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The Crema in my Coffee

The Crema in my Coffee

I know I'm obsessed. I love espresso. Before I moved to Italy, I thought a tiny cup of dark, bitter coffee with a lemon-twist garnish was the height of sophistication. In Italy espresso becomes an everyday habit, consumed just about any time of day - for breakfast, as a mid-morning or afternoon pick-me-up, or after meals.

Espresso is at its very best in a bar, because it should be served at the moment it's made. A professional machine forces hot water (just above 90 degrees, never boiling) through a compact cake of perfectly ground roast coffee. This process emulsifies the oils to produce a viscous, almost syrupy, extract topped with a golden foam known as crema, a compact layer of tiny bubbles that seals in coffee aromas. Consume the coffee quickly, in one or two sips. A perfect espresso is "six drops of energy" says Corby Kummer in his definitive book The Joy of Coffee. No lemon peel has ever graced the saucer of an Italian espresso.

I've lived in Italy so long that I've grown used to perfect espresso and can even make a decent one at home. My husband makes fun of my espresso-machine collection. I started with the classic home choice, the 3-part, stove-top Moka (water boils in the bottom part, pressure forces steam through the ground coffee in the midsection to first sputter, then ooze coffee up through a column to collect in the upper part.) I upgraded to an electric model, the Pavoni, a machine of great beauty with boiler tank, pressure gauge, and professional-looking levers and valves - but less-than-satisfactory performance. I soon purchased a Krups espresso machine that worked with a pump (less powerful than the professional models), used pre-packed coffee pods as well as ground coffee, and had a wand for steaming milk. The results weren't brilliant. I was scouring the market - to my husband's dismay - for a something new, when I heard about the Euromatik, an Italian model made for offices and small restaurants that is just about perfect, but it's like a sports car - spends a lot of time at the shop. I dust off the Krups while waiting for an out-of-town mechanic to retool my fine machine.

My favorite coffee is Illy, made with the finest quality arabica beans, perfectly ground, sealed in a pressurized can or pressed into premeasured pods, the easiest way to make a near perfect espresso at home.

I won't even think about ordering an espresso outside Italy unless I can instruct someone in just what I want, and the espresso machine can be controlled. The goal is between two and three tablespoons of coffee in my demitasse. This nectar should be extracted in 25 to 30 seconds. It's pretty easy to see if an espresso is properly made: Judge the crema on top.

Perfectly extracted espresso will have faint, tigerish stripes across the surface, although an acceptable extraction has a uniformly golden brown crema. If the foam is thin and disappears quickly, the coffee grind was too coarse or water temperature too low: the espresso is underextracted. Too-hot water results in overextraction, indicated by a paler foam with big bubbles or a white spot in the middle of the cup When the crema is absent, everything has gone wrong. If your espresso has any of these defects, send it back.

Stand up for your espresso rights!

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