As I mentioned several posts ago, my ritual of return to Italy involves, almost invariably, a cappuccino as soon as possible after passing the Mont Blanc tunnel. This last trip (Saturday) was no exception, and the cappuccino in question did not disappoint. As I sipped it, I asked myself why it was so sublime. But I already knew the answer.
The roast of the coffee itself was excellent—yes. But, the thing that made it perfect (and I’m not exaggerating) was the creamy milk-foam on top. There really isn’t a good word to describe it, because even though we use the word “foam” in English all the time to indicate this white mass that sits on top of the espresso, it shouldn’t really be foamy at all. It should be creamy. It should be dense with a rich milk flavor, and not in the least frothy.
I’m not eager to slag off Starbucks, because when in the States, I line up with the best of them to order my cuppa Joe if there isn’t a better option available. But, I have to say that the fast food mentality behind a Starbuck’s management does not a great cappuccino make. What I usually end up with, if I order one, is too-hot espresso mixed with milk, topped off with a bucketful of tasteless, too-hot or too-cold, airy foam. This is, excuse me, all wrong!
The “cream” (let’s call it that) is not made by thrusting the steam spout randomly or deeply into the milk. It is the product of keeping the spout (1) within a half-centimeter of the surface of the milk (even as the milk expands with air) and (2) near and pointing toward the interior edge of the pitcher so that the milk is forced into a swirling vortex. It should be pulled out before the milk over-heats (at around 65 degrees centigrade).
And then, comes my favorite part. A good barista will beat the bottom of the milk pitcher down gently though decisively flat against a work surface to compact the bubbles that make up the foam, then give the pitcher several ample, careful swirls to amalgamate the foam with any remaining milk. If this is done properly, the creamy product can be poured directly over the espresso without the use of a spoon.
I have developed an almost pavlovian response to that beat of the stainless steel pitcher against the counter top. If the barista doesn’t do it, I’m already disappointed with the cappuccino. And that’s a sad—though very insignificant—state of affairs.
If you care to read a more thorough, albeit Italian, description of the proper montatura del latte, click here.
[If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Moving and Shaking.“]