Sunday, January 17, 2010

Coffee Anyone - Part 2: Espresso Machines

In order to have good coffee, you must have 4 things:

1. Good Coffee - if you don't have this, you won't arrive at the goal.
2. Good Water - good water makes any coffee bean brew better coffee. For espresso you should use distilled or other water that has virtually no minerals in it. Hard water can damage the boiler.
3. Good Grind - whether you grind it at home, or at the store, finely ground coffee produces better coffee.
4. Good Equipment - it doesn't matter if it is a drip machine or an espresso maker - good equipment gives you better results.

That being said, we now focus upon item #4, the Equipment. At my home I have a Bunn drip maker which is my personal choice - no intention here to endorse, as I am not a sponsor. I just like having hot water always ready at 165° Fahrenheit - which is, according to another good cook, the "perfect" brewing temperature. For Espresso I have gone through three different machines: A Braun which lasted for over 6 years, a Krups that we had for 4 years and our most recent, a Hamilton Beach unit.

Each of the espresso machines had its good and bad points. It is difficult to compare them as the first two we had were steam machines and the latest is a pump machine. OK, I know I need to explain this to some folks out here it goes: There are two common kinds of espresso machines today, steam driven and pump driven.

The steam driven is similar to the first espresso machines in the fact that water is boiled, steam is created and it is sent through the ground coffee to produce the wonderful, dark liquid we know as espresso. The pump driven unit delivers hot water to the coffee by pumping it through the grounds. Both are effective, but the pump driven unit is what is in most commercial machines and some of the better home units. The pump unit delivers more of the frothy crema on top of the espresso, making it produce a better cup. For more info on this go to Wikipedia .

With the Braun machine, it produced good coffee, that wasn't bitter. The machine was well-constructed and cost us about $80 in 1995 (as I recall). The only weak link was the handle on the filter holder - it was plastic and it broke after several years of heavy use. I repaired it using some JB Weld steel and we got 2 more years out of it before the boiler failed.

The Krups machine was purchased after this. The unit cost around $80 and it produced coffee that was good in quality. Unfortunately, the machine started to leak after a couple of years of use. The leaking got so bad that we were losing one-third of the water! To make 2 ounces of espresso, you had to put 3 ounces of water in the boiler. Since we made a lot of espresso for cappuccinos and making americanos, the leaking water trickled down to the counter where it made a big mess. I don't think most people brew as much espresso as we do, so the leaking may have something to do with the very heavy use it got...and the coffee was good. This may be a good option for you if cost is a concern.

Our latest machine from Hamilton Beach, is a pump unit. It produces excellent espresso and is less expensive than either of the units I bought before. One thing I noticed is that to get the best results out of the unit, I have to use coffee that is a little coarser than true espresso grind. If you use a finer grind, this machine produces much less of the crema, which is a big part of the flavor. When the unit was brand new, I used espresso ground coffee and it worked well, but with time, the quality started to falter and the brew time increased. I went to a coarser grind (I found this tip in a review on the machine on amazon), I found that brew time returned to normal and quality is back to what it was when I first got the machine. If you grind beans when you buy them, go for a setting on the grinder that is slightly coarser and you will always be pleased with the results. I will say the coffee from this pump machine is better than it was from the other 2 units, mainly because the water is coming through at a lower temperature. The resulting coffee is less bitter and isn't overheated as it is when straight steam hits the beans. Gooooooood stuff!

Check out the links to products on this page for more info. I apologize for no link on the Braun machine - they don't make this model anymore, but the other two are still available, and the Krups machine is less expensive than when I bought mine. If you do check them out, I think you will learn a lot, get some great info, and perhaps get a machine that will provide you with Awesome Coffee! I like to put a 20 ounce cup under the spouts and brew it until the cup fills up. This stuff isn't espresso and it isn't regular coffee - it is strong and flavorful. I love this in the morning.

Hope you enjoyed the information. Go out and enjoy some really good coffee!

Have a Great Day and God Bless!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Coffee Anyone - Part 1: Grinders

I love coffee. When my wife and I met, I liked coffee, but it was something that I drank, more often than not, to help keep me alert. Over 16 years have passed, and now I am a confirmed coffeeholic. I still enjoy the pick-me-up that it provides, but I have to say that I can be found, more often than not, with a cup of joe in hand. I have also become a bit of a coffee snob. I must not only have coffee, but it needs to be a well-roasted arabica blend with lots of natural oils and flavor. Coffee aficionados will agree with me. Any coffee can be good, but the "quality stuff" is so much better.

Coffee is good, but espresso, cappuccino, or a latte is even better. For that you need special equipment - enter the espresso machine for home use, and of course, the coffee grinder. Grinding your own beans is the best way to stretch your coffee dollar. The reason for this is that once the beans have been ground, the quality starts to deteriorate - rapidly.

Part 1 of this article is about getting the most out of the beans with a good grinder. The reason I had to get a new grinder was that my old faithful Braun grinder had a bad crack around the bottom of it. You had to hold in down on the counter so it would still grind beans, so I figured that when we purchased our new espresso machine, we NEEDED a new grinder. (Note: I kept the old one for occasional spice grinding...waste not, want not!)

My first trip was to the local Megamart to purchase a grinder. They had 3 models - a Black & Decker Burr Grinder, a Hamilton Beach Coffee Grinder that would do several different grinds, and a Mr. Coffee Grinder.

My first choice was the Hamilton Beach unit. It looked cool, had auto shut off, a safety lock on the cap, and it would grind coarse to espresso grind. It also had a retractable cord - nice! So, out comes the checkbook and I go home with a Hamilton Beach espresso/cappucino maker and coffee grinder.

I got home with my new goodies and proceeded to grind up some coffee beans - after skimming over the instructions, of course. (Note: READING instructions is not a guy thing, but skimming is considered acceptable...) I noticed that even on the finest setting, the coffee wasn't perfect for espresso which should be almost powder-fine, but it was acceptable for drip coffee. I discovered that by running the coffee through the process 3 times, I could get a very good espresso grind. This grinder worked OK until a few days later, the top cracked. The top did seem a bit stiff and it was hard to twist shut - so it cracked when my other half was closing it. After a bit of, uh, discussion, I went to the store to return it and get one of the other grinders.

I came back with the Mr. Coffee grinder. It had similar features, said it had an auto shutoff feature, so I figured this would be the one. Wrong again, even though the grinder did the job, it had a short cord and required you to press and hold the button down until it reached one of the three grind settings - coarse, medium or find. It did do the auto shutoff, you just had to hold the button until it did. So I was in search of yet another replacement...

I was in another store where I noticed a Cuisinart Burr Mill. I looked at it closely and I decided to get it. I finally found a better fit to my needs, even though I was hoping for a super fine grind, this one is still much closer to meeting my needs. It makes a fine grind that is very small and does produce a decent espresso. It is even better if you run the coffee through a couple of extra times to get a finer grind. The extra passes through the grinder are NOT according to manufacturer's specs - just mine - it may void your warranty, so do so at your own risk.

I guess that I am too picky. I do like the burr grinder the best because for everyday use it does produce a grind that is more consistent, and is, even when regrinding the coffee, easier to use. Time will tell as to whether this grinder will remain at my house - but I think it is a better fit. I am too cheap to spend $200 to $300 for a grinder - it is just too much for my budget.

All three grinders are nice and do a good job and produce great coffee - I just need more income and a much larger budget for coffee. I will post an update if I find a better grinder. If you find a better one, please post a comment - I would LOVE to hear about it.

I could have saved myself a lot in gasoline and auto wear and tear by simply buying online, so I have given you links that go to purchase pages for these items.

My next post will be on the espresso/cappuccino maker - it is another INTERESTING story...

Until then, May God Bless You and Yours and Have a Great Day!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Anybody for a BLAND dish?

I am a firm believer in tradition. Traditions are good stuff - they keep us in balance and provide stability in our lives. One of my favorite New Year's traditions is eating black-eyed peas as part of a meal - or by themselves. These are an awesome food that are supposed to bring good luck for the upcoming year.

Personally, I don't believe in luck...unless you follow the equation: luck = preparation meeting opportunity. All the same, I always have black eyed peas every year on New Year's day. This year I didn't use the canned variety, or fresh ones, for that matter. I cooked up some that were dried, but I noticed something about the recipe - it would be great if you want really bland food. Let me explain further...

The package directions go something like this...

Quick Soak Method:
For every one lb. beans, soak in 1 to 1-1/2 quarts water. In a large pot, heat beans and water to boiling. Boil for 2 minutes, then let stand for 1 to 4 hours.

Maybe I am missing something, but this recipe seems to be lacking in flavor! There is no mention of salt, butter, bacon, ham, onion, jalapeƱos or any other seasoning. This recipe as written, would result in something that would be suitable for the creatures that commonly are fed these - cows. In fact, the common name for these wonderful little beans is cowpeas.

My grandfather was shocked when he moved from Arkansas to New Mexico and he found out people were eating cow fodder for human food! Since it was during the depression, I am sure he thought times must REALLY be tough here in the Southwest, so that had to be why people were resorting to eating cowpeas. Like most of us that have eaten them, he quickly fell in love with them.

There is also one other item that bothers me - soak for HOW LONG? Maybe a couple of days or so? I soaked mine for around 2 hours, which seems to work well.

Now, on to the seasoning. Take the recipe above, soak for 2 hours, then add 1/4 cup of ham, bacon or butter to the boiling mixture, along with 1/4 of an onion, diced. Add 1 or 2 teaspoons of sea salt and you have a really tasty dish. You could also add a clove of garlic or a tablespoon of butter to further enhance the flavor and make them even better.

This will give you a great dish for your New Year's table, or for almost any other meal you want to have them with.

That's it for now - Have a Happy New Year and God Bless You and Yours!