Baristas hate me. Let me tell you why.
I am that jerk who sheepishly orders a decaf Americano and then inquires multiple times, “This is decaf? You’re sure this is decaf right?”And who then gazes deeply into the barista’s eyes to determine whether or not they are lying to me. The rare occasions where this mix-up has happened has usually been due to carelessness, rather than a deliberate attempt to sabotage my drink. Although I wouldn’t blame them. Why bother spending $5 on a stupid, fancy, espresso drink when you are ordering decaf? That’s like demanding that your fancy dry-aged steak be cooked “well done.”
I try to avoid caffeine, not because Gwyneth says I should, but because after a normal cup of coffee I start shaking like this dude. I spend a great deal of my time gazing longingly at Coca Cola in the glass bottle. Sometimes my boyfriend will come home with a pound of the Redline Espresso from Metropolis Coffee, roasted only hours earlier, and I stick my nose in the bag, inhaling the deep oily richness of the coffee that you just can’t get from decaf. I feel this loss most acutely whenever I eat at my favorite Vietnam War-themed restaurant, Tank Noodle. The servers wear camouflage and occasionally stroll about the restaurant puffing on Marlboros, smoking bans be damned. They bob their heads to an odd blend of hip-hop and sad love songs crooned by famous chanteurs like Elvis Phuong and Don Ho (the lesser known, Vietnamese one), partying like it’s pre-April 1975 in there. The restaurant specialty is Vietnam’s most famous import, the beef noodle soup Pho. (Pronounced Fuh? Like a question.)
The aroma of Pho broth, a fragrant blend of star anise, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, roasted onion and garlic, is inextricably linked in my sense memory with the scent of Vietnamese iced coffee, Cafe Sua Da (literally translated, “Coffee Milk Ice”). If it’s done correctly, a tall glass is filled with ice cubes and an inch of thick, creamy, sweetened condensed milk. A small metal filter is placed on top of the glass with a few tablespoons of dark espresso coffee, often blended with bitter chicory root, and then that is filled with boiling water. Then you wait. The coffee, deep, black, and rich drips languorously into your glass. When the coffee has completed its slow descent, you are left with a layer of black coffee resting atop the milk. With a long, slender spoon, you swirl the creamy white and the black coffee together, watching as the colors transform themselves into something that resembles Carrara marble. The best time to drink your coffee is in the fleeting window when the drink doesn’t yet know what it is: icy cold or hot, too sweet and too creamy, and just little bitter. If you let it rest a few moments more it will mellow a bit, the ice melting and transforming the Cafe Sua Da into something smooth, sweet, and balanced.
For some people, Cafe Sua Da is part of daily ritual, but it’s a bit too decadent for me, even with my decaf facsimiles. I prefer it at the end of a meal, as an occasional treat. I decided to take it one step further, and infuse these robust flavors into a panna cotta. The result is delicate, rich, and so simple to make. Cigarette optional.
VIETNAMESE COFFEE PANNA COTTA
Makes 2 Servings
4 oz. Vietnamese Coffee or Espresso* (Cafe Du Monde and Trung Nguyen are popular, but you can substitute a nice dark espresso, or even a decaf espresso. Vietnamese metal filters can be purchased from Trung Nguyen.)
1.5 Tbs Water
3/4 tsp Gelatin
2 oz. Sweetened Condensed milk
4 oz. Half and Half
*If brewing the traditional vietnamese way, place a metal filter on top of a glass. Spoon 2 Tbs of medium ground coffee into the filter, screw on the metal plate tightly. Fill with 4 oz. of boiling water and wait until all the liquid has dripped through.
Alternately, you can use 2 shots of espresso, or 4 oz. of strong coffee.
In a small bowl, dissolve gelatin in 1.5 Tbs cold water.
In a small sauce pan on low heat, add your coffee, sweetened condensed milk, and half and half. Add the dissolved gelatin and whisk to combine. Pour the mixture into small glasses or ramekins. Refrigerate for about 2-3 hours, until set. The finished panna cotta should have the consistency of silken tofu, just barely solid.