Category Archives: Drinks

apolitical and relatively non-violent thoughts on coffee (or, How I Spent My Christmas Break That One Year)

In Guatemala – I’m not even kidding – people grow coffee in their backyards. I’m sure not all people do this, but I haven’t crept into too many Guatemalan backyards in my lifetime, so I can’t be definitive about it. The point is that if you live in Guatemala, you may have the potential to grow coffee in your backyard should you want to pursue it as an option. 

Coffee.  Yet another topic that has filled books and books.  In fact, I’m presently skimming along the chapter on coffee in just such a book.  This is a disturbingly heavy tome called A History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat that you could use to kill a tarantula if this was the type of spider you typically found lurking around the bathtub at your place.  (Please note that I don’t actually condone killing any spiders, most especially tarantulas.  Trapping in Tupperware and releasing into the wild, yes.  Killing, no.)  It’s also apparently a 24-year-old classic that I only just discovered this past weekend while hanging around at an archaeology conference where, frankly, the bigger the book, the cooler you are.  Or something similar. 

The words sticking to my brain during the course of all this non-committal skimming so far include “violence”, “dangerous poison”, and “mud which is good for nothing but the very dregs of people”.  So we’ll certainly be revisiting the topic of coffee in future posts as it clearly has the potential to be a frightening and politically challenging subject. Today, however, I’ll try to be brief; tomorrow I’ll start reading and looking up the big words.

Back in January, we cracked the subject open with a thing about Cuban coffee.  Not long after discovering Cafe Cubano, I read Maggie’s description of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony in her travel blog GirlVentures.  And not too long after that, I remembered that I’d personally witnessed coffee berries growing in Raphael’s aunt’s yard in lovely Antigua, Guatemala, and taken a walk through a shady finca – or coffee plantation – not far from her house.  And finally, all this thinking and reading and remembering led me to the realization that we in fact have a jar of raw coffee beans in our kitchen cabinet given to us by one of Raphael’s brothers who recently bought a small finca in Guatemala.  Because you can do that in Guatemala.  Buy a finca.  Just like that.

We’ve Had This Jar for some time now.  Possibly for as long as a year.  Probably.  I don’t know how long raw coffee beans retain their integrity.  Do they lose their oils after a year?  I haven’t yet looked this up on Wikipedia and furthermore decided a couple of weeks ago that it didn’t matter.  Regardless of the viability of our coffee beans, I would attempt to roast them in the spirit of adventure and see where it took me.   Raphael’s brother had shown him how to roast coffee beans in the oven, but I didn’t go that route.  Having just read Maggie’s account of her experience, I decided to go the Ethiopian coffee ceremony route.  This method includes a metal plate, aromatic grasses, and some coals, as well as, I’m sure, other things such as, for example, not a charcoal grill purchased for  $7.00 from a thrift store back in 2001.  I, however, went with the charcoal grill which was readily available and skipped the grass, as grass is generally not as available in my desert backyard. 

Suffice to say, my first three attempts produced a metal griddle full of blackened and cracked coffee beans.  And I haven’t yet made the fourth attempt which will involve either cooler coals or a stove and I’m not sure which yet, but you will, of course, be involved.

In the meantime, let’s return to the part where we talk about how coffee grows in Raphael’s aunt’s backyard.  I’m not entirely sure why I’m so enamored of this idea that a person could grow coffee in their backyard in places other than Tucson.  After all, coffee plants have pretty red berries and glossy leaves, and it’s not uncommon to find them used as an ornamental shrubs in Central America. But I have an idea that it’s because I’m relatively easily stirred (emotionally speaking – no creamer jokes, please) by things I find unfamiliar, unexpected, and beautiful.

Antigua, Guatemala. Aurora’s house is not shown in this picture, but it’s not too far from here.

Plot Be Damned, here’s my story on the subject:  Raphael’s Tia Aurora – his aunt – lives in the Spanish Colonial city of Antigua, in a beautiful old house with a front façade of crumpled and age-darkened gold paint.  Her gold house is one bright block in a long row of connected rainbow-colored houses whose front doors all open right onto the cobblestone street. 

The last time we visited, it was Christmastime, and so a blue enamel bucket of tamales wrapped neatly in glossy, dark green packets of banana leaves sat on the kitchen floor and more cooked in a big black, leaf-lined pot in the yard over a pile of ashy coals.  Aurora is known for her tamales; Raphael’s mother makes special trips to her sister’s house from Guatemala City to pick up tamales for the holiday meals her family shares in those dark first hours of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 

While Raphael and his aunt sat at the dining room table – in a three-walled dining room open on the fourth side to the elements – I wandered around the walled-in yard that stretches away from the house and overflowed at that time, even in the dry season, with verdant growth.  I examined the tamale-cooking system and passed through the long, narrow yard along a shadowed dirt path littered with pale dropped petals.  Sun-dappled ferns and tough fringed leaves as long as my legs, browned and fraying at the tips, extended from a tangle of growth into the space carved through the vegetation by the path. 

That yard burst with ruffled, exotic-looking plants, and I touched and smelled and photographed it all – the illuminated complexity of pink and coral roses tucked into bushes taller than me; slender-petaled orange bird-of-paradise flowers with spiky purple hearts nearly translucent in the light.  There were rubbery, yellow-tipped combs of brilliant red heliconia; thin, papery fuchsia bougainvillea; long scarlet clusters of wild poinsettias with imperfectly spaced, fluttering, knife-like petals.  When I returned to the porch, Raphael and his aunt told me the names of the things I didn’t recognize. 

At the back of the yard, Aurora had put in plants with clusters of firm, dusky red and green berries clinging to willowy branches.   Once I found out what they were – coffee plants, of course – it struck me like a quick, quiet little miracle how fortunate I was to be in place where color hangs off the trees all year long; where poinsettias – those holiday things that come packaged in foil-wrapped pots in the stores – grow wild and lanky; where houses are lavender and teal and orange and rose and old; where the dining room is open to the luxurious, drenching rain when it comes; and where someone can plant coffee trees in the yard just because they’re beautiful.

How to keep your own pot of coffee...plant.


dags för dunderglögg! (…more or less)

Many weeks ago, I promised you a recipe for Gothenburg, Sweden’s favorite glögg. Please don’t blame my friend for the lag; she sent the recipe to me long ago and then Christmas happened and then I must have fallen asleep for four weeks. Anyhow, technically it’s not Christmas anymore, but it’s still winter in most parts of the United States (or so I’ve heard tell), so I’ll go ahead and post the recipe. That way it’ll be handy next fall when it’s time to start the arduous process of dumping all the ingredients in a bucket and then twiddling your thumbs for six weeks.

My parents' backyard in Ohio last winter

The recipe comes to us from Karin who lives in Sweden (and is, conveniently, Swedish) via her local paper, the Gothenburg Post, which publishes it every October so everyone can have a batch of dunderglögg ready by the first Sunday of Advent which is apparently when all of Sweden hauls out the Christmas lights. It’s one of those recipes that I haven’t made but plan to try next year for the holidays, assuming I can get my hands on one of the main ingredients, svagdricka, in Tucson.

Svagdricka is a very low-alcohol, mildly sweet malt beverage popular around the holidays in Sweden. I’ve seen it called a beer, a near beer, a “primitive beer”, a soft drink, and a beer/soft drink. What many internexperts (“internet experts” aka “people who write sh** on the internet. Like me. I’m an internexpert”) agree on is that it’s something of an acquired taste. I’m not hopeful about finding it around here, but I’ll think harder about it in a few months when I become start to become desperate. According to the glögg man at the Gothenburg Post, there’s simply no replacement for svagdricka. I’ve found, however, suggestions for substitutions in cooking that may or may not work well while making the glögg below. You could try a low-alcohol, malty, not-too-hoppy beer or look for Malta, which is a sweet, non-alcoholic, carbonated malt beverage that originated in Germany and is popular today in the Caribbean, areas of Africa, and parts of Europe. Malta may be as hard to find as svagdricka, but you might try your local Latin market.

Once you get past the whole “finding svagdricka” problem and the conversion of the ingredients (which I have done for you – score!), the rest of the recipe looks like a snap. You just need a bucket and some patience.

(Translated from the Gothenburg Post)
Makes: several bottles

Note that you must begin this recipe at least three to six weeks in advance of when you want to drink it. Don’t feel you have to follow the measurements exactly – add what you think will taste best to you. “ …it’s fun to make, it smells nice, and I’ve never heard of it turning out badly, no matter what you put in there it always turns out good,” says our informant, Karin. “As a matter of fact I think I’m going to go heat up a cup of that stuff right now and see if it helps warm my feet up. It’s been snowing a lot lately and my apartment is kind of cold…”

5 liter svagdricka (1.5 gallons)
5 raw potatoes, sliced
50 gr baking yeast (about 2 ¾ Tablespoons)
1 bag of cloves (about 11 grams) (about 2 Tablespoons)
1 bag of cardamom seeds (20 grams) (scant 3 Tablespoons)
about 5 cm fresh ginger
1 cinnamon stick
2 boxes of raisins (about 500 grams) (3 1/3 cups)
2.5 kilograms sugar (10 to 10.5 cups)

Mix everything in a 10 liter (probably about a 3-gallon) bucket. Cover with plastic wrap, make tiny holes in the plastic, and let sit in room temperature for at least three weeks, preferably six. Pour onto clean bottles using a siphon. Be careful not to get any of the sediment in the bottom of the bucket into the bottles.

good neighbors & strong, strong coffee

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!

Raphael: Really?

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.

glögg-on-fire and other tales

While we’re on the subject of cardamom, we should probably think about how we can consume it in conjunction with the consumption of alcohol. To that end, I’ve been perusing the internet for the perfect glögg recipe. Glögg is a hot spiced beverage often made in Scandinavian countries during the winter months. Like many traditional foods and activities, it seems that every person with a presence on the internet has page devoted to glögg made from his or her own family recipe and strong feelings as to what constitutes “real” glögg. Some people swear by the addition of cloves. Some feel sure that the perfect glögg means you must strain out the raisins and almonds. Some people feel you should never have added the raisins and almonds to begin with. Some people even set their glögg on fire.

We’re going to ignore all those people with their opinions in favor of the opinion of a real-live Swede that I actually know who lives in Gothenburg, Sweden, and who used to work with me in Tucson and that’s how I know her. Her name is Karin. In response to my plea for a good authentic glögg recipe, Karin selflessly waded through the internet and translated for us a “pretty standard and easy to make” recipe for Classic Glögg as well as one for something called Hearty Special Glögg “which looks to me like some type of science experiment”. (The quotes are Karin’s official Swedish assessment of each recipe, so be sure to read them in a Swedish accent and heed them.)

Something else to keep in mind when you make your glögg: According to Karin, in Sweden, folks like to nibble on gingersnap cookies and blue cheese while consuming glögg. I know some of you Americans (and at least one Guatemalan) are cringing right now, but I’m pretty sure when they usher me into heaven, the first thing they’ll do is take my coat, and the second thing they’ll do is hand me a glass of hot spiced wine and a plate of blue cheese and gingersnaps.

I’ve posted these two recipes below exactly as Karin sent them to me except that I’ve converted the measurements to standard American ones to prevent hiliarious misunderstandings about how much vodka, say, to include. So the funny asides in the recipes are all Karin. And any mistakes of conversion are all me. The conversions are a little rough, but I assumed most of you don’t want to have to mess with adding 0.634 cups of sugar to your Hearty Special Glögg so I took the initiative and rounded down. Merry Christmas.

In addition to the two recipes discussed above, Karin made mention of another glögg which I’m intrigued by. I don’t yet have the recipe, but will post it when I get it. Everyone in Gothenburg, along with their brother and their dog (I’m extrapolating from something Karin said), makes this special glögg around the holidays that involves potatoes, raisins, something called svagdricka which is apparently similar to root beer, and “other things”. I’m assuming some kind of fish. All this stuff “sits around in a bucket and bubbles for six weeks” before turning into something drinkable. This is the one Karin makes and this is the one I’d love to try making, assuming I can get my hands on any svagdricka or something similar enough to do the trick.

Classic Glögg
0,75 l (3 1/4 cups) red wine
2 cinnamon sticks
8 cloves
12 cardamom seeds
5 tsp sugar
1,5 dl (1/3 cup) vodka

Heat the wine and spices on low heat, stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the vodka. Heat until almost boiling. Strain the liquid. Serve with the almonds and raisins.

Glogg on fire!:
Hearty Special Glögg
0.75 l (3 1/4 cups) vodka
1.5 dl (5 oz) cognac/brandy
3.3 dl (1 1/3 cups) beer [3.3. That’s what it said!]
2 figs
3 prunes
1.5 dl (5 oz) raisins
1.5 dl (5 oz) almonds
1 dried bitter orange peel [I’m not sure what to substitute if you can’t find this, but I guess dried regular orange peel would work fine]
8 cm (1 whole) cinnamon stick
4 cardamom seeds
1 clove
1.5 dl (1/2 cup + 1/8 cup) sugar

Put the figs, prunes, raisins, bitter orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, clove and almonds in a pot with the beer and boil until the beer is almost absorbed/evaporated. The pot needs to have a tight fitting lid.
Add the vodka and 1 – 1,5 dl sugar and let it heat through [the recipe says to ABSOLUTELY NOT let it boil. I’m guessing this is because you don’t want to lose the alcohol. It’s a very assertive recipe.].
Pour a couple of spoons of sugar in a pan over medium-high heat and let it caramelize [here the recipe says to NOT let it burn. Seems reasonable].
Pour the caramelized sugar and the cognac/brandy into the other mixture. Light a match, lift the lid and “burn” the glögg for a few seconds

. Put the fire out by putting the lid back on.
The mixture should steep overnight. Strain the liquid, warm it, and serve with the raisins and almonds.

Postscript One of the things that always intrigues me about these traditional sorts of foods that people make is how they came to be. Did someone accidentally leave a bucket of potatoes out and spill some spices in while baking cardamom bread? And then the cat knocked over a bottle of svagdricka? And little (typical Swedish boy’s name) dropped his raisin snack into the mix because that’s what children the world over do – drop things into other things to see if it upsets Mama? And everyone was too disgusted by the whole episode to clean it up for six weeks? And there was an argument. And someone stormed out of the house and fell into the fjord. And then the funeral – oh, the cold winds that blew at that funeral! Oh, (Swedish word indicating lamentation)! What sorrow! And then everyone returned home to warm up. And someone spied the bucket of old potatoes, alcohol, and raisins and decided to take a sip from it because, hell, what was there to lose now that so-and-so had fallen into the fjord. Who knows?! Human beings are amazingly courageous! And resilient! And insane!