June 23, 2010

Milk: It does espresso good

Well, that was something of a longer hiatus than I had planned. In truth, I hadn't really planned any time off at all. But various health problems (stupid pancreas) and other writing efforts (stupid fiction, being damn hard to cobble together) conspired to leave this blog in something of a vegetative state.

Thus, a brief update. My pancreas is fine. Because of my increased ability to digest things properly, milk no longer seems to be a bother. This is better news than I can put in to words. Because, once again, I can enjoy the velvety perfection that is embodied in milk foam. Perfection, that is, so long is it's topping a cappuccino.

I've talked about steaming milk before. And I'm sure that I'll talk about it again, as it's that important. But, just for a moment, let me discuss the types of milk available for your espresso beverages, and which are best.

There is, of course, skim, which some might argue is not really milk at all, but rather a watery emulsion of lactose, whey and casein. Some people might say that, but I would not. Skim milk is still milk, in the same way that a steak with the fat trimmed off is still a steak. Unfortunatley, that's about all the nice things I have to say about skim milk. Its lack of fat means two things: First, that even when steamed, it lacks the body of fattier dairy; And second, that it lacks the flavor.

The next step up on the fat-o-meter is 2%, which many coffee bars don't offer. The theory, I suppose, is that skim is for the calorie watchers, whole is for everyone else. Half & half, then, is for the militant. Despite that fact, king of coffee, Starbucks, uses 2% as its standard for espresso beverages. As you would expect, 2% offers more flavor and texture than skim, but less than whole. The question, then, is how much difference is there?

Not an insignificant amount. A simple slurp and swirl is enough for the moderately learned palate to differentiate between the three options.

Whole, predictably enough, tends to be the agreed upon best choice in the industry. The old culinary truism that fat equals flavor holds true in this regard. The fat really does enhance the espresso, as well as provide a delicious aroma. When you're drinking from a saucer or lidless cup (which is to be recommended) this fact is not to be underestimated. But it really is the texture that makes the biggest difference. Milk is steamed in order to stretch and aerate it, to create a pillowy mass of infinitesimal microfoam. Less fatty dairy simply does not have the structure to hold as luscious a structure as whole milk does.

But there is the matter of diminishing returns. While fat does equal better flavor and texture, too much fat is still possible. I would argue that a breve beverage (made with half&half) doesn't quite cross that line, but it certainly does toe it. The body is heavy and rich, almost approaching cheese territory. The lack of lactose also means, not surprisingly, that the beverage is less sweet. Thus, for a breve beverage to be best, it requires a stronger (or simply more) espresso to cut through the fat and add a touch of sweet.

And heavy cream? I don't know, and I don't want to.

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