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The Definitive Irish Coffee

A while ago, I discovered the delicious flavor of burnt sugar syrup. It adds welcome complexity to cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Tequila Sour. It also works well in coffee drinks. So, naturally, I wanted to double-down and try it in coffee cocktail. The results were spectacular.

irish-coffee

You’ve never had an Irish Coffee like this

I’ve had the famous Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista in San Francisco. It has nothing on this recipe.

The trick with this version is getting the drink hot enough. Between the Irish Whisky and the syrup, almost of third of the volume comes from room-temperature ingredients. In my first attempts, this brought down the drink to an undesirable lukewarm temperature. I address this problem two ways: first, I pre-heat the mug by filling it with hot water; second, I pre-warm the whisky and sugar in a hot water bath.

It also leaves less room for coffee, so I brew the coffee extra strength. This way, the same amount of coffee flavor is added to the drink. I use 15 grams of coffee grounds with only about four ounces of water (brewing in an Aeropress makes this easy). About a half ounce of water will remain soaked into the grounds, yielding 3 1/2 oz of coffee.

Recipe

  • 1 oz Tullamore Dew Irish Whisky
  • 3/4 oz burnt sugar syrup
  • 3 1/2 oz extra-strong coffee
  • 1 oz cream, whipped until thick and frothy but still pourable

Heat plenty of water for the coffee. After it comes to temperature, fill the mug with hot water and pour some in a small bowl. Add the whisky and burnt sugar syrup to a metal cocktail shaker and place it in the bowl of hot water as a water bath to warm the two ingredients.

Mug and cocktail shaker preheating with hot water

Preheat the mug and the whisky & syrup mixture

While those warm, you can go about grinding your coffee beans. And start brewing the coffee. Make sure you’re using good beans, not mass-produced burnt stuff like Starbucks.

Pour out the hot water from the mug, then add the now warm whisky and syrup. Then add the coffee.

Brewing coffee in an Aeropress

An Aeropress is great for brewing small portions. Fill it less than half way.

The coffee will float atop the syrup, so give it a good stir. Then, holding a spoon just above the coffee, pour the frothed cream over the spoon so it floats atop the drink. Enjoy it while hot!

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How Coffee Brewing Works

Everyone knows basically how coffee works: you grind the beans, you run hot water through the grinds, and voilà, you have coffee. If you just need a kick of caffeine in the morning, this is probably all you need to know. If you are going to make a truly good cup of coffee worth savoring, however, you’ll probably need a little deeper knowledge of what’s going on in the process.

Extraction

Brewing coffee is all about extraction. Imagine if you will, holding a granule of coffee grounds between your thumb and index finger. Inside that granule are dozens of soluble flavor compounds, some good, some not so good. Your job is to get out the good ones and leave behind the bad.

I tend to think about these flavor compounds in three general categories: acids (sour), sugars (sweet), and bitters. The trick is to extract as many of the desirable flavors and as few of the undesirable flavors from that granule as possible[1]. If you extract too few, this is called under-extraction; too many, and it’s over-extraction.

When your granule comes in contact with hot water, the acids will dissolve the fastest, followed by the sugars, then the bitters. There is overlap, so it’s not as simple as that, but that’s the general rule. Under-extracted coffee will taste sour, as there aren’t enough sugars to counteract the acidity. Over-extracted coffee will taste bitter, because our taste buds are so sensitive to bitterness. I’d wager most Americans have never had a cup of under-extracted coffee, but they have had plenty of over-extracted ones.

An ideally extracted coffee will be neither sour nor bitter; it should be well balanced: both acidic and sweet, with minimal bitterness. This means you have extracted most of the acids and sugars, and then stopped extraction before too many of the bitters have dissolved[2].

Strength

“But”, you ask, “what if I like my coffee strong?” I’m so glad you brought that up.

So far I’ve been talking about extraction. Extraction refers to how much flavor is dissolved from the coffee grounds. Strength is something else entirely: strength is determined by how much water that flavor is dissolved into.

Most people never think about this distinction. This means you can have weak but over-extracted coffee; for an extreme example, put one teaspoon of grounds in a pot of french press and let it sit for ten minutes.  You can also have strong but under-extracted coffee; this is probably harder to do to such an extreme, but run a couple ounces of water through a large filter full of beans and you’d probably be close.

If you want stronger coffee, then use more grounds. You want more flavor per ounce of water. So don’t try to squeeze out those last bits of nasty, bitter flavor compounds from your beans—you’re ruining your coffee by doing this. Instead, give yourself more beans from which you can extract more acids and sugars. You can have a very intense, strong cup of coffee that has very little bitterness to it.

A darker roast also has nothing to do with strength. Don’t buy “French Roast” thinking that’s how you’ll get stronger coffee (hint: that’s how you’ll get coffee beans with a lot more bitters, and fewer acids and sugars).

Remember, extraction is king. Don’t sacrifice it in the name of “strong” coffee.

Factors affecting brew

There are five key factors that affect brewing. I won’t go into them at length, but they are:

  1. Grind size — typically you want to match this to your brewing method; courser for slower methods like french press; finer for faster methods like pourover
  2. Water temperature — generally, 195°–202°F is ideal
  3. Time — aim for 4 minutes for French press; 2 1/2–3 minutes for pourover
  4. Coffee-to-water ratio — a good starting point is 1 gram of coffee grounds per 16 grams of water. Yes, it’s more accurate to weigh your beans instead of counting scoops, as beans vary by roast
  5. Agitation — Stirring your french press continually will speed up extraction and potentially even change the flavor profile of the coffee

Experiment with these and see how they affect your coffee. Of course, various brew methods give you varying measures of control over them: Automatic coffee makers don’t give you much leeway, as water temperature (they generally run too hot), time, and agitation are out of your hands. A French press gives a little more freedom. If you’re truly daring, get a pourover like a Chemex or a Hario V60, which give you complete control over all five (but also require some practice to get right).

You can also experiment with cold-brew Toddy. The flavor compounds of the bean extract very differently in cold water over long periods of time, resulting in very even extraction with little bitterness.

Uneven Extraction

You’ll notice I gave a lot of attention to extraction of a single coffee granule. That’s because there’s another thing to consider when you start talking about brewing a whole cup: the evenness of the extraction.

It is quite possible to over-extract some grounds and under-extract others all at the same time, resulting in an imbalanced flavor. There’s a lot to it that I won’t get into, but if you decide to try a pourover brew method, this is something you should be aware of.

 

[1] How much of each type of flavor compound beans have depends on several factors: 1) the origin and varietal of the bean 2) How dark the roast is. Roasting brings out the sugars, but roast too long, and the acids and sugars get cooked out and replaced with bitters (burnt flavor) 3) How recently the coffee was roasted, and 4) How recently the coffee was ground. Some of the flavor compounds are volatile, and break down over time, especially after grinding. These latter two are why you should check the roast date on the beans you buy (ideally less than a few weeks) and only grind minutes before brewing.

[2] This is the weakness of the French Press: you cannot entirely stop extraction. After pushing the plunger down, some hot water in still in contact with the grounds beneath the filter. And then, even after pouring your cup, you still have tiny granules (“fines”) suspended in the coffee, due to the larger holes in the filter. These granules will continue to extract until everything they have to offer is in the water.

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Baked Oatmeal, Muffin-Style

A while back, in the days of pregnancy #2, I posted a recipe for Pumpkin Spice Baked Oatmeal.  I’m sorry to say that it has taken me this long to get around to trying the source recipe for this baked oatmeal thingamajig.  But let’s not dwell on my egregious shortcomings; let’s celebrate the fact that this new recipe is awesome too!  I’m posting it because it was a great, year-round recipe that can be tweaked to whatever you have around.  You’ll notice that my particular tweak involved the apples I had on hand, as well as doubling it for freezing.  I’m going to try a banana-walnut variation next time.  I’m betting strawberry-almond would be tasty in the spring too. Enjoy!

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Baked Oatmeal, Muffin-Style
(makes 24 “muffins”; recipe courtesy of The Fauxmartha)

4 C old-fashioned oats
1 C light brown sugar
1/2 C raisins or dried cranberries
1/2 C toasted walnuts, chopped
2 tsp baking powder
3 C milk (I prefer 2%)
1 C unsweetened applesauce
4 Tbsp butter, melted and cooled
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 apple, peeled, cored, and finely chopped

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line two muffin pans with those nifty paper liners. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the oats, brown sugar, raisins, walnuts, and baking powder.  In a separate bowl, combine the milk, applesauce, butter, and eggs.  Pour the liquid mixture into the large bowl of dry ingredients and mix well.  Fold in the chopped apples. Scoop into muffin cups, dividing evenly amongst them.  (It’s about 2-3 tablespoons per muffin cup.)

Bake for 25-30 minutes.  “Muffins” should be lightly brown and firmly set.  Allow to cool in the muffin pan for 10 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.  Muffins survive nicely in the fridge for about a week; they also freeze well for future breakfasts.

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Spaghetti with Bacon, Spinach, and Cracked Black Pepper

This is a simple meal to throw together without much planning, and yet feels decadent.

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Spaghetti with Bacon, Spinach, and Cracked Black Pepper
(Serves 2-3, but should be easy to scale up)

Spaghetti
3 slices Bacon
3-4 handfuls Spinach
Olive Oil
Balsamic Vinegar
Fresh-ground Black Pepper

Bring a pot of generously salted water to rolling boil and add the spaghetti. When the noodles are al dente, drain them and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-low heat, add a splash of olive oil and the bacon and cook until done. Remove the bacon from the skillet, slice it into thin strips. Drain excess fat from the pan down to 1 or 2 tbsp, if necessary.

Return bacon to the pan. Add a glug of balsamic vinegar and the spinach. Cook briefly until the spinach just begins to wilt, then add the noodles and a generous amount of pepper. Toss thoroughly and add salt to taste. The noodles should be lightly coated throughout; add a little olive oil if necessary. Serve immediately.

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Hearty Thai Wraps

You thought I’d forgotten about the food blog, didn’t you?  Or (gasp) COOKING ALL TOGETHER?  Fear not; we’re still here, eating regularly and cooking up a storm.  Everyone has that thing they return to after the baby is born that makes them feel like life is returning to a normal rhythm, and for me, it’s always the cooking.  New recipes mean that things are going really well.  And I have a lot of new recipes.

Of course, I ought to share some of them.  One of the best things on our table recently has been the Curvy Carrot’s Thai Roll-Ups, which I’m calling Hearty Thai Wraps because they surprised with how satisfying they were.  These wraps are delightfully simple, fresh, and guilt-free.  (This will free you up to eat that cookie you’ve been coveting.  You’re welcome.)  I followed her recipe fairly closely, but you’ll note that I used a seared chicken breast instead of chicken substitute.  The sprouts were omitted because they can be difficult to clean properly, so I tend to avoid them with little ones eating at the table. I also added a few leaves of minced mint to the cilantro, which is a trick I picked up from another recipe I’ll be posting soon.  Anyway, do what your heart stomach desires.  It’s good stuff on a hot summer’s day.

(Note:  I just realized that my most recent recipe post from January was a Curvy Carrot recipe too!  Her recipes are lovely.  They are generally healthy, accessibly written, and quite satisfying.  My dudes enjoy them too, which is high praise indeed.  Go follow her blog!)

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Hearty Thai Wraps
(Serves 2, plus some; lightly adapted from the Curvy Carrot)

Peanut sauce (from a jar, or homemade…)
5-6 flour tortillas (fajita-sized)
1 seared chicken breast, sliced thinly
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
2 carrots, peeled into thin strips
1/8 C chopped green onion
1/8 C chopped cilantro & mint leaves (heavier on the cilantro)
Sriracha sauce (optional)

For each wrap, liberally smear peanut sauce all over the inside of the tortilla.  Pile in the chicken, bell pepper, carrots, green onion, and herbs.  Garnish with sriracha if that strikes your fancy.  Roll tightly and enjoy!

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Baked Pumpkin Spice Oatmeal

With the little girl about to arrive, recipes for anything that can be made ahead of time (and in bulk) are valued.  I recently gave baked oatmeal a shot.  I mean, we already spend 30 minutes each morning making oatmeal with fruit and nuts (and cooling it to edible toddler temperature), so it was worth giving it a shot.

VICTORY!

It’s a totally different beast than stove-top oatmeal: not as moist, not as creamy.  (I think Keith really missed those components.)  The trade-off is that it’s portable, pre-apportioned, quick, and less prone to cause little hands to get messy.  I loved being able to take it with us on mornings we needed to get up and out the door very fast.  When we ate it at home, I would warm up a couple in the toaster oven and pour some milk over the top.  Our little guy scarfed it down either way!

I haven’t had a chance to experiment with the source recipe for my source recipe, sans pumpkin puree, but I’m looking forward to it.  I have a feeling baked oatmeal studded with apple and raisins would be a runaway hit.

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Baked Pumpkin Spice Oatmeal
(makes 12-15 muffins; from this delightful Curvy Carrot recipe)

2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
14-oz. can pumpkin puree
1/4 C brown sugar
2 C nonfat milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 C old-fashioned rolled oats
1  1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 C dried cranberries
1/2 C walnuts, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a muffin pan and set it aside. Soak the dried cranberries in 2 cups of hot water while you assemble the rest of the recipe.

In a large bowl, combine the butter, pumpkin puree, brown sugar, milk, and eggs.  Mix well until smooth.  One at a time, add each of the dry ingredients; thoroughly incorporate it in the mixture before adding the next one.  Drain the cranberries and fold them in with the walnuts.

Spoon the mixture into your prepared muffin pan.  Bake until the muffins are turning golden and are springy to the touch, 30-35 minutes.  Store any you don’t eat the first day in the refrigerator.

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Orange Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is a fickle beast, but I love it.  The problem is that it is either so tart that it’s no longer pleasurable to eat, or it is so sweet that you might as well just put yourself in a diabetic coma.  Then there’s the whole chutney vs. sauce debate… the nuts vs. no nuts argument… listen, it’s a black hole that we could get sucked into for a long time.

The point is that I have a recipe I’ve come to favor.  I like to think that it is the perfect sauce for a leftover turkey sandwich, while still entirely enjoyable at the main occasion.  It’s saucey, without nuts, and falls midway on the sweetness-spectrum.  Most of the sweetness comes from using fresh-squeezed orange juice; you add just enough white sugar to keep your taste buds from screaming.  Feel free to make it a few days ahead of time too!

P.S. There’s no source recipe.  It’s the product of cooking evolution, and it’s been altered so many times that the only resemblance to the recipe I started with in 2004 is that they both have cranberries and orange liqueur, but not remotely in the same quantities.  Enjoy!

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Courtney’s Orange Cranberry Sauce
(serves a large holiday party)

1 1/4 C fresh-squeezed orange juice
3-4 T sugar
2 T finely grated orange zest
1/2 tsp kosher salt
18 oz. fresh cranberries, rinsed
1/4 C orange liqueur

Combine the orange juice, sugar, zest, and salt in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.  Stir in the cranberries and return to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium, and simmer until saucey and slightly thickened.  (About two-thirds of the berries should have popped open.)  Remove from heat.  Stir in the orange liqueur.  Transfer to a serving bowl, then cool to room temperature before serving.