Introduction: Brewing Cuban Coffee
If you're like me and wish to enjoy your morning coffee in relaxing sips rather than chugging sludgy drive-thru caffeine simply for the jolt of energy, you may or may not be aware that you can easily brew a delicious form of espresso that has been enjoyed south of the border for decades - and it takes only minutes and a few cents to make at home!
Cuban coffee is a very strong, sweet variation of espresso that originated when Italian merchants brought the first espresso machines to pre-communist Cuba. It has many similarities to Italian espresso, and some will recognize this while reading this tutorial. I don't mean to endorse any brand of ingredients or machine over any other - these are simply the ones that I find most convenient to acquire and that produce a high-quality end product.
Step 1: What You'll Need
The primary device for making Cuban Coffee at home is a Moka Pot. These come in both electric and stove-top varieties. I prefer the electric kind, as they brew more quickly and are all around easier to use. You might not be able to take it camping, but other than that they produce equally good coffee as the traditional stove-top kind. Here's what else you'll need to get started:
Sugar (traditionally brown sugar is used, but many Americans prefer the taste of simple cane sugar)
Spoons and/or Measuring Cups
Coffee or Espresso Cups For Serving
Step 2: How Does a Moka Pot Work?
In case you're wondering what a moka pot actually is, it's a relatively simple device that uses the water vapor produced from boiling to create a pressure chamber that pushes hot liquid through coffee grounds. Here's the idea...
Water goes in the base of the pot and is heated until boiling. When this occurs, the boiling process creates steam which builds up inside of the base, creating a pressure-filled chamber. As the base is sealed off, the vapor has nowhere to escape. When the pressure becomes great enough, it forces the boiling water at the bottom of the pot up through the stem of the filter basket. As the heated water rises through the filter it cooks the coffee grounds en route, producing a very strong concentration of coffee. The liquid continues through the column in the collector at the top and finally spills out into this chamber. This continues until the last of the water is forced out and the steam escapes out the top of the pot. A very simple way of using physics to create concentrated (and delicious!) coffee.
Check out this Wikipedia page to read more about the Moka Pot and an illustration of the brew process.
Step 3: Starting the Brew
Unscrew the top section of your moka pot, and set the pieces aside. Fill the bottom chamber of the pot with water until it reaches just below the safety valve on the side. Depending on how large of a brew you want to make, insert the disc into the filter (if I'm making a batch for two people or less, I typically brew with the disc in the filter). Measure out an appropriate amount of fresh espresso grounds and pour evenly into the filter - I use a 1/4 cup measuring spoon. Fill the filter with a heaping amount, but don't tamp or compress the grounds. As you screw the top of the moka pot onto the base, this will press the grounds together creating a tight bed in the filter.
Turn the heat on and stay put. It's tempting to walk away while the espresso is brewing, but this process takes less time than you'd think and it can be easy to let the coffee burn if you're not paying attention. While the moka pot does its work, prepare your sugar mix.
Step 4: The Secret to Perfect Cuban Coffee: the Espuma
Brewing coffee using a moka pot is easy. The secret to creating delicious, traditional Café Cubano (cafecito) is the espuma or espumita, and perfecting this is an art. Espuma most directly translates to 'foam,' and this is the hallmark of this style of coffee. The reason that I refer to this as an art is because creating espuma of the prefect consistency is all about proportion and technique. This takes practice to nail down, and when done correctly it is a beautiful thing to enjoy.
So let's start with the first factor: proportion. Obviously, creating a sugary mix to add to your espresso will greatly sweeten your coffee. How much you want to sweeten the brew is entirely a matter of preference. However, the less sugar you use, the more difficult it is to create the espuma. The sweet spot I've found (pun intended) is between 1 1/2 and 2 tablespoons of pure cane sugar. This is a good starting point that you can tweak based on how sweet you like your coffee.
Pour your sugar into your mixing container of choice - I prefer a glass measuring cup. About this time, your coffee may be close to spilling out into the collector at the top. When creating your espuma, you want to use the first drops of brewed coffee - this is the most concentrated brew that will come from the moka pot and produces the best flavor. This is the tricky part... adding too much espresso to your sugar will create a soupy mixture that produces no foam, but adding too little will make it impossible to whip your espuma into shape. Obviously, if you start with less you can always add more, but it's very easy to add just a little too much and ruin your batch of espuma.
The nearest approximation that I can give you is about a half of a tablespoon of coffee, but this depends on the amount of sugar you're using as well. Very slowly, pour a few drips of piping hot espresso into your mixing cup. Afterward, set the moka pot aside and make sure that it is removed from the heat source. This will ensure that your coffee does not burn while you work on your espuma.
Now, the process of creating your espuma is really less 'mixing' and more 'muddling.' By this I mean you won't be whipping the sugar/coffee mixture together as much as you'll be pressing the sugar into the coffee. I prefer to use a small spoon, and I muddle the sugar together using the back face of the spoon. This will prevent the solution from getting stuck in the concave part of your spoon. You'll have to use the consistency and texture of your mixture to inform you whether you used too much or too little coffee.
It will start out looking and feeling very granular as you begin to muddle the sugar together, so don't panic and add more liquid. This process is intended to do two things: dissolve the sugar into the coffee, and infuse tiny air bubbles into the sugary mixture (this creates the 'foam' when added to the final batch of coffee). As you continue to press the mixture together, it will slowly transform into a soft paste that glistens but is never watery in texture. Consult the photos above to see how it may look as you continue to muddle it together. After 2-3 minutes of this, your mixture should be thick and creamy but should still hold its consistency - if you lift it up with your spoon it should remain stuck together.
At this point, turn the heat back on to your moka pot while you finish up - the pressure is still built up inside the pot and it will not take long to boil over into the collector at the top. This is your chance to aggressively whisk your mixture for the first time. Doing so will force more air into the mixture and ensure a nice, thick, whipped foam. If you look closely, you'll see tiny air bubbles held together in the blend. When the espresso is finished brewing, pour a small amount of the piping hot coffee into your mixing container - you want this amount of liquid to cover only about half of your sugary mixture. Quickly blend this together to ensure that all of the sugar is dissolved into the coffee. This, my friends, is your espuma.
Step 5: Serve, and Enjoy!
With your espuma created and your espresso finished brewing, prepare your serving cups. As this coffee is very strong and sweet, it's traditionally served in a small espresso cup; or, if you're in Havana or Miami, you may see them served in small disposable cups that look like thimbles.
I've had people tell me two ways to properly mix the espuma and espresso together. One method is to pour the freshly brewed espresso directly into the cup and use a spoon to place the espuma on the top of the espresso. Another is to simply pour the remaining espresso into your mixing cup filled with espuma, stir and then transfer to your serving cup. I've noticed no difference in taste or appearance from either method, so this choice is up to you. While you absolutely should drink this while it's fresh and hot and before the espuma gradually melts away, I recommend cleaning your moka pot shortly afterward to ensure that it stays in peak operating shape.
I make and enjoy Cuban coffee on an almost daily basis, and drink almost no coffee other than this. It's a great and simple way to make delicious espresso to share with your family and friends, and never fails to impress. Have other ways you learned to brew this, or any other ideas to share? Leave a comment below and keep the conversation going!