a test kitchen dossier
“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”
— Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (1754-1838), speaking of the perfect cup of coffee
Proper name: Coffea arabica (Arabica), Coffea canephora (Robusta)
Area of Origin: Ethiopia, then Arabia
Any of various tropical African shrubs or trees of the genus Coffea, especially C. arabica, widely cultivated in the tropics for their seeds that are dried, roasted, and ground to prepare a stimulating aromatic drink (American Heritage Dictionary).
Popular legend holds that a goat herder named Kaldi noticed his animals became excitable and frisky after grazing on the red berries of a local shrub; he ate the berries himself and became “happier,” thus launching a trend.
As early as the 6th Century AD, Arab monks boiled coffee plants to make a stimulating drink named “qahwa” to help them stay awake during long nights of prayer. Coffee remained an Arab drink until the 1600s, when it was introduced into Venice, and then became popular all over Europe. In the early 1700s, coffee plants were brought to the New World, where the vast majority of coffee is produced today. 35% of world production comes from Brazil, with another 12% from Columbia, which is known for growing the finest tasting coffee. Coffee is produced all over Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, Tanzania, and parts of Southeast Asia.
Arabica Coffee is highly prized for its deeply aromatic flavor and rounded body; it requires special soil conditions and grows at higher altitudes. Due to its intense flavor and low caffeine content, Arabica accounts for 75% of the world’s coffee production. However, Arabica trees are highly susceptible to disease and require intense labor to harvest, producing only 1 to 1.5 pounds of beans per plant. For this reason, many canned coffee producers blend the beans with Robusta, which is heartier, grows at lower altitudes, and has higher caffeine content — but is far inferior. Most connoisseurs drink only coffee brewed from Arabica beans.
Coffee can serve to intensify other flavors; in recipes, it is often used in ground or brewed form to “punch up” the flavor of a finished dish. Frequently paired with chocolate in dessert recipes to give a more robust flavor, it as also used in savory spice mixes such as rubs or marinades for intensely flavored meats. As a beverage, coffee can be paired with just about any other flavor; an entire industry has grown around flavor additives for coffee drinks.
Coffee is typically brewed as a hot beverage, and likely due to its stimulating effects, it has become the most popular drink in the world. It keeps most American college students coherent through their time at university. Most cultures have some kind of coffee ritual, and in the U.S. it’s called “Starbucks,” where we have mastered the differentiation between grande, venti, half-caf, and latte. Our home brewing machinery becomes ever more sophisticated, and it seems as if we are on a true quest to craft the perfect cup of coffee. It is no wonder, then, that more than 400 billion cups of coffee are consumed every year, and that as a world commodity, coffee is second only to oil.
In exploring both sweet and savory options for coffee as an ingredient, we found ourselves naturally examining the familiar and expected to see what might be used as a flavor foundation: What were our favorite tastes, and how might we translate those into new form? Since our mental mouths led us by default to beverages and desserts as a starting point, we have addressed those first with this week’s recipes. Next week will lead us to some new territory, however, as we craft spice rubs, marinades, and sauces with this unlikely contender for the savory side of life.
For now, however, let us revel in the sweet and sumptuous. Besides, it’s always fun to start with dessert.
Photo: Kelly Cline