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.
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.
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.
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.