Coffee and Cake

Sunday July 3, 2016


I remember being turned on to freshly roasted specialty coffee in the early 1970s.  It is was in San Francisco’s North Beach at the bohemian Cafe Trieste, a bustling coffee house opened in 1956 by an Italian fisherman’s son to serve cappuccinos and those decadent, delicious Italian pastries that are so flaky when fresh and scatter crumbs all over the table after every bite.  Shortly after, Peet’s opened in Berkeley and Menlo Park and people lined up to buy their coffee beans every day of the week.  I traveled in Guatemala and the mountains were planted with coffee. But every food stall and restaurant table had a jar of Nescafe instant coffee. I would walk on the beach in Champerico after traveling at Lake Atitlan and watch the boats be loaded with the sacks of beans.

By 1979, I worked the espresso machine at a coffee bar, learning the rhythm to hold the milk container so the steam spout just frothed the surface, and whipping out cappuccinos and diminutive cups of espresso with a strip of lemon on the side every few minutes.  After working in Alaska for a summer, I sat in a Seattle coffee house called Starbucks and liked the coffee so much I bought a few bags home.  It was a special experience to drink these coffees.  Just to hold the cup.

Now thirty years later, I can buy these same specialty coffees at the supermarket next to the cans of Yuban the premium coffee of connoisseurs that was served to guests from my mother’s kitchen in the 1960s. Many homes have small espresso machines.  Now even the smallest restaurant has an espresso machine and coffee shops are almost on every corner.  Coffee shops are not the local donut shop or diner, but meeting places with comfy chairs and computer hook ups. It is a movement described as the Europeanization of American tastes.  It has evolved into a mass of flourishing small businesses that roast their own coffee on the premises and part of the present culinary transformation.

While some drink their coffee with no accompaniment, many of us cling to the sensual memory of that bite of cake donut and the whoosh of washing it down with almost too hot, freshly brewed coffee. There is a donut shop on the main drag of El Camino Real. No matter what time or day or night, that small stark shop with Formica tables and overly bright florescent lights is full of people drinking coffee and eating donuts. I often head on over to Starbucks just to get an oatmeal scone with maple glaze to nibble on with my decaf.  It does not matter the season.  In winter, coffee warms the body, and in the summer, relieves the lethargy from the heat.

But with all the types of coffee to choose from today, is there a guide for the baker?  Not really.

The general rule is that darker coffee beans, ones that have been roasted longer, have the European names (French roast or Italian roast) and are stronger in flavor.  The lighter roasted beans, which are lighter in color and less oily looking, have the exotic tropical names like Mexican, Mocha-Java, and Kenyan.  They can specify the country of origin, the estate, or the type of beans in the blend.  Blends differ from shop to shop, the ubiquitous “house blend,” company to company, often incorporating some very expensive coffee beans with bulk beans.  All commercial pre-ground coffee, such as Yuban, is a blend of lesser quality beans.

Many people prefer the independent small farm “estate” raised organic coffees to fit in with their personal lifestyle philosophy.  I notice one of the favorites is organic Peruvian.  I was told by a coffee importer that technically all coffee is organic, due to the fact that the coffee-shrub is a plant insects just don’t like because of how naturally acid it is.  But to be certified organic, you must be part of one of the established organic consortiums, take care with your soil, and given official labeling.

Okay some recommendations.  I especially love an old-fashioned crumb cake laced with cinnamon and vanilla that looks real professional when dusted with some powdered sugar; serve with a light-bodied Mocha-Java (the oldest blend of all coffees) to complement the floral quality of the spices.  Upside-down cakes are now happily back in baking fashion, and the earthy, berry-like quality of a fresh African Ethiopian or Colombian is great with fruit-topped cakes.  Zahtar, an herb-topped flatbread that is favorite breakfast bread in the Middle East, will taste just as good with these.  A toasty-sweet full-bodied Kenyan and espresso drinks are perfect for brunch with spice- and dried fruit-laden breads, like panettone, or Irish Soda Bread, which tastes like an English muffin when toasted.

An espresso or Italian roast coffee, the darkest and strongest, is served with Italian-style baked goods.  Think tiramisu, vanilla sponge cake, and biscotti.  Since most people do not own espresso machines in their homes for professional style lattes and cappuccinos, don’t hesitate to brew drip-style; it will still make a distinctive flavored drink.  My favorite roast has always been Viennese, with it’s smooth balance of acid and coffee flavor made by combining a blend of dark and medium roasts.  I would buy it at the long defunct Perfect Recipe, one of the first mainstream coffee houses in this area, in Stanford Shopping Center.  It is a roast that is almost out of fashion now, yet is perfect with milk and for washing down bites of buttered raisin toast, pumpkin pancakes, and nut-swirled sour cream coffee cake.

I like the heady, smoothness of Sumatran coffee with; it is known as the coffee for fulfilled romantics.  It is one of the world’s most famous coffees and can stand up to being diluted with lots of milk.  It is gentle and rich, as delicious with a slice of warm buttered toast as it is with a more fancy chocolate pound cake.

I have been baking swirled sweet rolls or cinnamon bread in one form or another for breakfast guests for over twenty-five years.  I serve them with a medium-bodied Guatemalan Antigua, a favorite, in oversized cups with plenty of half-and-half, skim milk, or a creamy soy milk, depending on my diners.  For a brown sugar-and-spice buttery macadamia nut coffee cake, Hawaiian sweet bread, or pineapple cake, an island-grown Kona, of course.

a-cup-of-coffee-on-an-antique-mapSince coffee has been regarded from the beginning as one of humanity’s sacramental substances, I don’t wonder it has such a natural affinity with chocolate.  Once the hot drink was considered medicine and a fortifying aid for proper meditation to Arabian monastics.  The Arabian coffee ritual is likened to the Japanese tea ceremony in its refinement and as a cultural influence.  Arabian Mocha, a reference to the distinctive chocolaty aftertaste of the coffee after brewing, is the most traditional and ancient of all coffees.  And it is still enjoyed worldwide. It is great with bakery and homemade layer cakes and cookies of all types, especially chocolate chip.

Pairing a regional baked good with coffee maintains tradition; a time past when eating, drinking, and merrymaking was of the utmost importance.  A kugelhof from Austria is a natural with coffeemit Schlag, a steaming cup topped with a large dollop of whipped cream.  A Sachertorte, cheesecake Tofen, linzertorte, kuchen, Dobos torte, and strudel have the culinary nostalgia of the Viennese coffee house served with kleiner brauner, the double espresso, or cup of coffee so strong it is nicknamed “black soup.”

classic le petit dejeuner

French Quarter beignets or calás, sweet rice fritters, taste just right with a cup of New Orleans-style coffee blended with lots of bitter chicory (the roasted root of endive) and a dose of cheap Brazilian beans ground in to keep the original flavor from generations ago.  French roast with a croissant, brioche and jam, or filled crêpes.  If you have a vanilla and coconut gelato or flan, definitely consider Jamaican Blue Mountain, the most expensive and celebrated coffee in the world since it is grown in one small high altitude area on the Caribbe island.  Although I have never had an ice cream paired with Colombian coffee I did not like (leave the sorbets for the sweet dessert wines).

Bueñelos, pan dulce, or pan de huevo, the standard fare offered at panaderias are good with Guatemalan Antigua or hearty Costa Rican with a dash of cinnamon added perhaps.  The best Mexican grown coffee is exported to the US, so if you got hooked on it in Mexico, you are drinking coffee that was not suitable for export and it tastes real different than other coffees.  If you were born in Britain, you may have a taste for coffee with ground roasted fig added.

After all this, know that your coffee cakes, muffins, pancakes, and waffles needn’t be served just with coffee, in case you don’t imbibe.  Brewed and iced English teas, savory grain coffees (like Postum) with hints of malt, a mug of hot Ovaltine, an array of herbal teas, or even a glass of cold milk or fresh juice, are all worthy partners to your delicious cakes and loaves.

A Cup of Coffee - Victor-Gabriel Gilbert

A Cup of Coffee - Victor-Gabriel Gilbert

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  1. Jo 19/10/2009 at 7:06 pm

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    I love the chatty quality and yet the vast amount of info compiled.
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    I am ordering your book now for him (and the house!)

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