The Martha and the other Jamie.

I was watching The Apprentice: Martha Stewart and noticed that The Martha has a pretty nice espresso setup in her kitchen. There’s a two-group commercial machine, not a La Marzocco Linea (wow, you can pick one up at Amazon these days) or Synesso Cyncra, but still a pretty serious piece of machinery. There’s a commercial grinder that I can’t identify, as well as smaller grinder, probably for decaf, that looks like a $500 Pasquini Moka.

Jamie Oliver, on the other hand, used to have a cool looking, but crummy FrancisFrancis! machine. Luckily, unlike with espresso machines, you don’t need a very expensive knife to do food prep like a pro. Jamie, for instance uses a decent, but inexpensive Twin Signature chef’s knife. He uses a few other knives, but the exat brands and models are a subject of heated discussion

I recently purchased a J.A. Henckels 8 inch chef’s knife, and I could not be more pleased with it.

Culinary Institute of America publishes this classic knife-fu book. A must have.

Martha Stewart’s Hors d’Oeuvres Handbook: I (well, actually my wife) learned about edamame from this book. Fanseee.

Edamame. The best snack ever.

The Naked Barrista

I haven’t written about one of my very expensive but ultimately rewarding hobbies for a while, so I will try to correct this. You see, I like espresso and espresso based drinks. One of these days I’ll write a long post about everything that I ever learned about making them, but for now, here’s a short progress report.

There are hundreds of cooking shows these days. Even the British, famous for their indigestible cuisine, field two awesome shows: The Naked Chef and Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. All of a sudden, London is referred to “City of Chefs.” In any case, I am sure that both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay prepare very tasty meals in their restaurants. But I am also pretty sure that if you order an espresso or a cappuccino there, you’ll get the undrinkable crud. Jamie Oliver, for instance has a FrancisFrancis! – a beautifully designed, but highly mediocre espresso machine in his home kitchen. Would one show about coffee and coffee training for celebrity chefs and their restaurant staff be too much to ask for?

As my financial means increased, I’ve progressed through a series of espresso machines. For a year or so I’ve been a proud owner of a Reneka Techno. It’s a common choice amongst espresso enthusiasts who always wanted a La Marzocco machine, but finally gave up, as new ones cost too much (around 6K) and used ones are hard to come by and troublesome. The scarcity of used La Marzocco machines is a mystery to me – Starbucks replaced almost all machines that it used to own with superautomatics of unknown to me make, reportedly forcing the closure of the US La Marzocco factory. Where did they all go?

Anyway, strange as it is, but a French company, not an Italian one is making a machine that mostly replicates a La Marzocco for home users. So, what separates this machine from hundreds of competing espresso makers?

Well, for starters it uses a rotary pump instead of the most common vibratory one. Rotary pumps give a steady pressure, unlike vibratory ones that provide the same pressure in a series of very rapid pulses. This is similar to analogue vs. digital sound, and just slightly less controversial, as the results are easier to compare. For the record, I like analog sound better too.

The second highly desirable feature is the separate high powered steam/water boilers. Add to that a digital temperature control circuit tunable to 1F and you got yourself a great machine. With this little bit of digital trickery you get in-boiler temperature stability that the bigger machines get through great size and painstaking adjustment. The temperature stability at the group (the coffee holder) is another question altogether, but it’s not bad there too.

Of course, to get all that you have to suffer some difficulties – like having a 220V outlet installed. This is not too difficult – you just need to have access to two 120V lines on a different phase and have your electrician put in a special circuit breaker. You also need a direct water connection, as rotary pump machines don’t have water tanks and need to take in water at water line pressure. This is not too difficult as well – you need to have your plumber to lead a flexible copper water line from the sink. If you install the machine near the sink, you can also tie the coffee machine’s drain into the sink drain. I am not as lucky – my machine drains into a big vase.

Here is my Reneka Techno with the side cover removed. You can see the pump as well as the badly placed pressure gauge. Pressure is adjustable, mine is set at about Schomer-recommended 8.5 bar.

A new trend in espresso shot-pulling is the so-called naked portafilters. Techno came with an extra portafilter, which I had modified at for only $25. The idea is that you get to see the cream formation and flow of espresso though the filter bottom, noting the evenness of extraction. Also, crema touches fewer surfaces, ending up mostly in the cup.

I’ve ordered some coffee from Victorola, this is a shot of their Streamline Espresso. The crema looks a little light, but espresso did not taste sour at all. Is that the mysterious “tiger flecking“? I don’t know. In any case, this was a trial shot, I’ll keep playing with my new toy and new coffees from Victorola.

I am sad to announce my continuing suckage at the fine craft of latte art. Look and laugh at this misshapen rosetta. Ewww. Well, practice makes perfect.

Serious espresso making requires serious reading. David Shomer’s book is a classic that must be read by every aspiring barrista. Espresso Coffee : The Science of Quality by Rinantonio Viani, Andrea Illy (yes, that Illy) is a sophisticated scientific and scholarly work about espresso. It’s expensive at seventy something dollars. But when you spend that much on coffee machines, coffee accessories and coffee, what’s 70-80 bucks more for a good book?

Drink At Joe’s

Believe it or not, but finally there’s a coffee place in Manhattan that I can recommend. It is hard to believe that this lasted for so long. Read this famous NYT article by William Grimes to understand just how miserable the situation was. So when livejournal user mityanyc first told me about this new place I was a bit skeptical, but it turned out to be the real deal.

The cafe is somewhat unimaginatively called “Joe” and looks just like any other espresso place in the Village. A small space with a few tables barnacled with PowerBooks toting hipsters and paper grading NYU professors, a shelf with pre-packed coffee beans, a large espresso machine, a couple of commercial grinders and a counter full of pastries.

What sets this place apart is the fact that the owner, Joe Jonathan, actually spent some time researching the subject of proper espresso drink making. The machine is a La Marzocco. The coffee – from a very high quality roaster and is ground to order. The tamper (I think it was an ErgoTamper) perfectly fits the portafilter and the barrista actually knows how to use it. And guess what – every latte is served with a rosetta.

For the purposes of this review I ordered an espresso ristretto and a small latte. The latte was perfect – “microfoam“, rosetta, sweet tasting milk. Very tasty. Espresso was passable – good amount of crema, not too bitter. The color of the crema was brown, without overextracted whitish inclusions, but also without “tiger striping” and that brown reddish glow. A very respectable result, similar to what I get at home most of the time. With a few tries and very fresh shipment of Schomer’s beans I get tiger striping/flecking and the espresso tastes better.

I wanted to buy some beans to review, but they did not have any espresso roast left.

While I stood outside taking a picture, two men walked by me, and one pointed to “Joe” and said to the other: “ah, so that’s the place that everyone’s talking about”. Indeed.

Joes is located at 141 Waverly Pl., it’s just past Waverly Restaurant (see picture at the bottom of this post) that looks like the diner where Seinfeld characters hung out. The closest subway station is West 4th Street on IND. 6th Ave line.

Dead Programmer On Coffee

often tells me that I should move to Seattle. But there is one reason why I would actually want to move there. And that reason is Espresso Vivace.

You see, this dude Schomer served in the Army as a metrologist. No, not a meteorologist. A metrologist, a person who measures stuff for a living. When he became a civilian again he decided to apply some of his skills to making espresso.

Good espresso is very hard to make. It’s no secret, really. And it’s rather well known what you need to do to make good espresso. To oversimplify things you need:

a) very fresh, properly roasted high quality coffee beans
b) pure water with a certain degree of hardness
c) a good quality burr grinder with very fine grind adjustment
d) a La Marzocco espresso maker with perfectly adjusted for water temperature and pressure
e) a perfectly fitted espresso tamper (such as one made by Reg Barber)
f) a thick walled ceramic cup
g) a barrista who knows what he or she is doing.

Now, the barrista must be able to do the following things:
a) correctly adjust the grinder and grind enough beans for one shot. This is a tricky trial and error process – the grinder must be adjusted depending on ambient temperature and humidity.
b) fill the portafilter very evenly with the correct amount of coffee grinds and tamp them down with enough force
d) make sure that the group doesn’t have enough time to cool down
e) place the group into the machine and press the brew button, shutting it off after a correct period of time
f) judge the quality of the resulting espresso shot and throw it out and make a new one if it’s no good
g) keep the machine in immaculate state of cleanliness

All of these steps are important. David Schomer came up with a way to measure and reduce already small temperature fluctuations in La Marzocco machines. He also added extra cooling fans to his grinders to prevent coffee from heating up when ground. He custom made ergonomic perfectly fitted tampers. He measured, modified hardware and technique and then measured again, sharing his secrets with the world.

Right now I am between espresso machines. When my last machine gave up the ghost (word to the wise, don’t buy any consumer grade Nuova Simonelli machines. If they die, you won’t be able to get any service for them) I decided to get nothing other than a used single group La Marzocco. I can’t afford a new one as it costs around 6 grand, but used ones can be had for as little as $1000. One of the problems is of course that it uses 220V electricity, but I’d be willing to pay an electrician to install a 220V outlet for me. Of course some lucky bustard got an experimental 110V machine, but no such luck for me. Besides, I want the real thing. I am horribly tempted to get an ECM Giotto machine that comes recommended by Schomer himself though…

Nah, I don’t want to leave New York just because there no good espresso places here. It’s cheaper just to make my own. Or even one day I might open the real Dead Programmer’s Cafe here. Maybe if I find a partner..

This all kind of reminds me – I am all out of coffee beens. Time to order some more.

Falling off the honeywagon

This evening I was looking through Gemplers catalogue and learned an interesting agricultural slang term: a special tank used for spreading liquid manure is also known as the “honeywagon”. :)

Why was I reading Gemplers? Because I hate shoddily designed and constructed things. Face it: clothing, cooking utensils, furniture and everything else made for industrial or military use is tougher and better designed. Yuppies are very much into restaurant quality gas ranges and refrigerators. I like these things too, and I am not ashamed.

My father is very fond of saying “poor people can’t afford to buy cheap things”. Well, this is completely true. I’ve had three espresso machines. The first crappy steam powered gadget cost me about $50. I am still amazed at the fact that it did not make me hate espresso. The second was a pump driven machine from Starbucks costing $150. It was better, but espresso quality was very uneven. 1 shot out of 5 came out almost right. The next machine was a $600 Ellimatic. It served me well, but broke after 3 years of service. Because it’s not a commercial machine I am having a horrible time finding a place that will repair it. Meanwhile it sits in a cardboard box, which my cat is ripping to shreds. Well, guess what. The next machine I am going to buy is a 1 group La Marzocco Linea. It costs about $5K new, $1.5K used (I am going to buy a used one). The only thing that’s preventing me from buying it now is that it needs a 220 Volt outlet. It’s going to be the first thing that I am going to purchase when I move into a new apartment. (See my apartment hunting rants in nyc_real_estate).

So, back to Gemplers. I am going to need some foul weather gear for this season’s winter fishing. And they have it in abundance. Grunden’s stuff looks awesome. And if it’s good enough for commercial fishermen, its good enough for me.

I am also considering buying some IDF gear. Dubon parkas and this IDF sweater seem to be promising.