Part 3 of the Coffee Series
Now that we’ve done something fancy, we can take the time to go back to something more basic: the latte.
In the Philippines, lattes are often served mixed– shaken, especially in chain stores. This is how I originally learned how to drink my coffee, as a milky slurry with a bitter coffee aftertaste. But it was a lazy day in France, where I ran off with my coffee without a stirrer, that changed how I saw the latte at all.
The beauty of coffee a whole is that while there are overarching principles in how the cup should be made, and that there are recommendations to how coffee can be enjoyed, there are no real hard rules to it. I am personally a student of the “you do you” school of consumption. I have been known to enjoy my cup of sugar with a splash of coffee for color, but something I once read changed how I saw and drank the macchiato:
The one thing to remember is that the layers matter. This is important to keep in mind for any layered drink, be it this latte or even cocktails like the B-52. While mixing might make the drink less fragile (and honestly, less pretentious), there is some character lost in the slurry that keeping the layers would reveal. Keeping the layers distinct and separate does affect how the coffee could be consumed. It starts with the delicate foam that transitions quickly into a strong mouthful of coffee. As you drink, the espresso layer thins and transitions into the mild, sweet milk. It was my drink of choice throughout graduate school and made me feel like I was waking up and gently transitioning into wakefulness without the shock to the system that a bit of over-processed shot of espresso tends to do.
The most beautiful thing about this drink is that it’s incredibly easy to make at home. While I do not have an espresso maker, I find that the Aeropress suits my needs just fine. My preferred bean blends always bear a nutty undertone to complement the milk. It is important that the espresso/coffee layer remains strong, so I normally double the grounds-to-water ratio and steep for 3/4 the recommended time with water just off the boil.
The star of this drink however, is the milk. It is important to start with cold milk to make it react slowly to heat. Cold milk is far less susceptible to scalding and turning sour, too. In place of a steamer, I just put the milk in the microwave for about a minute, and then subject it to a handheld battery-operated whisk. The result is velvety milk with a thick layer of foam. Because I like my drinks mildly sweet, I prefer to sweeten the milk with a bit of sugar as it is heating. This is something most coffee places don’t do (keeping true to the roots of the drink), and is the biggest reason why I am an advocate to making your own coffee drinks at home.
Lastly, the most important part of this process is the pour. Pouring the coffee directly into the milk would dissolve the foam (from the heat) and would end up blending into the milk. This isn’t itself a bad thing, and saves you the time of mixing, it becomes something more like a cappuccino. The trick is to slow the pour so drastically that the coffee would instead rest on the layer of milk instead of plunging to the bottom of the cup. To do it, pour the coffee very, very slowly onto the back of a spoon that rests just beneath the surface of the foam and on the milk. It thins out the pour and makes it less likely to mix with the rest of the milk.
While it sounds like a lot of work, I find that five minutes of effort is worth the tasty result. The latte is a deeply under-appreciated drink, and is at the heart of so many of my slow autumn morning memories that I spent a lot of time upon coming home just to calibrate my brew process to replicate what I once had in France.
ERRATUM: This article originally referred to the aforementioned drink as a macchiato, which it isn’t, at all. Macchiatos are espresso drinks marked with foam, while this bears a much greater milk to coffee ratio. It isn’t quite a latte either in the strictest sense, but is an espresso/coffee-based drink I learned to make while trying to keep awake during the winter.