I hate to see great bits of the past left behind. Or, perhaps, I hate the idea that I could be left behind, myself.
Whatever. Today I’m defending a New Orleans culinary tradition which seemed eternal just a few years ago, but which now is rapidly fading from the scene.
It’s cafe au lait. The blend of dark roast coffee and chicory brewed so powerful that it cannot be comfortably drunk by the average person without at least an equal amount of hot milk.
This is the coffee of the French Market-style coffee stands (many of which are located elsewhere than the French Market). This is NOT latte. (Unless you’re in Italy, where latte is made according to a tradition not unlike our own.)
I begin every morning with at least two mugs of cafe au lait. Not out of a sense of maintaining tradition. Nor because my parents did.
I drink cafe au lait because I love it, relish it, look forward to it so much that I have dreams about it. It is incomparably more satisfying than experienced by any of those squeaky-clean women and wholesome men in television commercials. They would have you believe that the best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. A see-through, high-caffeine brew, made by the world’s largest soap company.
Cafe au lait is not purely a personal taste. Among people who have visited our home, my coffee is legendary. Those who try it for the first time are knocked back in their chairs. If I say so myself, I make an incredible cup of cafe au lait.
It’s nothing, really. I’m following the traditional New Orleans formula, one that’s been with us for at least a century an a half. Unfortunately, it’s been watered down so continuously for so many years that many people have forgotten how great it really is. Even at the French Market they’re goofing it up: the coffee is still the same, but they’re adding too much milk. And, at the table, cafe au lait drinkers are leaving out an essential step.
And there is another culprit. The biggest-selling coffee in New Orleans these days is Community New Orleans Blend coffee and chicory. Community is not a bad coffee roaster. Their flagship product–the dark roast pure coffee that dominates the Southeast Louisiana market outside New Orleans–is a very fine product. And they are very creative and aggressive marketers.
But their New Orleans Blend. . . well, they should use another name. It is not a classic New Orleans blend. It’s okay if you serve it black, as many restaurants do. But it’s not the makings of the coffee I’m talking about. The coffee component is medium roast. For the real New Orleans taste, it ought to be just about the darkest roast possible. Even the chicory component in this stuff seems light to me. So forget that, if you want cafe au lait.
Several coffees make great cafe au lait. French Market (in the bag, not the can) and CDM are excellent. The coffee that the Cafe du Monde puts up is also good, if expensive. But my favorite is Union. It comes in a soft green bag, and it’s a little hard to find. Union is made by the same people who make French Market, but it seems to me that the roast is a little darker and that there’s a little less chicory.
I’m doctrinaire about making cafe au lait. But there is a more restrictive orthodoxy than mine. Many diehards affirm that real New Orleans coffee cannot be made in anything but one of those white porcelain, slow-drip “biggins.” I find that the modern drip coffeemaker does at least as good a job.
The trick is using enough ground coffee. I start with what my coffeemaker says is three cups of water. For that, I use three standard coffee scoops of coffee and chicory.
Believe it or not, there is a standard coffee scoop. Coffee shops sometimes give them out; I’ve also picked up a couple of them at A&P. It’s a plastic spoon with a square bowl; in the bottom of the bowl, it says “CBC Approved Coffee Measure.” (Imagine: there’s a committee somewhere that approves coffee scoops.) I can reveal that these things hold exactly five fluid teaspoons–a teaspoon shy of two tablespoons. I overfill these a little, but not much.
What comes out of the pot is so black that light cannot penetrate the stream as it pours into the cup. If you swirl the coffee, it leaves the side of the cup brown for a few seconds.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
Two steps remain. Fill the cup you will serve the cafe au lait in halfway with milk, and microwave it till steaming. (This takes a minute and a half in mine, but microwaves vary greatly.) The milk must be at least two percent milkfat. Whole milk is better. The best is that non-homogenized milk from Smith Creamery or Mauthe’s–the kind you need to shake before using. The worst is skim milk.
Then add sugar. Yes, you must. The key to a great cup of New Orleans coffee is balancing off the bitter and acid elements (particularly in the chicory) with sweetness. Use more sugar than usual. Three teaspoons is no sin. (Note that a can of Coke has nine teaspoons of sugar, for the same reason: to balance the sour and bitter flavors.)
When you add the sugar to the microwaved milk, it will foam a little. Stir, pour the coffee in, and you’ll see a lovely head around the edges.
THIS is New Orleans style cafe au lait. Think I’ll have another. As I do, I’ll say to my wife, “You know, I wish you drank coffee. Because if you did, you’d love me even more than you do!”
Her reply (we have this well rehearsed): “What makes you think I love you?”