I know, I know. You think I am referring to the Covid vaccine, and truth to tell the month of January was indeed a relentless and fruitless quest to get vaccinated. Happily we finally scored appointments for our first shot and have joined the fortunate few who have received the first step toward immunity from the disease that has poisoned our lives over the last twelve months.
However, that shot that is not the subject of this latest blog. Starting in early January I embarked on a quest to learn how to pull the perfect espresso shot with my new Gaggia Classic Pro Espresso machine. But let me back up a bit.
In late December my treasured Saeco espresso machine finally gave up the ghost after about ten years of faithful service. As it is now discontinued, I was unable to repurchase it and began a search for a suitable replacement. It didn’t take long to discover that my old machine used a type of portafilter that artificially aerated the brew to create the distinctive prized espresso crema. I had never realized that. As I explored different brands, including Breville, Nescafe and others I kept returning to the machine I have always yearned to own….a Gaggia. I knew this upgrade was likely to be pricier than the low budget Saeco which had replaced a couple of Krups machines I had previously owned, but I felt I was ready to learn how to work with an authentic Italian pump machine. So, I pressed “add to cart” on Amazon and two days later it was at my door.
The first morning I posted a photo on facebook saying, “What have I done?” I was serious. My first couple of shots were just awful. I rely on frequent deliveries of Lavazza Super Crema beans from Amazon, but that coffee tasted weak and bitter. Then I switched to Starbucks espresso beans which have a nice oily surface and a deep dark roast. That was moderately better, but the shots still lacked the distinctive crema, and the espresso had a heavy unpleasant aftertaste.
Next I purchased a Cuisinart burr grinder on Amazon which instantly disappointed. It failed to grind the beans fine enough even on the highest setting, and I was unwilling to upgrade to a larger burr grinder for both space and financial reasons. I returned it.
There must be some way I can achieve a tasty, rich shot without investing several hundred more dollars, I reasoned. But how? Several weeks earlier I had purchased a new Krups blade grinder after inadvertantly destroying my old one while cleaning it. And yes, I know, a blade grinder is anathema for true afficianados, but I am a home user who only wants one cappucino a day. Definitely not a cafe barrista!
So, I pored over internet videos and articles about ways to employ a blade grinder to properly or at least adequately produce the appropriate consistency for an espresso machine. Ultimately, I discovered that the blade grinder should be used in five to seven second bursts separated by tapping the machine against the counter to keep the coffee from getting stuck in the grinding bowl. Longer bursts run the risk of heating up the coffee in the grinding process. Now, all I had to do was settle on the right amount of coffee for the large double filter and develop a consistent grinding sequence and timeline. Easier said than done.
Soon I discovered that a coarse espresso grind pulls the shot too quickly, producing too little crema and a thin bitter liquid. Another indication is the consistency of the “puck”, i.e., the coffee left in the pod after extraction. If loose and watery that indicates the grind is too coarse or improperly tamped. If it is too dry and solid, and if the shot extracts too slowly, the grind is too fine or overly tamped. This is the case of Goldilocks trying to find the “just right.”
And before I continue, a word about tamping and distributing. I purchased a distributor and a tamper as accessories to the machine. Once the coffee grounds are placed in the portafilter, spinning a distributor over them ensures the coffee sits in the pod without air holes. Then, you must tamp the grounds with about 20 to 30 pounds of pressure. For that you practice on a bathroom scale by pressing on the scale until it reads 20 to 30 pounds and recreate that feeling.
Are you still with me???
Next I experimented with a mixture of Lavazza and Starbucks coffee, but the taste was too heavy and bitter. The Lavazza has been my go to blend for over a year. Okay, I thought, I will use it and adjust all the other variables.
The key is to manage the grind, the tamp, and the amount. The machine must have time to fully heat up and it is wise to run water through the empty pod to warm it before loading the filter with your grind. A good double shot (I run mine through each side of the filter in two small shot glasses which are actually votive candle holders) should take about 20 to 30 seconds. Once the liquid emanating from the device is blonde you must stop extracting. Anything after that will be bitter. Who knew?
Now after four weeks, while I am still not entirely consistent, I can pull a good shot with a decent crema about 80 percent of the time.
Wait a minute you say. Too much work. True, true true. And this was a process that I wasn’t prepared for. Remember I was used to the fake, aerated, crema-rich result from my old Saeco. And I must confess I never frothed the old machine because the crema was so voluminous. I just microwaved my milk. But times have changed.
Here I am going to fast track. After several tries I learned how to roll the milk and create a nice creamy froth. It all depends on where you place the head of the steamer wand. I actually microwave half the volume of milk and froth the rest because I don’t own a large metal frothing container. But this works for me.
The result. Is. Delicious. I can make a coffee in about 7 minutes, including clearing the frother, wiping down the machine and rinsing out the pod and containers. Not bad at all.
This morning’s blog post menu offered a choice between semolina or country bread. Today’s cup being shorter and stronger than my usual fare, I chose the richer, nuttier flavor of semolina as a foil. Combined with Plugra butter and Italian jam my lockdown morning breakfast evokes the textures and flavors of the European trips that hopefully will lie in my future, post Covid.
And for now, I will always have my cappucino.
110 grams durum semolina flour
475 grams all purpose flour
2 teaspoons instant yeast (I am a little generous with the amount)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 cups warm water (100 degrees F)
Mix the ingredients together adding a little more water, if necessary to fully incorporate all the flour into a thick paste. I also like to fold and stretch the dough in the bowl with a flexible spatula for about a minute. Loosely cover the bowl and place in a warm place for 2 hours. I like to set the dough in the microwave to keep it free of draughts.
After the first rise the dough will be a little foamy and very sticky. Carefully divide it in two, trying to avoid punching it down too much. Using enough flour to keep your hands dry, form each half into a large grapefruit-sized round. Do not knead. Place each round on a flat surface lined with parchment paper sprinkled with a little semolina and coat each ball with flour (enrobe the dough). Cover with a tea towel and allow to rise for about 20-30 minutes. During the rising period place two cast iron casserole pans in the oven and set the temperature for 450 degrees. Allow the pans and their covers to heat up during the entire rise. When the dough is ready, lightly baste with water, sprinkle with sesame seeds and slash the dough with a sharp knife or razor blade. Using the parchment paper as a sling, place each piece in a pan, and immediately cover. Bake both loaves for 20 minutes. Remove covers and bake an additional 10 minutes. The loaves should read 200 degrees F when tested with an instant read thermometer. Remove from oven and allow to cool on a rack. You can freeze one loaf for later use. To store loaves, wrap loosely in wax paper and roll up in a linen or cotton tea towel. The loaf will retain its crust and texture better if it is not stored in a plastic bag.
Wait! Before you head for the kitchen for a snack and your own perfect shot, we have another “treat” for you. Click here for a look back at 2020 and an invitation we hope you’ll take seriously. If you do, RSVP to email@example.com. –Editor
Theresa D’Aiuto Sokol was a performing artist, teacher and director. Experienced in opera, concert, and chamber music, she lived and worked in Germany and sang a wide range of repertoire on three continents. She was Opera Director at USF where she staged two productions annually for a decade, and directed opera, musicals and theater in regional venues. Theresa holds a B.M. and M.M. in vocal performance from Manhattanville College and USF, and trained privately in NYC with professionals from Juilliard, Curtis and the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. In her retirement she enjoys languages, baking, blogging, bridge and video editing.