Cafe Au Lait

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.

Cafe Au Lait, my way.

Cafe Au Lait, my way.

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?”

13 Readers Commented

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  1. DARREN on February 17, 2014

    I agree with you Tom. Unfortunately all the coffee shops, Starbucks, PJ’s etc. are helping to dilute this tradition. Even PJ’s is now out of Atlanta, not here and they don’t even offer coffee and chicory.
    By the way Mellow Joy coffee out of Lafayette is a good product. It is now sold here, it is a French roast, very dark, but no chicory

  2. James on February 17, 2014

    Excellent instructions!

  3. elizabeth on February 17, 2014

    Tom, I would love to use whole milk but I am lactose intolerant! What are my best choices? Soy milk?

  4. John on February 18, 2014

    Is the Union cup available in stores?

  5. Lynn on February 18, 2014

    Love your recipe because its almost exactly like mine. I will now look for Union coffee when I am in New Orleans and try. Have been using the Community New Orleans blend since its all I can get living out of state. I prefer French Market and stock up with I can. The only difference I do\ is add my sugar to the coffee and pour 1/2 cup of boiled milk which I have whipped up. I drink 2 cups but my husband drinks black coffee. He also says the older I get the stronger my coffee is….its just like my momma’s coffee too!

  6. john on February 18, 2014

    Darren, I bought some Mellow Joy at the Gulfport Wal-Mart. I tried it at home and was disappointed. I used to get Union years ago after I heard Tom talking about it on the radio and really liked it. I think we can get Union at the Gulfport Rouses.

    • DARREN on February 18, 2014

      Did you possible buy the medium roast instead of the dark roast? The bags are nearly identical. It is not as good as Union but then again there is no chicory in it.

      • John on February 19, 2014

        Darren, I got the medium roast. Thanks for the tip. I will look closer next time.

  7. Nicole Miller on February 18, 2014

    I would only amend your instructions by saying use raw sugar, the kind that has a hint of molasses in it. White sugar is boring.

    • Tom Fitzmorris Author on February 18, 2014

      Come to one of our Eat Club dinners and we will have a blind taste-test to see if any difference can be noted between the two sugars in a cup of coffee. We will use the three-sample technique of the flavor biz: two of one and one of the other. You have to pick out which two are the same.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

      • Nicole Miller on February 21, 2014

        I will gladly take you up on this challenge–some day. I live in Illinois, but I do get to New Orleans for a visit every couple years. I will say that my father, a native New Orleanian, also prefers the raw sugar. We both drink cafe au lait every morning, so our palates are attuned to having it that way.

  8. Don Boggs on February 20, 2014

    Mr. Fitzmorris,
    Took me a while, but I am writing to say I enjoyed your piece on cafe au lait. This is in the nature of soliciting your opinion, but ….
    I like coffee with chicory. There is little choice available where I live and I make do with Community. But when I am in New Orleanns I make a point of buying a bag or can of whatever I can find that isn’t locally available, maybe more than one bag in the case of Union. I seem to have developed a taste for the house brand from Rouse’s. Have you had that and – if so – what do you think of it? Thanks
    Don Boggs

    • Tom Fitzmorris Author on February 20, 2014

      It’s not dark enough for my palate, but there’s no reason why we should agree totally about this. Enjoy!

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris