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Good enough to eat

Special to The Times

A few years ago the Italian coffee company LavAzza hired the world’s leading molecular gastronomist, Ferran Adria, to come up with coffee you can eat. The Spanish chef, known as the wizard of foam, converted a cappuccino into what appears to be a sort of seriously gelatinous pudding, and last month LavAzza introduced the dessert Espesso in this country at its Chicago shops.

What’s amusing is that any home cook could do as well without setting foot near a laboratory. Simply treating coffee as an ingredient in cooking is so much easier than all that mad science.

Something as basic as steeping coffee beans in milk or cream is the first step toward a souffle or mousse. Adding espresso powder to brownie or cake batter, or brewed coffee to a sauce, will also produce the miracle of coffee you can eat.

It’s easy to see why the concept is so compelling in an age when great coffee beans are so easy to find and so seductive that you want to turn them into more than a wake-up drink before breakfast or after a heavy dinner.

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A few quintessentially Italian coffee-converted-to-food ideas have taken hold in this country, particularly granita (frozen espresso), tiramisu (layers of richness cut with very strong espresso) and coffee ice cream (gelato by another name).

But coffee can do so much more, in the same way wine can. The attributes that make a Syrah or a Muscadet so suited to a braise or a sauce also apply to coffee: rich, full flavor and an almost intoxicating aroma.

Coffee also has one big advantage over wine: You can use it in other forms besides liquid. A couple of tablespoons of ground beans can jazz up many desserts without affecting the balance of liquid to solid in recipes such as cookies, where that is crucial, and can even be used as a dry marinade for beef, duck breasts or pork chops.

Chefs, many as well known as Adria, have long made coffee edible as well as drinkable by taking a shortcut. Their guilty secret is espresso powder, which is intensely concentrated coffee essence. Admittedly, it packs a powerful punch. I keep Cafe Bustelo in my freezer for baking; it might not make much of an espresso for drinking but it does send coffee flavor straight through a panful of brownies. If, however, you start your morning with excellent espresso, you already have a better ingredient on hand.

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A deglazing tradition

ONE of the more venerable tricks in American cooking is deglazing with coffee. Southern and western cooks originated the idea of splashing from the coffeepot into the skillet when making gravy with ham, and the result has always been known as redeye gravy, to be ladled over biscuits or grits. The almost-bitter coffee counters the richness of the cured pork to produce a sauce good enough to pass for French but quintessentially American.

A splash of brewed coffee and a little cream added at the end of sauteing shiitakes has just as a dramatic effect, as does a sauce for seared duck breast. Brewed coffee also goes together -- like cream and sugar -- with braised onions. And coffee is a time-honored secret ingredient in barbecue sauce, for its almost smoky essence.

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You can also use coffee in both a dry rub and a braising liquid for a beef brisket: Marinated overnight in a mixture of kosher salt, sugar, chile powder and espresso powder, the fatty, fibrous meat takes on the coffee flavor while excreting extraneous liquid, so the cooking liquid imparts a double dose of flavor.

But coffee you can eat turns up most often in dessert, whether in souffles, parfaits, tiramisu or mousse. That’s when it fits the best with its natural partners, cream and sugar, and with spices, particularly cardamom or cinnamon. Another Italian classic is fresh ricotta combined with espresso powder, sugar and rum and served cold.

Coffee’s aggressive flavor is especially effective in buttery batters, especially involving chocolate, and especially brownies. The combination doubles the caffeine, which is why I renamed my favorite fast dessert, made from a Jack Bishop recipe he calls double mocha brownies, buzz bars. (As good as the recipe is for brownies, it can also be made in a round pan and served as a cake.) Espresso is also a jazzy addition to muffin batter, especially one using chocolate chips.

In cooking with coffee, the most important consideration is using the best possible beans. I use them ground for espresso, which is very fine, and I’m partial to blends from Italy -- rather than single-origin beans -- because they have that wine-worthy aspect. Even more than with wine, you want to cook with a coffee you would happily drink on its own.

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Buzz bars

Time: 40 minutes, plus 20 minutes for cooling

Servings: 12

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Note: Adapted from “Something Sweet” by Jack Bishop. The brownies are best eaten the day they are baked.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus extra for pan

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate

2 tablespoons very strong espresso powder

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1 tablespoon Kahlua

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sugar

2 large eggs

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2/3 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2/3 cup chopped pecans, walnuts or pistachios

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1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch-square baking dish.

2. Combine the stick of butter with the chocolate and espresso powder in the top of a double boiler or in a steel bowl set over simmering water in a pot. Heat, stirring often, until the butter and chocolate are melted. Remove from the heat and stir in the Kahlua, vanilla and sugar, mixing well. Let cool 5 minutes.

3. Stir the eggs into the batter until completely incorporated. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt and stir into the batter, mixing well. Stir in the nuts. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.

4. Bake for about 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted halfway between the edge and the center of the pan comes out clean. Do not overbake. Cool on a rack before cutting into bars.

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Each serving: 246 calories; 3 grams protein; 25 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 16 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 56 mg. cholesterol; 58 mg. sodium.

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Coffee’d brisket

Total time: About 4 hours, 15 minutes, plus overnight marination

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Servings: 8 to 10

1/4 cup top-quality coffee beans, ground for espresso

3 tablespoons kosher salt

2 tablespoons sugar

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1 teaspoon chipotle flakes or 1/2 teaspoon chipotle chile pepper (or Italian hot red pepper flakes)

1 beef brisket, about 5 pounds, excess fat trimmed

2 large onions, sliced

4 carrots, peeled and cut lengthwise into 3-by- 1/2 -inch strips

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1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup beef stock

1 1/2 cups strong brewed espresso

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

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1. The night before cooking, combine the ground coffee, salt, sugar and chipotle flakes. Spread over both sides of the brisket. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

3. Spread the onions, carrots and thyme into a roasting pan just large enough to hold the meat. Rinse the coating off the brisket and lay it on top of the vegetables, fattier side up. Pour the stock and coffee around the meat. Cover tightly with a lid or with foil and bake 3 1/2 to 4 hours, until the meat is very tender.

4. Remove the meat from the juices and place on a rimmed carving board. Using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables to a bowl. Pour the warm pan juices into a gravy separator.

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5. To serve, slice the meat across the grain into very thin slices. Spoon some of the vegetables alongside. Season the warm defatted pan juices to taste and serve on the side.

Each of 10 servings: 316 calories;

47 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 10 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 97 mg. cholesterol; 228 mg. sodium.

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Coffee and cardamom souffles

Total time: 45 minutes

Servings: 8

Note: You will need eight (6-ounce) souffle dishes.

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5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

9 tablespoons sugar, divided

2 tablespoons whole cardamom

1 1/2 cups whole milk

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1/2 cup freshly ground top-quality coffee beans

1/4 cup flour

5 large eggs, separated

2 ounces bittersweet chocolate

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1/4 cup heavy cream

1 tablespoon Kahlua, or to taste, optional

1. Use 1 tablespoon of the butter to grease the eight souffle dishes. Use 2 tablespoons of the sugar to dust the insides of the dishes. Set aside.

2. Using a mortar and pestle, coarsely crush the cardamom pods. Combine in a small saucepan with the milk and the coffee and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat and let steep, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve, pressing to extract the liquid. You should have 1 cup.

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3. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Melt the remaining butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring, until the mixture is smooth and bubbly. Add the coffee mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and smooth and glossy. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the sugar and set aside to cool.

4. Using the wooden spoon, beat the egg yolks into the coffee base one at a time, making sure each is incorporated before adding the next.

5. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl until they are thick and foamy, then sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of sugar evenly over the whites. Continue beating until stiff but moist peaks form. Pour the coffee mixture into the whites and, using a rubber spatula, fold until the ingredients are fully blended; do not overmix. Place the prepared dishes on a baking sheet and pour in the mixture.

6. Bake in the center of the oven until puffed and lightly browned, 14 to 16 minutes. Serve immediately.

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7. While the souffles are baking, make a sauce by combining the chocolate and the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar in a small saucepan with one-half cup water. Bring to a boil while stirring constantly; cook until the mixture thickens slightly. Stir in the cream and continue cooking until the consistency is sauce-like. Stir in the Kahlua. Transfer to a small dish and serve hot alongside the souffles.

Each serving: 266 calories; 7 grams protein; 23 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 18 grams fat; 10 grams saturated fat; 166 mg. cholesterol; 66 mg. sodium.


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