The other day (way back in 2010), we stopped by our neighbors’ house to invite them to a little Christmas Eve gathering, and they invited us in for coffee. But not just any coffee. Rafael is from Mexico, and Milagros is from Cuba. She is a wonderfully exuberant person who hates to wait in lines and who loves to talk and who wants her coffee to yell back at her and maybe even cuss her out, just a little. So what they offered us was coffee Cuban-style – also know as Cafe Cubano – with plenty of sugar and enough caffeine to keep an unsuspecting American girl like me on a buzzy kind of sugar-high for upwards of hours.
Milagros has some definite opinions about the whole thing and might chastise me for calling it coffee actually, because Cafe Cubano has little in common with the stuff we brew every morning as an incentive to get out of bed (even though we brew it strong – by American standards). Our initial conversation on the subject began as she stood with her back to us at the kitchen counter doing something magical with a bag of Cafe La Llave, some sugar, and an espresso machine. It went something like this:
Milagros (waving her arms around): Americans don’t know anything about real coffee!
Milagros (more arm-waving): NO! They don’t know how to make coffee and they don’t know how to drink coffee! Their coffee is weak! Weak! Like babies!
Jenny: I like strong coffee.
Milagros: HA! You don’t know what strong coffee is, American-woman-neighbor! In Cuba, we like our coffee strong! And we drink it all day! Lots of times a day! Twenty-eight times a day! And it doesn’t keep us up at night like Americans say it does! We drink it in our sleep! We drink it while we are dead!
Something like that. There were a lot of words and the conversation occurred partially in a frantically rapid Spanish which I don’t understand, and so that’s really just my own general impression of what was actually said. The most important thing that happened that afternoon was that, after a small flurry of activity and rapid-fire Spanish and arm-waving over there at the kitchen counter, Milagros appeared with a pretty demitasse cup on a tiny saucer for each of us. The good cups, brought out for Christmas with little handles you squeeze delicately between thumb and forefinger. And each cup was filled with a creamy brown liquid that tasted not only like strong coffee, but also like sugar and bitter chocolate.
And she went a step further. As we sipped this sweet, almost chocolatey coffee, she stepped into the back room and returned with a stovetop espresso maker. I keep one around in case my espresso maker doesn’t work, she told us. That’s how important espresso is to her – she keeps a back-up espresso maker just in case. I was impressed. And then she gave it to us. Take it, she said. Make good Cuban coffee wth it.
The following day, when they arrived for Christmas Eve cookies and drinks, Milagros handed us a small gift wrapped up and tied with a shiny ribbon. It turned out to be a set of two espresso cups. You can’t drink Cuban espresso from big mugs, she told us. That’s not how we do it in Cuba.
It’s pretty easy to make good espresso, turns out. You can get a stovetop espresso maker like ours for around $15. Choose a dark-roasted coffee and grind it very fine. Milagros uses a coffee called Cafe La Llave which is pretty popular with Cubans in America, but we use whatever we have lying around.
A stovetop espresso maker like ours is comprised of three parts: a lower reservoir to hold the water, an upper reservoir that collects the brewed espresso, and a basket that sits inside the lower reservoir and holds the ground coffee. Unscrew the upper and lower portions of the espresso pot and remove the basket. Pack your finely ground coffee into the basket, filling it almost to the top. We use a spoon to pack it well. We’re not fancy around here.
Fill the lower reservoir with cold water. There’s a small screw near the top of the reservoir on ours and on many of the ones I’ve seen; fill it just to the bottom of the screw. Place the packed basket into the lower reservoir and screw the top reservoir on. Place the pot on the stove and turn the heat to high.
While the water heats, put about 1 teaspoon of sugar in a demitasse cup. As the water begins to boil, it will push up through the coffee and spill over into the top reservoir of the pot. Once you’ve got a little coffee spilled into the top of the pot, pour just enough into the cup to moisten the sugar. Return the pot to the stove where the water will continue to boil. Stir the hot coffee and sugar to make a paste.
When most of the water has moved up through the coffee and into the upper portion of the pot, fill your cup, stirring as you pour to mix the sugar paste into the espresso. People who are good at this apparently achieve a frothy, cream-colored cap on their drink. I’m not that good at it yet, but I so come up with something similar to Milagros’ Cafe Cubano – a sweet, strong, chocolatey cup of espresso.