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January 2000 Issue
by Chris Schaefer
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So, you want to make the perfect cappuccino do you?

It was a gift. At first, you really wanted it.

You thought, as many others have before you, that since you enjoy cappuccino and latte' at the local coffee house you would be able to easily recreate those same drinks at home. But for some odd, crazy reason you have not yet been able to. Why?

After all, how hard can it be?

And now, the espresso machine which you had longed for, which you coveted, sits collecting dust in a lower cabinet somewhere in the kitchen. My hope is that by reading this article you will find it an easy chore and, yes, perhaps even enjoy attempting and succeeding at making espresso and espresso-based beverages.

First, let's look at your equipment. In September and October of 1998, I wrote equipment reviews for popular home coffee grinders and espresso/cappuccino machines. And you, my faithful audience, have appreciated them. What kind of person would I be if I did not follow up those well-received articles with a small, basic primer instructing you of necessary techniques to achieve quality home coffee drinks?

You will first need to identify what type of home espresso machine you are using. If it is something that you unscrew the top off and add water to, then it is a steam driven machine. Don't worry, there is hope for you yet! If, instead, your machine is not steam driven then it is a pump driven machine. And, you can skip this next section.

Steam-driven Espresso Machines

In all of our cases, most important is both the freshness of the coffee and the coarseness of its grind. For the purposes of this article, I will need to assume that you are quality conscious and are using the freshest possible coffee -- preferably home roasted -- available to you. For your steam driven espresso machine, I would suggest that you grind your beans finer than that of what you would for drip coffee. But not too fine like flour. Your machine builds pressure internally; if the coffee grounds are ground too finely, they resist the flow of water.

Additionally important when using a steam driven espresso machine is keeping in mind that the brew water is very hot and can potentially scorch the coffee grounds. You can try this for yourself, but please heed my warning that the espresso coffee you are making varies in taste as it brews. I would suggest to you then that you try only capturing the first half of the coffee to use for consumption and capturing the last half, or the coffee that gurgles and spits from the machine, and dispose of this. It will taste burnt, bitter, and harsh.

It is important that you have good tasting coffee. 9 out of 10 times, if you have bad tasting coffee, you'll have bad tasting cappuccino. Milk can only do so much to cover up tastes. Little steam-driven machines can, with some practice, do a fairly good job at steaming and frothing milk. You need to have some knowledge up front and the right tools at your disposal. Use the items on this checklist:

  1. Fresh, COLD milk. Use what you like but keep in mind that the more milkfat, the less the milk will support itself and the sooner it will breakdown.
  2. An easy to use, stainless steel milk frothing pitcher. Readily available form housewares stores and on-line (try http://www.espresso.com). Buy a size that suits you but don't go too large or you'll find it difficult to maneuver.
  3. A clean frothing wand.

To prepare your cappuccino, follow these instructions:

  • Begin by preparing your espresso coffee. When the coffee jut covers the bottom of the carafe or cups, place an empty mug under the wand and open the valve or activate the steam per the manufacturer's instructions.

  • Wait a moment to allow a build-up of water to blow through the wand and turn into steam. Then quickly place the tip of the wand to just under the milk's surface (obviously after you put the milk in the pitcher). You'll notice that in the area nearest to the wand's tip, a small vacuum is being pulled. Keep that steady.

  • As the pitcher becomes warm to the touch on its underside, quickly bury the wand to the near-bottom. Cut the steam off when the pitcher becomes hot -- but not so hot that you burn yourself -- on its underside. You may notice that the steamed milk has a delicately sweet aroma to it; if it smells burnt or scalded, you will want to dispose of it.

  • As the steam dies off, remove the pitcher and allow for the coffee to continue to fill the cups. If you remove the pitcher too quickly, excess steam will splatter the hot milk and foam.

  • Capture about 3 fluid ounces of the coffee. Dispose of the remainder.
And finally, some last tips you will want to keep in mind.

Turn off your machine when the coffee is finished. Take that time to wipe down the wand with a clean, wet rag or sponge. WAIT 10 minutes or so until the machine has cooled itself before attempting to unscrew its cap and the coffee basket (portafiltro).

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