On Coffee

This one’s devoted to my girl Jayme: tri-buddy, GHC colleague, phenomenal woman, new coffee drinker. Welcome to the dark side, Jay & Lee. Let’s see if we can get you to break the Starbucks dependency by making your own delicious coffee at home.

But first, I was trying to remember when, exactly, I became “addicted” to coffee. And I can’t exactly remember, so I’m going to blame Allison (who has a weird connection to Jayme even though she’s my friend… she taught at a high school with Jayme’s best friend… small world!). It seems that at UNA, Allison always had coffee. And I was almost always around Allison. I remember her making me coffee at Ivy Green when we needed to stay up late for any number of reasons: school projects, Dr. Mac papers, and ATO or Kappa Sig parties. So, yeah. Let’s blame Allison for my coffee addiction.

(I could’ve chosen a more “embarrassing” one from college… but took the high road and instead decided on this one, taken at UNA’s homecoming a few years ago. Notice how Allison has perfected the art of “hiding the can” (or cigarette, if one was so inclined). Or perhaps she’s hiding both. We’ll never know! She’s just that good. I, however, have failed, and displayed my beer – although properly coozied – front and center. Shameful. Even more shameful is that the world now knows that I will drink Bud Light on occasion. See? If I’d just hidden my can, none of this would be an issue.)

Back to how to make good coffee.

Step 1 to good coffee at home: Invest in a coffee grinder and buy whole beans for it.

Back in Auburn, Beth suggested I purchase the Melitta Mill & Brew for my daily coffee needs. At $50, it was a definite splurge in grad school. However, Beth was (and still is) a purchasing opinion leader of sorts, someone whose product reviews I completely trust. I’m not gonna lie: her Mill & Brew recommendation was her best one ever. I love that coffee maker. It’s the only one I’ve used since 2004. My morning ritual basically centers around pressing “on,” and smelling delicious, freshly roasted coffee beans. It makes me happy. And has every morning since 2004. So, I highly recommend the Mill & Brew. However, the coffee maker doesn’t make as much difference as the fact that your beans are bought whole, and that they are good quality beans. So, you can easily buy a coffee grinder, grind your beans fresh every morning, then use them in your regular old Mr. Coffee with similar results. I like the efficiency of an all-in-one machine, personally.

Now. If you’re really fancy, you’ll invest in a french press. In fact, I’ve had several conversations with my fellow coffee connoisseurs about just how great it is to use a french press every day for coffee needs. I’m pretty sure that Bob Z. makes french press every day… or he did at one point? He’s cool like that. I have a french press and have made coffee in it a couple of times. The coffee product is delicious, but I just don’t have the time to go through that every morning. I need the extra 7 minutes for procrastinating getting ready for the day. French press is a preferred coffee, but it’s a rare treat. And it reminds me of happy brunches at Doodle’s, my favorite brunch place in the world.

Step 2 to good coffee at home: buy coffee beans that you like. Theoretically, you’re supposed to use the highest quality beans for the best taste. But, everyone has different tastes, so here, you’ll have to experiment. For example, I know some avid coffee drinkers who swear by Eight O’Clock Coffee (one of the cheapest at Kroger). Steve highly recommends Dean’s Beans; in fact, I think he special orders them just so they’re always on hand. Steve knows his food, too. So, while I haven’t ever purchased the Dean’s Beans myself, I have enjoyed many a cup of coffee at his & Rose’s house, and I know that Steve don’t play when it comes to good coffee. He has admitted that an acceptable store-bought substitute is Peet’s Coffee, and I have to agree. My house brand? Starbucks or Peet’s. They’re usually in the $7-10 per pound range, which is what I like to spend. I also prefer a really dark roast, as it tends to produce better coffee for my tastes. But, again, this is all personal preference. Figure out which one you like, and that will take some trial and error.

Step 3 to good coffee at home: keep a stash of your favorite mix-ins in the fridge. I used to only drink coffee with International Delight French Vanilla creamer. Then, they changed their formula, and we were all sad (by “we” I mean all of us ladies at Auburn who couldn’t live without it in our coffees). So, we all made the switch to Coffee Mate nonfat French Vanilla creamer. And all was well, until they changed their formula. It started to taste like soap. I wrote several letters to Coffee Mate asking them to change back, but eventually just gave up and dealt with it. Coffee just wasn’t coffee without sugary, carby deliciousness clogging my arteries with every sip.

Sometime over the past few months, I decided that I should give up on artificial, non-dairy creamers and go for the really good, natural stuff: half & half. It took some adjustment, but I eventually grew to love my daily coffee, sugar free, with a healthy splash of half & half thrown in. (NOTE: I do not enjoy fat-free half & half. It’s basically white water and is filled with all the chemicals I’m trying to avoid by switching to half & half. Gross.) I can give up sugar, but I cannot give up cream. So now, sugar in my coffee is a rare treat, reserved only for Starbucks/Caribou/”fancy” coffee runs, or when I happen to have homemade caramel sauce in my fridge, because let me tell you, homemade caramel in one’s coffee is pretty tasty.

Here again is where you’ll just have to experiment and figure out what you like. I truly wish that I could drink soy creamer or soy milk in my hot coffee, but heat does something funky to soy milk, and it makes it gross, at least to me. However, I absolutely love soy milk in my iced coffees, and pretty much refuse to make iced coffee unless a good splash of soy milk is available to go on top. I prefer soy here because it seems healthier, somehow. I’m sure it’s not, but whatever. It’s good!

And… that’s really it. There is no need to depend on Starbucks for your daily buzz. You can achieve similar, if not better, results at home, after a little practice, trial and error. Like the flavor of those sugary syrups they put in? See the recipe below for a hint about achieving that sort of accouterment at home. Like your lattes and the espresso taste better than plain ol’ coffee? My friend Christy used to make a homemade latte every day using her stovetop Bialetti, and I have to agree that if I wanted to make “lattes,” I’d do the same thing. But, I enjoy regular coffee about as much as I do lattes, so it’s all the same to me.

There is a learning curve involved, but once you get over the initial hump, you should be on your way to enjoying delicious, gourmet coffee at a fraction of the price. And, you’ll have the pride of knowing you made it all by yourself.

To close this blog post, I’ll share a recipe for something that’s so simple, I don’t even really consider it a recipe. It’s iced coffee. I’m sharing the recipe here because a lot of y’all have asked me how to make it.

LBDelicious Iced Coffee and Flavored Syrup

First: brew some really strong regular coffee. What I like to do is make a full pot of coffee, drink one cup of it hot, and save the rest of it in the fridge until I’m ready for iced coffee. It usually lasts about 2 days before it starts to taste weird. This also helps save money: if you are willing to drink your coffee iced as easily as you will drink it hot, then you’ll never, ever pour out coffee. Just keep the extra in the fridge. Oh, and feel free to make some coffee ice cubes for the iced coffee, too… saves the delicious coffee flavor from getting watered down due to regular iced cubes.

Second: pour the coffee over ice. It helps if the coffee is already cold, i.e. has been hanging out in the fridge for a while. it also helps if you use ice cubes made of coffee, but those are totally optional. Depends on how jolted you want to be all day.

Third: pour in the creamer of your choice. I, as stated, prefer soy milk. But, some love half & half, or skim milk, or heavy cream… whatever floats your boat.

Optional: if you like it sweet, then you’ll need to sweeten it with a simple syrup instead of regular sugar, as sugar takes too long to dissolve in a cold beverage. I used to keep a container of simple syrup in my fridge at all times for this very reason.

To make a flavored syrup for your coffee, do the following: combine 1/2 cup plain sugar with 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over medium-high heat until sugar is dissolved, stirring to help it get there. Stop right there: you have plain, or “classic,” sweetener, a great all-purpose simple syrup for all your beverage sweetening needs! Pour in an air-tight container and enjoy the deliciousness for up to 2 weeks.

Like vanilla? As soon as you remove the syrup from the heat, add in about a tablespoon of vanilla extract. This is my favorite syrup concoction for coffees.

Like hazelnut? Eh, you could probably throw in about 1/2 tablespoon of Frangelico and you’d be good to go.

Like almond? Add in some amaretto. I’m sure the liquor will burn off?

Like caramel? Make thee some homemade caramel sauce. Recipe pending, I promise. And I swear it’s easy.

I’ve even made a pumpkin iced coffee before, as I do love a pumpkin spice latte in the fall.

Like chocolatey mochas? Well… now that’s a different blog post. I’m not above melting dark chocolate and stirring it straight into my iced coffee…

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Grapefruit Margaritas

Let’s talk about margaritas, and how I came to figure out the absolute best, LBDelicious version of one.

My “first love” of adult beverages was the Mambo Taxi at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina in Huntsville, AL. To this day, when I go home, I basically force someone to go to Rosie’s with me (people at home: are you sick of Rosie’s yet?), so that I can have at least one of their frozen margaritas swirled with Jago sangria. It’s the only frozen margarita I order, ever. And, it may be one of those things that isn’t that wonderful to most people, but I have some sort of strange sentimental attachment to it and cannot let it go, much like a blankie or a favorite stuffed animal. For some reason, I cannot recreate the Mambo Taxi at home. I think they must, like everything else at Rosie’s, put a secret ingredient (crack, perhaps?) in it.
Despite never quite figuring out how to make a Mambo Taxi, I did eventually figure out how to make a pretty decent margarita from scratch. It started out when I realized that the store bought sour mixes are disgusting and hurt my stomach, thereby negating the “feel good” effects of the margarita. Besides that, “real” margaritas are a sublime combination of silver tequila and lime juice. And that’s it. So, I began to squeeze my own fresh lime juice and make a simple syrup (thanks, sweet tooth) to balance out the sour (1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, brought to a simmer & stored in an airtight container in the fridge), adding it in some odd proportion to whatever tequila was laying around (usually Jose Cuervo gold) along with some triple sec. It was a good first start, but not the happy, sublime, relaxing, refreshing margarita I knew existed.

Eventually, I figured out that if I added lime zest to the simple syrup before it came to a simmer, and then strained out the lime zest, I had a pretty tasty lime simple syrup, which enhanced the natural flavor of the lime juice. This was a HUGE improvement from my first incarnation. But, something still tasted off. I think I was laying on the couch one day watching Bobby Flay (which means I was really exhausted because I was too tired to turn him off… he’s not my favorite Food Network chef…), when he insisted that if you make a margarita, you have to use silver tequila. Duly noted, BFlay.

The switch was made – I reserved the Jose Gold for marinades, and started going for Milagro, Patron, or Herradura silver as my bar pantry, standby tequila (all three of these are excellent, but Milagro is my favorite budget option. Herradura’s the priciest, but also the best, in my opinion. Patron – well, you can’t ever go wrong with Patron either). Huge improvement number 3.

I eventually realized that Cointreau, not triple sec, was a key ingredient. Why did I even have triple sec in my cabinet? Who knows. I’m sure it was cheaper. But, even though Cointreau is more expensive, I think it’s worth it. It lasts a long time (moderation is key, here), which is how I justify keeping it around. Just the combination of one shot of tequila, a splash of cointreau, about 3 tablespoons of lime juice and however much lime simple syrup I felt I needed made me feel like I’d developed a restaurant-quality drink. I was happy. Temporarily.
Eventually, I got frustrated. Have you ever squeezed enough limes to get two decent-sized margaritas? It takes a long time. If you know me, you know I am not patient. Especially when I want a margarita. Which is usually when I’ve had a craptastic day. And my patience is minimal to begin with, much less on days when I need a margarita to make it better. I found that I was spending a lot of time squeezing limes, with little results, which made me an unhappy margarita drinker. I searched for a solution in the store-bought, jarred, organic lime juices, knowing better than to even attempt to squeeze anything out of a plastic, lime-ish looking container into a shot of good tequila. The organic jarred lime juice is okay, but still had a funky taste to it.

Fast forward (or rewind?) to about a month ago, when I was eating a grapefruit supplied by my lovely Farmer’s Market Basket. It all of a sudden dawned on me: these babies are tart enough to supply the base of my homemade sweet/sour mix! Every once in a while, I have good ideas. Not often. But sometimes. Like that day. It finally allowed me to nail my homemade margarita recipe, something I’ve been tinkering with for years.

Let’s also rewind a bit, back to one of the best margaritas I’ve ever had in my life: the one that I ordered at Frontera Grill. It was shaken, cocktail style, at the table before it was poured into a martini glass right in front of me. I learned something on that day: if Rick Bayless thinks margaritas should be shaken, then we should all be shaking our margaritas.

Combine the grapefruit idea with the shaker, and you have…

Grapefruit Margarita (for one serving)

First: put your margarita jug/glass/cup in the freezer, preferably for long enough to make it nice & frosty

Second: make a lime simple syrup. In a small saucepan, bring 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, and the zest of one lime to a simmer, until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, strain out the zest, and set aside in an airtight container. Preferably, this will come to room temperature or be in the fridge for a while. If not – no big deal.

Third: Juice half a grapefruit (NOTE: you will want more than one of these, so just go ahead and squeeze the whole grapefruit, saving the leftover juice)

Fourth: fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice. Add, in the following order: 1 1/2 shots tequila, 1/2 shot Cointreau, 1 1/2 shots grapefruit, and up to 1 shot of simple syrup (depending on how sweet you like your drinks). Shake vigorously, and strain into your frozen glass, which you will fill with ice right before you pour the drink. Oh, don’t forget to rim the glass with salt first.

Where’s the picture? I drank mine too fast tonight to share. Guess I’ll just have to make another one in the future to post here.