished espresso in the top. The pot is shaped like an hour-glass (see picture at top of page). They will require tight 'screwing' the first few times to keep the pressure seal tight. It is the steam pressure which forces the water through the coffee. I use what is called a 9-cup model which for me makes normally 3 cups if filled half way which is what I do to keep the espresso strong. There are smaller and larger makers. I can get 6 cups of strong enough for most cappuccino drinkers from the same pot when more guests are present.

(new!) Packing the coffee is another of the critical steps to obtain consistently good espresso. I only recently learned this (2005) after a second trip to Italy. Use a tamper or similar circular based tool that just fits the coffee basket diameter. I use a 225 cc vitamin C container. By pressing down with moderate pressure for a man and slightly heavy for a woman you will see the coffee pack down about .25 inches or more from the top of the basket lip. Twist as you press to smooth out the packing of the grounds.

The density of the coffee puck determines the richness of the espresso and, to some extent, its bitterness. It is therefor one of the main elements that you must master to make strong, clean tasting espresso. It can also get a bit complicated and here's what I understand about it now late in my life of making espresso:
COFFEE PUCK-ground granular fineness and packing pressure from using a tamper have a big effect on how easy it is for heated water to flow through the coffee-puck. To allow the coffee-puck to control the espresso you have to leave enough room above it (approx 2-3mm) to allow it to expand without hitting the filter plate above it, otherwise the expansion and filter plate determine coffee puck compaction.

So do some experiments with coffee compacting pressures for a specific grind granularity(different for each coffee bean and grind fineness) to determine which pressure is the maximum you can apply and still have the pressure relief valve not let pressure out because the puck is too dense. Generally this is the puck density you wish to achieve for maximum richness and espresso density without bitterness. Bitterness can also increase as a result of the roast of coffee and heating too fast forcing the hot water up too abruptly.

THE HEAT: Put milk in a sauce pan (I use half half&half and half 2%) and heat at medium till skimmed-over. Heat espresso at same time at high heat till it starts flowing, visible with lid up, then turn to medium. or lower and let flow smoothly into upper chamber until the lovely golden cream foam comes out at the end of the cycle. Turn heat off because the water is gone from lower chamber and damage to the gasket can occur if left on.

THE CUP AND THE POUR: Preheat cup in microwave. Use half teaspoon of sugar in cup first then add espresso to about 1/3 to 1/2 cup height, toss milk in blender, blend on high (watch lid doesn't fly off) (use glass blender, plastic cracks after a while) and tap blender, milk and all, on counter to release large bubbles. Pour with sloshing motion to get foam out. ( Instead of heating on the stove I now heat in the microwave for about a minute. Black and Deckar make a cheap little espresso maker from which i use only the little foamer, a glass beaker and french press like thing that when pumped foams the mild.)

I use two types of cup. For delicate drinking thin china coffee cups do not cool the coffee down and feel delicate in the hand. I also like the thick brown half circle cups used in Florence before 1990. By the way: Italy has lost the skill they used to have at making every cup perfectly. They diverted their attention when Starbucks got so pupular. They do use sugar in Florence!

This should not contain much foam. Americans use too much foam. Only a 1/4" layer on top. The rest is 1/3 to 1/2 espresso, and 2/3-1/2 milk.

Stir to mix sugar.

DRINKING: Sit and relax, read, look at the grass, sky, flowers, drink this wonderful brew.

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