By Eleanor Kelman:
One thing that Instagram has made abundantly clear to me is that everyone I know is baking delicious goods these days except for me. It seems like the whole world has acquired a passion for baking all at once, but the end product of baking has always appealed to me more than the process. It’s just so time-consuming, and my mile-a-minute brain is not suited for labors of love. However, there is something I have found time for myself to experiment with: beverages.
Like any good twenty-something, I miss being able to go to the Dunkin’ Donuts on campus (Boston really does run on Dunkin’) and pick up a large decaf soy latte with raspberry shot whenever I needed something to sip on while doing homework. Even now, with Starbucks opening up slowly but surely, I’ve been sorely missing having fancy coffee and tea drinks at my disposal. The only solution I’ve come up with was making my own (without the methodical ratios required of a real cafe to label a drink a “latte”, an overly pedantic term that I like to use to refer to all milk-and-other stuff hybrids), and that quickly transformed from a necessity to one of my favorite things to do everyday.
So, here is a quick introduction to one area of study I’ve devoted quite a bit of research and a whole lot of passion to.
The easier beverage to master would be coffee, so if you already have a taste for it, I’d recommend starting your latte journey there. There are a hundred different ways to brew a cup of coffee, but the simplest method is just… use a coffee maker. Although it’s one thing I cannot wait to purchase, I don’t have an espresso machine or even a french press, so I make do with my dad’s coffee maker. Simply take some ground coffee beans (we have owned this one grinder for about as long as I’ve been alive), pack them into the machine, and turn it on. You might have to fiddle around with the ratios, but I’ve found that just following the most basic of directions brews a pretty decent cup of joe. And, voila! Your coffee base.
[Sometimes I’ll decorate my drinks with a sprinkling of cinnamon or another spice for some flair.]
Tea, on the other hand, is a bit less forgiving. First and foremost, there are different types of teas and tisanes (the latter being herbal mixtures not from the tea leaf, Camellia sinensis1). All “tea” (white, oolong, green, etc.) come from the same plant at different levels of oxidation. While the actual process behind tea harvesting is fascinating, the most important information is more based in trial-and-error. While all tea is wonderful in different uses, more robust teas, such as green or black tea, tends to handle additions better, and that includes the necessary milk to create a latte. They also just so happen to be more convenient to find in the United States, although the other types are certainly worth seeking out if you want to sip tea in its unadulterated form! Unless you want to invest in a tea strainer (mine looks like the Loch Ness Monster sticking out of the hot water; I call her Nessie), tea bags are your best bet. Black teas and tisanes such as rooibos or chamomile are hardest to mess up; just stick one in a cup with boiling water and let it steep for four or five minutes. Green teas require a bit more finesse, with slightly cooler water, and should not steep for longer than two-ish minutes. You’ll know instantly if it is overstepped, as it will taste incredibly bitter! Matcha is a slightly different beast, being powdered green tea rather than whole leaves and requiring frothing in a small cup of water, but there are a host of videos online showing how to create matcha in the most beautiful settings that just writing it in a blog would not do the process justice. Whether you prefer the strong bergamot notes of earl grey or the delicate nuttiness of genmaicha, making a latte with a tea base is a worthy meditative process.
[Nessie the Loch Ness tea strainer in her natural habitat.]
Now that you have your caffeinated (or decaffeinated, if that’s more your style) component prepped, it’s time to pick your milk. I prefer soy milk, as I enjoy the environmentally-friendliness of non-dairy milk, but will use the skim milk the rest of my family drinks in a pinch. In all honesty, milk is entirely up to personal preference: Maybe you like the creaminess of coconut milk, the nostalgic texture of whole milk, or the trendiness of oat milk. Different milks have different strengths, and whichever you choose (or if you forgo milk and just use a creamer) is going to turn out delicious. As a slight word of caution: If you want to froth your milk (an optional step I sometimes do for the aesthetics), dairy milk is going to work a bit better. I’ve found that whereas some dairy milk whipped for a few seconds with my milk frother then microwaved for twenty seconds to stabilize it will hold an insane amount of foam for what seems like hours, soy milk just doesn’t have the same “soapy” ability, although it does make a lovely foam in and of itself. The microwave step is essential to really increase the longevity of the milk foam, but obviously I skip it entirely when making an iced latte. As well, while I use a handheld frother, anything from a devoted machine to just shaking some milk in a covered jar for a while will make a snazzy display.
Finally, we have reached the moment to finish our latte! Just take your coffee or tea and add your milk. If it’s just too hot out, add some ice before your other ingredients. If you’re a rebel, add your milk first then stir in the rest. If you want beautiful latte art, me too. I haven’t unlocked that level of barista yet.
Although most days I just make a simple drink, sometimes I like to spend more time working on my lattes. It becomes a creative outlet for me, and while not every creation is particularly successful, all give me a sense of accomplishment. I have two Torani flavored syrups at home, unsweetened vanilla and unsweetened raspberry, and I plan to purchase more when these are used up. Both go great in coffee and I’ve found some good combinations with teas. An earl grey latte with some vanilla makes a delicious London fog, one of my go-tos. Any warming spices, such as ginger or cinnamon, play very nicely with coffee and black tea (there’s a reason masala chai is so popular!). I finagled the Turkish coffee my dad is always making on the stovetop into a latte, albeit a very assertive one. I’ve stopped getting the side-eye when icing it down and throwing in a ton of soy milk, despite it being a very, very Americanized take on my Middle Eastern roots. Once I even made a tangentially-related drink, horchata, a Latin American dessert drink made from rice, milk, and some spices. I could only drink a bit at a time (it’s so sweet), but I was very proud of myself for devoting an afternoon to it! On the other hand, my attempt at bubble tea didn’t turn out nearly as tasty as what I would buy from a cafe, but learning that tapioca starch and water make a sticky non-Newtonian fluid was a fun experience. I also quickly found that the fluffiness of dalgona coffee, despite being very popular online and stunning to look at, simply cannot be mixed into milk. It sits as a pretty layer of mediocre-tasting foam atop plain milk. I also discovered that the medicinal smell of almond extract is a lot to overcome, even when I balanced it with a good squirt of honey. And mixing hibiscus tea and milk is an absolutely horrid experience. Just… learn from my mistake with that one.
[Did you know that boba pearls are naturally white? I was surprised to find out!]
The best part of making a latte for me isn’t even always drinking it. While it is, of course, nice to reap the rewards of my labor, putzing around in the kitchen thinking of new and creative ways to make a drink or finally getting around to that recipe that had been saved in my bookmarks for a while feels really good. While the sense of accomplishment when a drink turns out cafe-worthy can make my entire day leagues better, making lattes is such a low-stakes game that even when I mess up three times over I still feel like I’ve been productive. So what if the latte of the day is quasi-inedible and I’m just drinking it out of spite? I still put time and effort into something, and that’s worthy of applause in and of itself.