Nestled in the heart of the Garment District is an adorable little coffee shop that goes by the name of Culture Espresso. I would argue that the culture itself comes from the artistry in the coffee being served along with the decor.
This picture does not do the coffee shop justice. Inside, it felt like a little oasis in the middle of Manhattan, somehow away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. While I sat looking out the window drinking my coffee, I felt, for just a little while, that I was no longer a part of the stressful and fast paced world of New York. Sitting looking out the window, I was just an onlooker, not a participant. Finally I had a break.
I decided to be boring this time around and order my usual drink, but there was something slightly different about this vanilla latte compared to most. The vanilla syrup that Culture Espresso uses is homemade, along with their maple syrup. I wish I could say that I tasted a difference between their homemade syrup and any run of the mill syrup that most coffee shops use, but I could not.
My latte definitely looked like a one of a kind masterpiece, but it did not taste like one. The espresso in my latte was very flavorful, but it was overshadowed by the amount of milk that was added to it. I honestly tasted the milk more than I tasted the espresso, which was very upsetting, especially considering I am not a big fan of milk to begin with.
I also ordered a chocolate chip cookie with my latte. I was hoping it would taste better than it looked, but sadly it did not overall. The cookie was very hard and crunchy, which is not something I ever want in a chocolate chip cookie. One redeeming factor was that the chocolate chips were melted inside the cookie, giving it a molten center, similar to that of a chocolate lava cake (my favorite dessert).
Ultimately, I would not recommend this coffee shop from my experience, but it does have excellent reviews, which make me want to give it another try at some point.
Just down the street from the Flatiron Building (Fifth Avenue between 20th and 21st St) is a tiny coffee shop nestled in between two clothing stores, Club Monaco and the Loft. Before walking inside, you would never guess that the two clothing stores were actually part of Toby’s Estate itself. Although the espresso bar is extremely tiny, it is a very open space because, in addition to the two clothing stores, it is also connected to a Strand Bookstore/Club Monaco partnership. What better than a chance to read and shop for books while enjoying your morning (or afternoon or nighttime) coffee?
When it was time for me to order, I figured I should try their version of my usual order but was surprised when I couldn’t find it. I am normally very boring when it comes to my coffee order and almost always get a vanilla latte. This time around, I was forced to try something new (definitely a good thing in this case). I asked the cashier for his recommendation and he suggested their maple sage latte; it sounded good so I figured, why not?
Although I was upset to see that the medium latte I had just paid $4.50 for was so tiny, I was pleasantly surprised by both the presentation (isn’t it pretty?) and also the flavor of the latte. It was probably one of the best lattes I have ever had due to the quality of the espresso itself and the maple sage flavoring. This flavor seemed to enhance the very taste of the espresso, making it the perfect choice.
Considering I went to the espresso bar around four o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday, it was surprisingly busy, unlike the Starbucks around the corner. As a result, I would say that this is a favorite spot for many and now also me. I will definitely be coming back to have another maple sage latte or maybe something new again.
For those who don’t normally venture down to this area of Manhattan, Toby’s Estate actually has three other locations, each of which are very diversified but of course all share the same amazing quality. They have one location in Brooklyn, and the other two are in Manhattan: Midtown East and the West Village. None of the other locations are connected to bookstores, which definitely sets this location apart from the rest.
Espresso took root in the early 1900s, when Luigi Bezzera patented a machine that consisted of an upright, gas-heated boiler that used steam pressure to force hot water through ground coffee held in clampable filters. This steam-pressure based design is still widely used today in espresso machines for the home market. The original intent was to prepare coffee more quickly, by the cup, on demand. Hence the name, espresso, as the beverage was prepared “expressly” for the customer – but that still doesn’t mean call it expresso.
Desidero Pavoni acquired the patent from Bezzera in 1903 and brought the machine through the rest of Europe. He created the first commercially-produced espresso machine, the Ideale, in 1905. But these machines were far from cranking out the lattes we know today. Due to steam contamination, high temperatures, and low pressure, the coffee lacked crema and tended to taste burnt. Essentially, espresso was prized for its speed and convenience, rather than its taste.
The espresso revolution came in 1947, after the coffee shortages of World War II. Achille Gaggia, a bar owner with a passion for coffee, registered a new patent with a lever operated piston.
In fact, today the act of making espresso is often referred to as “pulling a shot,” because of Gaggia’s machine, which required pulling down on the lever attached to a spring-loaded piston. The piston meant that extraction now resulted in the emulsion of oils and colloids to create a mousse, or crema, on top of the espresso. Today we recognize crema as one of the defining traits of espresso, but at the time, Gaggia renamed his new beverage caffè crema for the specific purpose of differentiating it from the existing espresso.
These developments led to the growth of the Italian coffee industry and the rise of the Italian coffee bar. However, beyond Italy’s borders, espresso was far from being known as a quality beverage thanks to poor quality blends. In the 1980s, all that changed with the second espresso revolution.
In 1982, the Specialty Coffee Association of America formed, and campaigned to raise standards rebranded espresso as a gourmet product. They encouraged gourmet retailers to promote espresso by serving it in stores. The idea was to allow customers to sample espresso, but they soon found out that using espresso as a base for other beverages like lattes added greatly to its appeal.
From there, a perfect storm took hold as Seattle, the home of Microsoft, boomed, and the later spread of laptops and wi-fi built the culture of the coffee shop, a model that Starbucks branded and reproduced across the world.
As both an avid baker and snacker, I had some trouble deciding what to bake for the inaugural column of Midnight Munchies. Did I want to start on a healthful or an indulgent note? How inventive/elaborate should I be? How could I encapsulate myself in a recipe? After this (slightly melodramatic) train of thought, I settled upon making Espresso Mousse Brownies. They combined three of my favorite foods in the world, chocolate, coffee, and marshmallows, into one heavenly little bite. (Or bites. I ate about a third of the pan.)
I based these brownies off of this recipe, though I didn’t top mine with Valrhona chocolate pearls (college student budgets, y’all). With whipped cream garnish, though, I didn’t miss them.
The beauty of this recipe is that it calls for minimal kitchen equipment: one pot, one spoon, a baking dish and a bowl. That’s it. And you get scrumptious mousse-topped brownies as a result – proof positive that you don’t need elaborate kitchen equipment to bake a truly taste treat.
First things first – preheat your oven to 350 degrees. While that’s warming up, melt your butter over the stovetop – be sure to stir it as it melts so that the butter doesn’t burn! Add in your coffee grounds and stir, like so:
Once that’s mixed, stir in your sugar, eggs, and vanilla, making sure that everything’s completely combined after each addition. Next, stir in your dry ingredients. (I should tell you to sift them all together separately before this step, especially since cocoa powder tends to clump. But, let’s be honest, I’m making brownies in a Dutch oven. We’re not getting technical at this point.) Pour your batter into the pan, and bake your brownies for about 25 minutes – the recipe calls for 30-35, but if you like gooey brownies (and who doesn’t?), I would err on the side of caution and shorten your baking time.
After a torturously long half-hour or so, take your brownies out of the oven and let them cool. While that’s happening, make your mousse: microwave your marshmallows in a heatproof bowl for about 45 seconds, or until they start looking squishy. Once they’ve reached that point, pop them out and stir. They should reach the consistency of marshmallow fluff.
Next, make a shot of espresso (or more for yourself!) and fold that into the marshmallows. The mixture should turn a lovely light brown. Pour that over your already cooled brownies, and refrigerate for an hour.
Actually, half an hour works fine. Ain’t nobody got time to wait for chocolatey gratification. Remove from the fridge, slice into bite-sized squares, and enjoy!
A couple of years ago, I was with my dad at a leadership conference that he had been invited too. The conference had organized this big hike up a mountain. Because I was really fit at the time (HAHA…what happened…), I went up the hike with my dad. We came back down from the mountain and I was exhausted. While we were stretching in the middle of the hotel, an older man with a beard walks up to us. “How was the hike?” the man asks. My dad, who had effortlessly scaled the mountain, shrugged and said, “It was great!” The man nods and continues, “Hello, you must be here for the conference.” My dad nods and sets up a handshake. The older man shakes his hand, then shakes mine, and says, “I’m George Lucas. I’m the guest speaker. See you later today.” He walks off. Stunned, my dad and I walk to the breakfast buffet. Tired but now ready to be wide awake for the rest of the day, I ordered my first cup of coffee.
I have been in a loving relationship with coffee since.
I love the taste, I love the energy, and most of all, I love the smell of coffee brewing. By morning, I am a latte drinker (I rarely eat breakfast, and straight coffee acid is bad for your digestive tract) and the rest of the day, I take my coffee black. Indulgences are white chocolate mochas. Baristas and cashiers recognize me at local coffee places, and they give me the trivia discount even when I don’t get the answer right. When I heard about the Culinary Blog, I knew that one of the first things I wanted to write about was coffee. Some of my friends have expressed their confusion over the difference between an esperesso and a cappuccino. My dad puts sugar into his cup when he orders a mocha because he doesn’t know what a mocha is (so frustrating…) After this post, you can impress your hipster/coffee-addictive friends with your knowledge. Keep an eye out for the next two parts (hint: reviews and recipes).
“Black” Coffee – This simply means that you aren’t putting any sugar or cream/milk into your coffee. The result is a bitter, sharp taste. Drinking black coffee has been scientifically shown to slightly increase your metabolism (but excess can cause stomach problems.) This is, most times, the cheapest coffee beverage on the menu – ask for the House Blend or just a cup of coffee.
Espresso – Warning: Not for the virgin coffee drinker. Espressos are concentrated coffee that force hot water under pressure through coffee grounds. This results in a thicker consistency and a more intense flavor. Consequently, espressos are often used as the basis for other coffee drinks. However, many people prefer to just order an espresso because of its caffeine (one cup of espresso has about 100 mg of caffeine in contrast to an average cup of coffee at 80mg).
Latte – In Italian, latte means “milk.” In English-speaking countries, when we say “latte”, what we really means is a “caffè e latte” (coffee with milk). This is similar to a French “café au lait.” A latte is a shot of espresso to which hot, steamed milk is added. Usually, there is no sugar added. The result is an intense jolt of caffeine that is softened by milk (good for yer bones.)
Cappuccino – These are similar to lattes, except in addition to the steamed milk, a layer of hot milk foam has been added. This creates a frothy, delicate drink. Chocolate shavings or cinnamon is often placed on top. This drink, in restaurants or cafes, is served in a large cup and can be sipped leisurely. Some people like to drink this with spoons (dessert option!) Skilled baristas can draw artwork into the foam, but the art must be completed in a matter of minutes. Artwork can also be done on lattes.
Mocha – Again, similar in design to the latte, but a portion of chocolate has been added. Traditionally, mochas have just used dark and milk chocolate. However, in recent years, white chocolate has been used. The mocha takes its name from the Red Sea coastal town of Mocha, Yemen which has been a dominant exporter of coffee since the fifteenth century. Extremely delicious. Mix it up by asking for a zebra (the combination of two chocolates in a mocha drink.) Unfortunately, if you drink these too much, you’ll blow up like a balloon or give yourself enough cavities to share.
Coffee is a legal stimulant (one of few). Drink up. Feel free to comment or ask questions. I’m in Starbucks til it closes.