Each day begins the same. It is want mixed with laziness. Which strikes me as why a café con leche is so perfect. The ‘want’ is the café. It is strong, primal, dark and concentrated. The ‘lazy’ is the leche, (the milk)…relaxing, passive, pure-white and life-giving. In the right ratio you can find the way to enter the day and go forth!
There are many early memories of having café con leches in the little laundromats and sandwich shops of Key West. We made our own in our cozy, rented homes as well, but I soon discovered there was a social aspect to having a "con leche" amongst strangers that heightened my appreciation for this blood-stirring and delicious beverage.
The first place I remember having one was at the original "Pepe's" in Key West. I just ordered coffee expecting the ‘java’ of my days in Illinois. ‘Pepe's’ was a real shrimper’s joint back then and neither the staff nor the customers were the types to encourage an early morning quiz on why this tasted so different than what I expected.
First off, I noted, the milk in it tasted odd to me. I ultimately realized that a number of the places still made their café con leches with tinned milk due to very little fresh milk being available in the Old Days on the island…. especially after The Depression and The Hurricane of 1935.
People got used to it that way and preferred it even though fresh was now available.
Also, the coffee was very sweet. When I finally asked, "Why?" I was given the council, "because the sugar is sweeter in Cuba than it is here."
Now that really rocked me! I thought sugar was sugar like salt is salt. Now I know.
But the DEEP SECRET of a properly made café con leche relies on SUGAR. Think about it!
When you get coffee in most “American” places the sugar, (if even used) is offered after the coffee is made. On the side! To a Cuban that is an insult! The sugar must GO IN with the just expressed coffee to caramelize the sugar on contact!! That is the fusion moment. The magic kiss!!
When we were writing our latest cookbook, “My Key West Kitchen” my son (and co-author on this one) Justin said, “Dad…..we have to put in a recipe for a Café con Leche”. I said, “Really? Don’t you think folks will think we are being a bit simplistic?”
We have these kinds of conversations as any parent of adult children will recognize. But damn... He was right… I had to concede….
Making the sugar-coffee paste with a small steel pitcher and an espresso spoon combined with the first drops of espresso by stirring rapido is key. I love his words for it… so listen to what he advises… “You should hear a swooshing, clackity-clack sound as the spoon whips the cremita into an emulsion of coffee oils and sugar. With practice, you will recognize good cremita technique by this sound.”
‘Cooking by sound’. I have used that notion in my cooking classes as well. But ‘clackity-clack’? Well that is just genius! My Son!!
Oscar Hijuelos, wrote in his book “Our House in the Last World”
“Who knows what caused the original love??? Was it the taste of the tongue that had been sipping a creamy café con leche?”
Coffee isn't just coffee when its a café con leche.
It the first kiss of the day. Enjoy the moment!