January 15, 2011

Judging the Man by his Collar

One look at the size of his collar, at the fit of his coat, and I knew he had a preference concerning cappuccinos. Not everyone does, of course. Truthfully, something like a majority of the people ordering them would be better off asking for something else -- either a latte, or perhaps the sort of thing vended from a gas station machine.

But as I looked up from the ticket, glancing over the espresso machine, I knew that he was not in that crowd. He was neither ignorant nor apathetic. His posture was too perfect for that, his gait too self assured, and the collar on his coat altogether too large. He eyed the cookbooks like someone who might be able to properly fold an omelet.

"How dry do you like your cappuccinos?" I asked. He glanced up, his eyes open in the way that says "Me?" I looked back in the way that responds "Who else?"

"Wet," he said. No explanation, and certainly no question.

There was nothing left but to do it then. A wet cappuccino is a mixed breed of sorts, something of a hybrid latte and genuine cappuccino. It ought to be smooth and consistent, like a latte, but not so milky as that. It should thus be foamy, but not so light and airy as a cappuccino. It resides in that ether between the two, and is something of a challenge for that.

I set to stretching the milk, settling in to a soft spot just to the left of the vortex, nicking the edge and coaxing a thick hiss from the milk. I let the wand penetrate deeper as the liquid rose, texturing and smoothing, eliminating bubbles and inconsistencies. The requisite temperature reached, I cut the steam,  and set the pitcher down. I had hit my target, or thereabouts. This was no dishwater foam; it was refined and dense.

I poured, and as the milk entered the cup, so too did doubt begin to fill my mind. Too light. Too airy. Too dry. I lifted the cup, and knew that I had made a perfect cappuccino -- but not a perfect wet cappuccino. I had missed my mark by millimeters, having perhaps stretched too eagerly and thus landed near -- but not on -- the bull's eye.

"I think it might be a touch dry," I confessed.

He fingered the foam, lightly at first, then scooped a portion to his mouth and licked. "How deep is the foam?" he asked.

"It ought to be consistent," I said. "I don't use a spoon unless I'm making one totally dry. The whole thing should be about like that. But pick it up; I think it felt a little light."

He did, and took a sip as well.

"I have more milk left over," I said, preempting the request I expected would come.

"Would you..." he paused, and cocked his features, not quite finishing the question -- but setting the cup down.

I used a spoon then, holding back what foam there might have been, incorporating more milk in to the drink that I now estimated to be 15% dryer than intended. He took it, sipped, and professed satisfaction.

Whether he was, I was not. A wet cappuccino may be something of an ambiguous drink, residing at several possible points on an imaginary continuum, but my ego struggled to accept that I may not have fully vanquished the challenge laid before me.

I watched him drink as he walked away, still with the same posture and stride that had clued me in to his distinct tastes before, noting again the size of the collar.

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