Why is my coffee bitter? It doesn't make any sense. I mean, sure, it's got a lot of bitter flavor compounds in it, and sure, the tongue supposedly has those taste receptors just for bitter flavors so that we don't eat poisonous things or something, but my coffee can be tastier. I've had tastier coffee. What am I missing? Salt. That's it. A tiny bit of salt in the coffee. Did I just blow your mind? I found this one though Ideas in Food, who found out about it through Shirley O. Corriher. So, what's going on here? As mentioned before, we've been taught in elementary school about the taste receptors in our tongues that handle sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Perhaps even umami, though we probably weren't taught that in elementary school. Well, I wasn't. But we know that food is far more than the combination of those flavors. Flavor compounds combine in strange ways and float up through the nasal cavities and coat the tongue in more subtle variations to the simple way taught in schools. When I drink coffee, I'm not really all that interested in the bitter. Therefore, I'll use the espresso machine and make a double ristretto, which is effectively a full espresso's worth of water over two espresso's worth of beans. This extracts lots of flavor and not that much bitter. Still, the double ristretto uses a lot of beans. What if there were some magical substance that made flavors more noticeable? What if a simple, two-atom molecule could turn bland foods into taste explosions? Wouldn't the world be a better place if it existed? Wouldn't we all be happier? Yes, yes we would. Because we have salt, all of our lives are more fulfilling. Magic does exist in the world. And, if you sprinkle a little bit of this magical fairy dust into an espresso, so 10-15 flakes of kosher salt, for example, all of the flavors that aren't bitter are amplified. A single, normal cup of espresso tastes like a double ristretto. Seriously, how cool is that? The folks over at Ideas in Food will now be going crazy with experimentation on standard beverages with the addition of salt. I'm sure we'll hear new things as time goes on. Personally, I couldn't be more pleased learning about this one, except insofar as I did not think of it, nor even think to think of it.
I have not tried a large number of espresso makers, so this will not be a comparative review. What you will find in the following paragraphs is what owning a Saeco Vienna will do for you, how it will improve your life, your love life, and your professional life. How you can master seven languages because of it. How you will finally understand the final episode of The Prisoner. Also, how it will help you make a damn fine cup of espresso. Yeah, all those claims from the previous paragraph? Mostly only the last one is true. With the rest of them, any improvements you see in your own life matching those are correlative at best, coincidental at worst. The Saeco Vienna is* a Super Automatic (or superautomatica) espresso machine**. What this means in general terms is that, in order to get a fantastic cup of espresso, you must, after ensuring that the hoppers are filled with beans and water respectively and that a cup is waiting below the spigot, hit a button. Maybe hit that button twice if you want twice as much espresso. I know! "Why must it be so much work?" "Won't somebody think of the index-finger impared!" But it's true; buttons are pressed, espresso appears. The machine grinds the beans, tamps them down, runs the steam through, and empties the grounds into a bin. "But Brian," you may think, "that's not hardcore!" And you are correct. I am not going to be a master barista any time soon. I am lazy with my espresso making. On the other hand, I can stumble downstairs, barely awake, set a cup down, double-tap a button, and be given better espresso than most of the coffee houses in the US. If that's not the very definition of "The Future", then I don't want to live in The Future. What I'm not likely to get is the God Shot, which makes me a little sad, but not so sad that I want to actually work for my espresso. Frothing milk is pretty easy, too, for those who prefer their coffee milky. You hit another button, which heats the water up more for froth purposes, then then you put the milk under what's called the Panarello Wand, which is like a normal frothing wand but with some plastic bits designed to make it easier for the non-hardcore to froth milk. Depending on the type of milk you're using, you can just listen to the tone of the milk to know when it's hit 140°F, which is warm enough for my wife, or 160°F, where the foam becomes stable. If you had enough milk in your frothing cup to begin with, then you will have the "right" amount of foam. Too little milk, and you'll probably end up with too much foam. Still, pretty easy. Then you wipe things down and rinse bits off, and you are set for another day of coffee making. The other great thing about this line of espresso maker is that it's relatively inexpensive. Although it's about $500, that is a pittance compared to other super automatics. It's made by a quality company, though, and it has the same innards as higher-end espresso makers, but because of the not-exciting styling, it costs much less. About the only downside to the machine is that there's this one part that I'm going to have to clean one day, and I cannot for the life of me figure out how to get it out of the machine. The instructions were vague, and the video that came with it is on VHS. As if I have anything that plays a tape of any kind around the home. Sigh. One day I will figure it out. But not today. In any case, if you want to make espresso, and don't need to be hardcore, I would go with this. More specifically, if I need to buy a second one for any reason, I will stay with this brand and its descendants. *- Well… was. It's no longer being made. However, you can get a Saeco Villa , which is basically the new, slightly improved model. It has two boilers, for example, so you don't have to wait the many long seconds between brewing espresso and frothing milk. **- Incidentally, this was the machine that Alton Brown used in his episode on espresso. Just so you know.
There are a couple of sites that I have a difficult time not linking to whenever there's a new post. Ideas in Food is one of them, and khymos.org is the other. They have consistently good information and you should probably just add them to your rss reader if you haven't already. Today I've failed at my attempt not to link to khymos.org, in this case a lovely initial part of a multi-part series on espresso. When I first started this site, I did a series of articles on coffee. I thought of doing a series on espresso, but it's a large topic that I have limited knowledge of. Before, I didn't have an espresso maker, and now I have a super-automatic, so I went from no experience to limited experience. While the espresso that I make is likely to be better than any random coffee store you might wander into in a random US town, it's not perfection. Without striving for that perfection, it just didn't seem the proper series of articles that I should write. However, the article Wonders of extraction: Espresso (part I) is everything I could have hoped to write and more, so it saves me no end of work to just point you there. Go to it. Read, learn, follow links, etc.
I'm doing some travel for business. I got a new job recently (and got married, and went on a honeymoon, and was in a bit of community theatre), which is part of the reason you've heard little from me recently. However, as I'm getting the old posts back, I'll post some more new stuff in the meantime. So, as I said, I'm doing some business travel. In this particular trip, I was staying in Visalia, California, which is near Fresno in a very agricultural part of the state. Behind my hotel, I could see the back of a building with the sign, "Bothof's Bakery." Already, I was tempted. Now, the hotel had free continental breakfast, but I decided to break a few bucks out of my personal money and eat a proper breakfast. The downtown area where I was staying was not one for long business hours, so most places were closed between 9:30 PM and 8:30 AM. However, the bakery was open whenever I dropped by in the morning, which was early as I was still on Eastern Standard Time. The owner, or someone whom I presume was the owner), was very nice and quite talkative. A good sign for a little local bakery. There were two main display racks of goods, one with petit fours and cakes and the like, and the other with pastries proper. The first day, he directed me towards a, for lack of a better term, ginormous turnover, which you can see above. I also chose the apple fritter, as it looked tasty. The fritter was a bit too sweet for me, so I only had a bite of that. But the turnover I enjoyed immensely. The crust was super-flaky, and the cherry filling was delightful. Close observers will note the Starbucks Iced White Chocolate Mocha in the edge of the photo. Now, there are two local coffee houses, one of which I tried an espresso at shortly after consuming the turnover. It was dreadful espresso. Everything I hate about espresso, that had it. And I quite enjoy espresso, properly made. I attempted to go to the local organic shop, but apparently they don't open until 8:30, and by then, it's nearly lunchtime on my EST clock, so I had to skip their potential delights. Still, it's all better than eating at the local Burger King or similar, and I try to do my best to eat locally whenever I travel, business or otherwise. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but the effort is generally worth it.