A good Cuban cafécito is one of life’s great indulgences. Much like a perfectly cooked dry-aged steak, or a sip of a masterfully crafted spirit like a 20 year-old Pappy Van Winkle, you’re ruined forever after the experience. You’ll make all of your friends sick with descriptions of toasted chocolate, fluffy caramel foam, and your sudden ability to roll your r’s and dance salsa.
Fortunately, I’m here to teach you how to do it right.
You just have to accept one truth before we begin: Cuban café is made with sugar and lots of it. The best things in life can often kill you. Embrace it. Stare it down and yell, “ñoooooooooooo, que delicioso, mami,” with the rest of us.
Got it? Here’s what you need:
- Moka pot, or cafetera as my family always called it. (You can make it with an espresso machine but pay attention to the technique.)
- Finely ground coffee. Every family has their favorite, usually Bustelo or Pilon but there are other brands. My preferred is the gourmet version of Pilon. (You can be fancy and grind your own beans. Just buy a dark roast Arabica and grind it fine.)
- A small metal pitcher to make the espumita, the defining feature of a well made Cuban café. Don’t confuse it with the crema that forms from well extracted espresso. Espumita is made by whipping sugar with the first drops of brewed coffee until it is a pale creamy paste. A pitcher made to handle the beating is essential.
- Sugar. We’ve covered this. No fancy sugar either. Only white, processed, sugar.
Making Cuban café is all about the technique but it’s not difficult. It just takes some timing and practice. Here we go:
1. Fill the reservoir of your moka pot with water to just below the steam release valve.
2. Pack the coffee funnel tight with your coffee grounds, leaving a little space below the lip. There’s usually a natural line in the metal you can use as a guide. Many pack this up to the brim with coffee but I don’t just from my experience making espresso.
3. Put the pot on the stove on high heat. Leave the top lid open so you can see when the first drips of coffee start pouring down. This is important!
4. While the pot is heating up, fill the bottom of the metal pitcher with 2-tablespoons of white granulated sugar. Maybe 1 and a half tablespoons. I’ve never measured before. It’s a lot of sugar.
Now watch the pot. Do not walk away. Here comes the most important step because here comes the espumita:
5. The second that coffee begins dripping from the spout like this:
Take the pot off the heat and pour a tiny amount into the pitcher with the sugar.
You want enough to make a paste when you whip it but not enough to turn it into a soup.
Put the pot back on the heat to finish brewing.
6) Whip the sugar. Whip it with passion. Don’t worry if it seems dry and dark initially. Keep whipping it and practice your espumita-making face. You’re done when the sugar has turned into a pale caramel grainy cream like this:
It should easily ooze off of the spoon like honey.
7) Remove the pot from the heat once the pot is steaming and the reservoir is full. Do not let it boil too long as it can burn.
8) Pour the fresh coffee into the pitcher with the whipped sugar and stir until it is completely dissolved. You should have a cloud of caramel espumita on top.
Cuban café is best shared with friends and family so practice and prepare to make memories when it’s safe to get together again. Impress them with your espumita sorcery.
This week marks what would’ve been my abuelo’s 100th birthday. He liked his Cuban café and he liked making friends at the ventanitas even more. Be his friend now by making Cuban café the right way. Honor him by celebrating friends with it.
If you didn’t know, now you know.