On café con leche

You would think that this simple drink would be easy to make, but you would be wrong. Everybody wants to turn this coffee drink into a milk drink by adding way too much milk. If I wanted a milk drink, I would ask for a milk drink, but this is “café” con leche, not the other way around. Why does everyone always want to put a quart of milk in my two shots of expresso? Granted two shots of expresso look a little dark and opaque, but that is where the flavor starts, anything you add after that only reduces all of that good coffee taste with which you started out. In Spain, Italy and France, they pretty much understand the concept of “café con leche” with the milk “leche” being a secondary player that gets tossed in at the last minute to bring up the flavor of the coffee by involving a little fat in the equation. An ounce or two of milk is more than enough to fulfill this promise. All of the drinks at Starbucks are way too overloaded with milk, but I think that this is more in tune with the American taste palette than it is with a European one. Europeans like a strong flavor profile, and Americans tend to shy away from that super-ideal coffee drink, the “café sólo,” which will probably be two shots of expresso straight up, with nothing added or taken away. When I do go to the local coffee emporium I ask for a double shot of expresso with just a shot of milk in it–manchado, macchiato–which is not on the menu so they immediately asked me if I want a cappuccino, which is a bunch of milk with a shot of coffee–no, I don’t want that, let me explain it again. Two shots of expresso and a shot of steamed milk. “But that won’t even fill up the cup. Are you sure?” After I finally convince them to build what I want, then they have to charge me for something, and since my drink is not on the menu, they have to go outside the box. I usually solve this problem for them–just charge me for the double expresso, which is a great solution for them and for me. Where I go regularly for coffee, my café con leche, the baristas have it figured out. The idea behind “café con leche” is to drink a strong coffee drink, but you don’t have to drink five or six cups of “Americano” to get the same effect. You drink a “café con leche” and you don’t have to run to the bathroom six or seven times right away. When you drink a café con leche you can sit and sip and contemplate the world while your mouth is invaded by this beautiful, full-flavored coffee drink that is, in and of itself, a wonderful flavor. You don’t need to add vanilla or cinnamon or hazelnut because coffee is already a flavor by itself. You don’t need caramel or chocolate or orange because coffee, if done well, undiluted by gallons of milk, works just fine by itself. You have one café con leche and you are fine for a good long while as the caffeine courses through your body, lighting up your nervous system, changing the way your brain processes information, realigning your neurons and firing synapses at a much higher rate than before, chasing sleepiness off to the darker recesses of the brain where it curls up like a tired dog. The beauty of this simple concoction cannot be overstated–two shots of expresses, and an ounce or two of hot milk, maybe a bit of sugar, and you have a libation worthy of the gods.

On café con leche

You would think that this simple drink would be easy to make, but you would be wrong. Everybody wants to turn this coffee drink into a milk drink by adding way too much milk. If I wanted a milk drink, I would ask for a milk drink, but this is “café” con leche, not the other way around. Why does everyone always want to put a quart of milk in my two shots of expresso? Granted two shots of expresso look a little dark and opaque, but that is where the flavor starts, anything you add after that only reduces all of that good coffee taste with which you started out. In Spain, Italy and France, they pretty much understand the concept of “café con leche” with the milk “leche” being a secondary player that gets tossed in at the last minute to bring up the flavor of the coffee by involving a little fat in the equation. An ounce or two of milk is more than enough to fulfill this promise. All of the drinks at Starbucks are way too overloaded with milk, but I think that this is more in tune with the American taste palette than it is with a European one. Europeans like a strong flavor profile, and Americans tend to shy away from that super-ideal coffee drink, the “café sólo,” which will probably be two shots of expresso straight up, with nothing added or taken away. When I do go to the local coffee emporium I ask for a double shot of expresso with just a shot of milk in it–manchado, macchiato–which is not on the menu so they immediately asked me if I want a cappuccino, which is a bunch of milk with a shot of coffee–no, I don’t want that, let me explain it again. Two shots of expresso and a shot of steamed milk. “But that won’t even fill up the cup. Are you sure?” After I finally convince them to build what I want, then they have to charge me for something, and since my drink is not on the menu, they have to go outside the box. I usually solve this problem for them–just charge me for the double expresso, which is a great solution for them and for me. Where I go regularly for coffee, my café con leche, the baristas have it figured out. The idea behind “café con leche” is to drink a strong coffee drink, but you don’t have to drink five or six cups of “Americano” to get the same effect. You drink a “café con leche” and you don’t have to run to the bathroom six or seven times right away. When you drink a café con leche you can sit and sip and contemplate the world while your mouth is invaded by this beautiful, full-flavored coffee drink that is, in and of itself, a wonderful flavor. You don’t need to add vanilla or cinnamon or hazelnut because coffee is already a flavor by itself. You don’t need caramel or chocolate or orange because coffee, if done well, undiluted by gallons of milk, works just fine by itself. You have one café con leche and you are fine for a good long while as the caffeine courses through your body, lighting up your nervous system, changing the way your brain processes information, realigning your neurons and firing synapses at a much higher rate than before, chasing sleepiness off to the darker recesses of the brain where it curls up like a tired dog. The beauty of this simple concoction cannot be overstated–two shots of expresses, and an ounce or two of hot milk, maybe a bit of sugar, and you have a libation worthy of the gods.

On Lima, Peru

I am so glad I’ve finally come to Lima. I arrived this morning on the red-eye from Miami, and took off to see a pre-Inca ruin called Huaca Pucllana in the middle of the Miraflores township of Lima, which rises almost two hundred feet above the surrounding buildings. A huge mound of hand-made adobe bricks, the bricks are stacked vertically with space between them to fight the earthquake problem so common in this coastal city. This “pyramid” was totally unknown thirty years ago and three pre-Incan peoples occupied this sacred space. The people of Lima had collectively forgotten what it was and thought it was just a large, dusty (or muddy) hill in Miraflores. On a short tour we got to experience first hand all of the plants, fruits, and vegetables that the local people had eaten or sacrificed on this spot. We also got to meet, first hand, the famous Peruvian Cuy, Llamas, and Alpacas–live and in the flesh. Later, we went down to the ocean front to check out the beautiful Pacific before going to the most excellent ceviche lunch you have ever had. We stopped in at a sidewalk terrace for some well-deserved espressos afterward. Since there is no rest for the wicked or the foolish, we then got onto our tour bus to head downtown to the Plaza Mayor and check out the center of Lima. We visited (or observed from a distance) the city hall, the president’s mansion, the archbishop’s house, the cathedral, a Franciscan monastery (which had an enormously interesting bone pile underneath it), and the largest private museum of native indigenous artifacts that exists in Peru. We finally got back to the hotel for a bite of dinner around 7:30 p.m. Big thanks to Millennium Travel of Texas who had us controlled and directed from airport to hotel to Plaza Mayor to museum to the hotel. I was amazed at how kind the people are, how clean and wonderful the city is for a city of nine million souls. It’s not perfect, and no city is, but my experience was wonderful, having coffee, touring an ancient ruin, having ceviche, having a beverage down at the bay, walking the streets of this strange Lima. I bought the Sunday paper, read about the mayor’s impending recall election, watched a black cat cross my path in a city park, went to the “Parque del amor” with a giant statue of a couple locked in a passionate kiss and embrace, rode in a taxi which made up its own rules of circulation, ate real authentic ceviche, found out the difference between a llama and an alpaca, looked a Cuy square in the eyes, climbed to the top of a pyramid built almost two thousand years ago. I rather doubt I could have done much more before toppling over in exhaustion considering how little sleep I got last night–none. So Lima is complicated; I don’t understand how cars figure out who has the right away in this city. I love the coffee, which is very flavorful, but not at all bitter. Ceviche has a million textures, tastes, sauces. The people of Lima do what all people around the world do on their day off–go out and have a good time. The local buses are a mystery to me, especially what seem to be the suburban buses who pick up people in the center and take them out of the city. Nine tenths of the cars appear to be taxis. Now, it’s time for bed–great hotel, hot shower, and time to catch up on the writing, although I’m dead sure the second I stop moving, I’ll be asleep. Postscript update: the mayor survived her recall election by garnering 52% of the vote.

On Lima, Peru

I am so glad I’ve finally come to Lima. I arrived this morning on the red-eye from Miami, and took off to see a pre-Inca ruin called Huaca Pucllana in the middle of the Miraflores township of Lima, which rises almost two hundred feet above the surrounding buildings. A huge mound of hand-made adobe bricks, the bricks are stacked vertically with space between them to fight the earthquake problem so common in this coastal city. This “pyramid” was totally unknown thirty years ago and three pre-Incan peoples occupied this sacred space. The people of Lima had collectively forgotten what it was and thought it was just a large, dusty (or muddy) hill in Miraflores. On a short tour we got to experience first hand all of the plants, fruits, and vegetables that the local people had eaten or sacrificed on this spot. We also got to meet, first hand, the famous Peruvian Cuy, Llamas, and Alpacas–live and in the flesh. Later, we went down to the ocean front to check out the beautiful Pacific before going to the most excellent ceviche lunch you have ever had. We stopped in at a sidewalk terrace for some well-deserved espressos afterward. Since there is no rest for the wicked or the foolish, we then got onto our tour bus to head downtown to the Plaza Mayor and check out the center of Lima. We visited (or observed from a distance) the city hall, the president’s mansion, the archbishop’s house, the cathedral, a Franciscan monastery (which had an enormously interesting bone pile underneath it), and the largest private museum of native indigenous artifacts that exists in Peru. We finally got back to the hotel for a bite of dinner around 7:30 p.m. Big thanks to Millennium Travel of Texas who had us controlled and directed from airport to hotel to Plaza Mayor to museum to the hotel. I was amazed at how kind the people are, how clean and wonderful the city is for a city of nine million souls. It’s not perfect, and no city is, but my experience was wonderful, having coffee, touring an ancient ruin, having ceviche, having a beverage down at the bay, walking the streets of this strange Lima. I bought the Sunday paper, read about the mayor’s impending recall election, watched a black cat cross my path in a city park, went to the “Parque del amor” with a giant statue of a couple locked in a passionate kiss and embrace, rode in a taxi which made up its own rules of circulation, ate real authentic ceviche, found out the difference between a llama and an alpaca, looked a Cuy square in the eyes, climbed to the top of a pyramid built almost two thousand years ago. I rather doubt I could have done much more before toppling over in exhaustion considering how little sleep I got last night–none. So Lima is complicated; I don’t understand how cars figure out who has the right away in this city. I love the coffee, which is very flavorful, but not at all bitter. Ceviche has a million textures, tastes, sauces. The people of Lima do what all people around the world do on their day off–go out and have a good time. The local buses are a mystery to me, especially what seem to be the suburban buses who pick up people in the center and take them out of the city. Nine tenths of the cars appear to be taxis. Now, it’s time for bed–great hotel, hot shower, and time to catch up on the writing, although I’m dead sure the second I stop moving, I’ll be asleep. Postscript update: the mayor survived her recall election by garnering 52% of the vote.

On talking

One of my favorite activities is having a nice, long, drawn out conversation with another person about almost absolutely nothing, solving world peace, why people won’t signal a turn in Texas, the pro’s and con’s of gun control, the weather, food in the United States, why flying is never boring no matter how much you’ve done, the fear of flying, garbage, cell phone, sports, Italian politics, the Mona Lisa, Boccaccio, and a host of golden daffodils. Sip a double espresso and listen as a friend goes on about their day, their concerns, what they had for lunch. I don’t always have time to do this, but my day is always better when I give myself a little recess from the stress of the day and let someone else tell me how their day went. Of course, I do my share of talking as well. Perhaps it is more important to actually have friends with whom you share a certain intimacy who will sit and listen to you as well. I know I’m not the most enthralling or interesting speaker myself, so listening to me ramble about making bread or leading a search committee is not the most dynamic conversation in the world. What is probably more important than the topics being discussed is the time spent with the other person. American work ethics, however, do not lend themselves to taking a coffee break and just chatting about the world. I guess there may be something to “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” To have a good conversation and meaningful interaction, paradoxically one does not have to talk about anything profound or transcendental. In fact, perhaps it would be better if one is not talking about anything profound at all. A slow give-and-take is all a body really needs, but perhaps the conversation is better if it’s not a strenuous debate on presidential election politics. Talking about the weather in Texas is just about mundane enough to qualify for the perfect conversation between two people who really want to hang out together, but who also don’t want to complicate their lives by talking about something that stirs conflict. Intimacy is seldom about conflict and more often about subjects and beliefs held in common. I would suggest that most people do not base their intimate interactions on debate, conflict, or strife. In fact, most people need intimacy to reaffirm their own identities by seeing themselves in others. Talking, a coffee conversation fits the bill entirely. Sure, one might spend some time laughing at the latest political fiasco coming out of Washington, or why handguns on a college campus is insane, or whether one might boost, or not, a flagging economy with economic incentives or tax relief, but it will always be more interesting to discuss which drunk starlet has been sent back to jail for violating her parole or who is going to win the Oscar for best-supporting actor. Life cannot be just work. There has to be more. I find that while talking to another person, my mind tends to work on other problems which I might being trying to solve at any given moment. I’m sure my blood pressure goes does, as do my levels of stress. Having a nice long chat with a friendly person is like going out for recess and letting off some steam, and breaking the day’s routine can only be a good thing. We spend our whole lives wallowing in our daily routines, mindlessly bending our wills to schedules, time tables, and calendars. Now these aids help us to get our work done, which is good, but too much of anything can be a negative thing. In the isolation of work schedules, we eschew human interaction and robotically dedicate our time and energies to work, just work. Getting out and talking to another person may be just the ticket for breaking out of our zombie-like dedication and working on our overall good mental health.

On talking

One of my favorite activities is having a nice, long, drawn out conversation with another person about almost absolutely nothing, solving world peace, why people won’t signal a turn in Texas, the pro’s and con’s of gun control, the weather, food in the United States, why flying is never boring no matter how much you’ve done, the fear of flying, garbage, cell phone, sports, Italian politics, the Mona Lisa, Boccaccio, and a host of golden daffodils. Sip a double espresso and listen as a friend goes on about their day, their concerns, what they had for lunch. I don’t always have time to do this, but my day is always better when I give myself a little recess from the stress of the day and let someone else tell me how their day went. Of course, I do my share of talking as well. Perhaps it is more important to actually have friends with whom you share a certain intimacy who will sit and listen to you as well. I know I’m not the most enthralling or interesting speaker myself, so listening to me ramble about making bread or leading a search committee is not the most dynamic conversation in the world. What is probably more important than the topics being discussed is the time spent with the other person. American work ethics, however, do not lend themselves to taking a coffee break and just chatting about the world. I guess there may be something to “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” To have a good conversation and meaningful interaction, paradoxically one does not have to talk about anything profound or transcendental. In fact, perhaps it would be better if one is not talking about anything profound at all. A slow give-and-take is all a body really needs, but perhaps the conversation is better if it’s not a strenuous debate on presidential election politics. Talking about the weather in Texas is just about mundane enough to qualify for the perfect conversation between two people who really want to hang out together, but who also don’t want to complicate their lives by talking about something that stirs conflict. Intimacy is seldom about conflict and more often about subjects and beliefs held in common. I would suggest that most people do not base their intimate interactions on debate, conflict, or strife. In fact, most people need intimacy to reaffirm their own identities by seeing themselves in others. Talking, a coffee conversation fits the bill entirely. Sure, one might spend some time laughing at the latest political fiasco coming out of Washington, or why handguns on a college campus is insane, or whether one might boost, or not, a flagging economy with economic incentives or tax relief, but it will always be more interesting to discuss which drunk starlet has been sent back to jail for violating her parole or who is going to win the Oscar for best-supporting actor. Life cannot be just work. There has to be more. I find that while talking to another person, my mind tends to work on other problems which I might being trying to solve at any given moment. I’m sure my blood pressure goes does, as do my levels of stress. Having a nice long chat with a friendly person is like going out for recess and letting off some steam, and breaking the day’s routine can only be a good thing. We spend our whole lives wallowing in our daily routines, mindlessly bending our wills to schedules, time tables, and calendars. Now these aids help us to get our work done, which is good, but too much of anything can be a negative thing. In the isolation of work schedules, we eschew human interaction and robotically dedicate our time and energies to work, just work. Getting out and talking to another person may be just the ticket for breaking out of our zombie-like dedication and working on our overall good mental health.

On having coffee on Beacon Hill

Walking around Boston today was a fascinating experience. Although I have been here before, I’ve never had a chance to visit Harvard, or the Commons, or Beacon Hill, or the colonial historic district and all its old historic sites. All of the Italian restaurants, the cobble stone streets, the brownstones, the T, Harvard, were all wonderfully folkloric, picturesque, curious. wonderful. Even the cemeteries were creepy and ancient. Yet, it was a strange accident of just going the wrong way which took me up Beacon Hill, past the new state house and up Joy street. The state house was closed because it was Saturday, so I meandered up into Beacon Hill with its brownstone row houses, fancy cars, narrow streets, Christmas decorations, piles of snow. I was a little chilled by the damp cold of the morning, so I walked into a small coffee house to get something warm to drink. I got my double espresso with a drop of milk and took a seat by the window to watch the people go by. Being Saturday morning, the place was bustling with all sorts of folks, tall, short, skinny, fancy, gym clothes, running clothes, rich, not so rich, me, delivery guys, double-parkers. And everyone wanted their coffee a little differently. Lots of people want their coffee with soy milk–cow milk being a problem. Many people didn’t want coffee, but they did want tea or cocoa. Some people had trouble deciding, but indecision may or may not have been their exact problem. The conversations were animated and people talked about Christmas, traveling, work, men, women, coffee, shopping, flowers, the price of clothing at Saks. But Meghan, the young lady making the drinks was unflappable even when people got a little testy about whether the whipped cream for the top of their quadruple caramel mocha (with sprinkles) was real or not–it is, by the way. She questioned me about how much milk I wanted, and she listened well, and aced my version of a Spanish “café con leche.” I like a strong coffee drink, not a milky milk drink with a little coffee in it. I was fascinated by Meghan’s persistence and patience as she maneuvered among a flotilla of persnickety customers. I know she wasn’t making that much money either. Baristas don’t make tons of money, but here she was, this hardworking young person, doing her job on a sunny Saturday morning in January. I was in the coffee shop about a half hour watching the world go by, interact with Meghan (and colleague, Jessica), talk to each other, get their coffee, and move on. In a way, this little coffee place is not really a microcosm of the world, but it was a microcosm of life on Beacon Hill this morning. When I travel I am often more interested in the coffee houses and beer joints than I am in the museums and historical monuments. Life is in the people who live in these places, who work behind counters, who serve the public, take tickets, brew coffee, make sandwiches, give directions, help a lost traveler. Meghan and her fellow Bostonians were very kind to me as I meandered from Boston to Cambridge and back to Boston. What I will remember about today will be the people. Harvard was closed, so I didn’t even meet anyone there–not memorable. Coffee with Meghan on Beacon Hill? Priceless.

On fruit cake

A traditional holiday treat that many people don’t like, or at least lots of folks joke about. Sweet, chewy, filled with candied fruit and nuts, encased in a rich spicy cake, what’s not to like? In fact, this treat is so rich that it might not be a good idea to eat more than a small piece at any given moment. If you are watching your weight, forget fruit cake because each piece will have between four hundred and eight hundred calories given all the sugar it has in it. Perhaps it just seems old-fashioned. There are recipes for fruit cake that go back to the middle ages, a fact which opens the door to numerous jokes and lots of ridicule, but I think most of that ridicule is unfounded and based on a biased and uneducated experience as to what this delicious, succulent, treat is really all about. Cake. Who doesn’t like a nice spice cake with lots of rich eggs, flour, and sugar? Walnuts and pecans. Enough said. Candied fruits of all kinds. There are those people who do not like candied fruits, but again, it’s about sugar, so unless you are diabetic, you should love fruit cake which has candied oranges, cherries, pears, lemons, figs, watermelon rinds, and raisins in it. The common denominator here is sugar, and lots of it. Perhaps people fear and loath fruitcake because your strange Aunt Hortensia was the one who gave it to you as a gift, when you really wanted a new video game for your console. You have a natural aversion to your aunt who smells like cats, dresses as if it were 1955, and usually gives you tighty-whitey underwear for Christmas, not a new video game. This time the box weighs several pounds, and you know it’s not what you want. I often think that the presentation and image of fruitcake gives it a bad rap as well: brown and bumpy with strange, muted colors. Fruitcake is also rather massive and somber looking, not at all pleasant or translucent, as if it needed an extreme makeover so that it looked more like a diaphanous piece of sculpted cheese cake rather than something that the cat might have killed and dragged in. If you were to give it to the cat, I’m sure they would make short work of it though. Fruitcake has an image issue which its makers need to deal with. This is a dessert which is just not modern and glitzy, not healthy or holistic, not for losing weight or getting control of your blood pressure. I would suggest, in fact, that if you have any problems related to sugar or fat or weight or high blood pressure or cholesterol, that this is not your ideal food. If, on the other hand, you want to have friends in for a nice hot cup of coffee or mulled wine or aquavit or whatever, you might want to offer small pieces of this delightful, heaven-sent victual that is a delight to eat and wonderful to share. Certainly, you are not going to give this to the younger generation–they want toaster pastries or energy drinks or fast food. They eat with their eyes and fruitcake does not “look” good, so they won’t eat it. Their loss. But if you are having in a few people who have been around the world and eaten a few odd things, then a freshly baked fruitcake from a central Texas location is probably called for. The nuts, the fruit, the cake, it’s a great gift for your favorite teacher, a fabulous administrative assistant, your boss, or just someone you love. Being generous and loving during the holidays is a fine way to cap the year, and God knows, this has been a stressful year. So why not do it with fruitcake?

On fruit cake

A traditional holiday treat that many people don’t like, or at least lots of folks joke about. Sweet, chewy, filled with candied fruit and nuts, encased in a rich spicy cake, what’s not to like? In fact, this treat is so rich that it might not be a good idea to eat more than a small piece at any given moment. If you are watching your weight, forget fruit cake because each piece will have between four hundred and eight hundred calories given all the sugar it has in it. Perhaps it just seems old-fashioned. There are recipes for fruit cake that go back to the middle ages, a fact which opens the door to numerous jokes and lots of ridicule, but I think most of that ridicule is unfounded and based on a biased and uneducated experience as to what this delicious, succulent, treat is really all about. Cake. Who doesn’t like a nice spice cake with lots of rich eggs, flour, and sugar? Walnuts and pecans. Enough said. Candied fruits of all kinds. There are those people who do not like candied fruits, but again, it’s about sugar, so unless you are diabetic, you should love fruit cake which has candied oranges, cherries, pears, lemons, figs, watermelon rinds, and raisins in it. The common denominator here is sugar, and lots of it. Perhaps people fear and loath fruitcake because your strange Aunt Hortensia was the one who gave it to you as a gift, when you really wanted a new video game for your console. You have a natural aversion to your aunt who smells like cats, dresses as if it were 1955, and usually gives you tighty-whitey underwear for Christmas, not a new video game. This time the box weighs several pounds, and you know it’s not what you want. I often think that the presentation and image of fruitcake gives it a bad rap as well: brown and bumpy with strange, muted colors. Fruitcake is also rather massive and somber looking, not at all pleasant or translucent, as if it needed an extreme makeover so that it looked more like a diaphanous piece of sculpted cheese cake rather than something that the cat might have killed and dragged in. If you were to give it to the cat, I’m sure they would make short work of it though. Fruitcake has an image issue which its makers need to deal with. This is a dessert which is just not modern and glitzy, not healthy or holistic, not for losing weight or getting control of your blood pressure. I would suggest, in fact, that if you have any problems related to sugar or fat or weight or high blood pressure or cholesterol, that this is not your ideal food. If, on the other hand, you want to have friends in for a nice hot cup of coffee or mulled wine or aquavit or whatever, you might want to offer small pieces of this delightful, heaven-sent victual that is a delight to eat and wonderful to share. Certainly, you are not going to give this to the younger generation–they want toaster pastries or energy drinks or fast food. They eat with their eyes and fruitcake does not “look” good, so they won’t eat it. Their loss. But if you are having in a few people who have been around the world and eaten a few odd things, then a freshly baked fruitcake from a central Texas location is probably called for. The nuts, the fruit, the cake, it’s a great gift for your favorite teacher, a fabulous administrative assistant, your boss, or just someone you love. Being generous and loving during the holidays is a fine way to cap the year, and God knows, this has been a stressful year. So why not do it with fruitcake?