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Saturday, May 29, 2004


science run amok

so let's pick up from yesterday, hmm?

i awoke this morning with 2 chefs, or the starter bases for making the traditional french country bread, pain au levain -- one thin, which i had already begun to build ("refreshed" as the french say) towards the full levain, and one thick, which i hadn't refreshed.

obviously, i should continue with the refreshed one and just toss the other. but nope, not me.

out of some strange sense of curiousity, i refreshed 'em both to see what the difference will be, if any, in a finished loaf.

my guess is that the "unrefreshed" one made from the thick chef will be much more tangy, almost sour.

anyway, towards this end, i added to both:

  • 4 oz. volvic water
  • 3 oz. white whole-wheat flour
  • 5 oz. first clear flour

by my calculations, the "thin" batch is just about 65% hydration, while the "thick" batch is about 67%.

i prefer the bread to be between 66-68% hydrated, so i'll be adding a touch more water during the following stages to bring both up them up to 68%.

a well-hydrated loaf rises better, is easier to handle, and usually bakes up lighter. since these country breads have both whole-wheat and rye in them -- making 'em technically more pain de campagne rustique than pain au levain maybe if we wanted to be prissy about it -- we want to do everthing we can to get a lighter loaf.

no dense whole-wheat bricks here, thank you very much.

the wiggle in this situation is that the weather is a tad cool, just 68 degrees f. today. thus the once-chef-future-levain will be rising quite slowly.

i mean, like 10 hours until it doubles, probably. but in this case, that's a good thing. the wild yeasties and their all-good symbiotic pals i've been herding / growing / breeding make better-tasting bread in a slower, cooler rise.

10 hours seems like a long while, but hey, i began this adventure last monday so i'm not in any hurry. you really can't hurry this bread anyway.

however, long-time readers are aware that sunday here at bccy is the sacred pizza day.

how will i manage 2 one-kilo loaves and 2 14-inch pizzas at the same time in my bklyn apartment kitchen?

those who have seen my vintage magic chef oven (not much larger than a deluxe ez-bake, compared to the monster stainless steel models everyone has nowadays) know this will be a deeply strategic question. . .

umm, i'm still thinking that one thru. if worse comes to worse, i'll simply pop one levain into the fridge for a day. that allows me to put off making it into dough and baking it until monday.

this obviously doesn't solve all of my problems, however. 2 kilos of bread is alot for my house, even tho' we all remember that bread freezes quite well.

the entire planet knows my freezer is always filled with delicious fresh coffee. this week, gillies yrgacheffe occupies just about every bit of it.

i love that winey, floral, lemon-caramel-candy coffee! thus the second loaf will probably go to the sweet people in apartment 7C!

unless it turns out, you know, whack.

posted by fortune elkins | 12:07 PM | top | link to this |


Friday, May 28, 2004


how to stay alive

"they don't come here because we are the only coffee shop in downtown bloomington, but because we smile and we take the time to get to know them. it's more than just a coffee shop."

and this is how the coffee hound will survive the mermaid's arrival -- with great customer service, high-quality coffee, careful beverage presentation, and a welcoming atmosphere. this article outlines the attitude independent retailers need to nourish if they intend to stave off the chains.

because they do intend to open a shop with larger signage on every corner, sweetheart; preferably upstream of your foot-traffic so they can siphon it all off. . .

speaking of survival, the thinner, pancake-batter-type chef i started yesterday is most definitely alive! i awoke this morning to find it all frothy on top.

those little yeasties are hungry critters, so i spooned out 2 tablespoons of them into a new, clean glass bowl, and added:

  • 5 oz. volvic water
  • 2.5 oz. white whole-wheat flour

2 tablespoons of yeasties is enough to get this levain started strong, while leaving most of the lactic acid and alcohol in the original chef behind.

reducing the acid and alcohol load like this not only makes a more friendly environment for the yeasties as they continue to grow, but also makes a less sour-tasting bread. i'm after the light tang of rustic french country bread here; not the intense san francisco sourdough experience!

on the chocolate front, i ran up to dean & deluca yesterday with my colleagues who wanted to pick up some paté for lunch. so i bought some chocolate.

everytime i buy chocolate there, i always swear i'll never do it again. and it was no different this time; when will i learn?

they take miserable care of the chocolate at dean & deluca. every bar i've ever opened there showed ugly, ugly bloom.

in coffee, we want bloom, but in chocolate bloom refers to that nasty whitish cast on the bar as the cocoa butter rises to the surface, separating out of the candy. it's a clear sign of bad storage and handling.

but i was tempted to try some spanish blanxart 62% dark chocolate with almonds, as well as the unusual sicilian antica dolceria bonajuto.

the bonajuto isn't an eating chocolate, to my mind. i think it's best used for making hot and cold chocolate drinks, because it contains large, crunchy, grainy sugar crystals. . .

i bought both the vanilla and cinnamon bars: i think i'll use it somehow in a summer frozen hot chocolate thing. just melt these bars into the cream and go from there!

i have to say i can't recommend the blanxart at all. strange gooey texture and a stale taste; but that could be a storage or age issue in this case.

posted by fortune elkins | 11:27 AM | top | link to this |


Thursday, May 27, 2004


this space for you, robert nelson!

recently i ran across a white paper on the world-price depression known as the coffee crisis from liberal economist and consultant james s. henry, perhaps best known as a friend of sen. bill bradley.

despite its obvious perspective, i found it unusually interesting, so i shipped the link off to scaa chief ted lingle to see what he thought. regular bccy readers have been downloading lingle's coffee whitepaper for a while now.

ted wrote me some interesting emails that just have to be reprinted in full. no amount of comment or explanation could reduplicate ted's unique tone and point of view. the notes and links i've added are mine, to help readers newer to the issue:

"Dear Fortune:

Thanks - I had not seen this particular white paper. Henry's got it about right! The only points he missed are: 1) Starbucks is not purchasing [note: robusta] coffee from Vietnam, so it is a bit unfair to link them with Nestle, Kraft, Sara Lee, P&G [note: the so-called "big four" multi-national coffee roasters responsible for the stuff in the supermarket cans] and Tchibo who are; and 2) Vietnamese quality is so bad that the Europeans actually steam clean it before roasting ~ the American firms probably consider their customers' taste buds as dead, so this step is unnecessary for them.

I do agree with his conclusions that World Bank interference in the coffee market through large loans was the real source of the coffee crisis. If Vietnam had been required to expand its coffee production through its coffee earnings (the free market model), we would have a much different supply/demand balance in coffee today.

Thanks,

Ted"

naturally that "probably consider their taste buds as dead" comment had me laughing my casadei mules off. when i wrote ted to ask if i could quote this, he replied:

"Dear Fortune:

Yes, you can use my comments. Perhaps you can also get a quote from Robert Nelson [note: chief of the nca, the trade group for the "big four"] on why the Europeans feel a need to steam clean the Vietnamese Robustas while the U.S. trade does not.

Good luck,

Ted"

and i'm taking ted's advice: robert nelson, this space is yours. please explain why your members do not clean the robusta they are using in their mass-market blends, household brand names known to people everywhere, famous marques americans rely on for what they believe should be quality and purity.

please rest assured i will print your reply in full without comment. coffee lovers everywhere await your reply!

but before we leave the wonderful world of lingle, he also commented on the recent action of the u.s.a. to re-join the i.c.o. since ted was actually at that meeting himself, his perspective is helpful:

"Dear Fortune:

While the ICO Resolution on Coffee Purity remained 'in play,' the original implementing language (but not standards) was modified to accommodate US interests [note: think "big four"]. Here is the photo that depicts the difference between specialty, ICO and US coffee standards. The message for consumers: 'Buy [note: whole] beans.'

Thanks,

Ted"

we couldn't say it better ourselves. . .

if i were the type who believed in re-incarnation, last night's results with my chef (the starter for the pain au levain) i began on monday would have cheered my heart.

i returned home from corporate bowling to discover my bubbling chef completely covered in graceful, delicate, long-haired mold, as if a silvery-white persian cat had poked its nose under the plastic wrap.

uh-oh. someone's karma got worked out here. . .

the yeasties had lost their darwinian struggle to the beasties. the truly brave would have scraped off the mold and gone on with the starter, convinced that in the next go-round the yeasties would in fact create enough alcohol and lactic acid to fend off such predators.

and actually this assumption is often correct. metabolizing the starch in the flour is difficult to do and not many critters can manage it successfully for long. (note to dougie: wait! are we talking about your atkins thing again here?)

i don't generally plunge bravely on, however; i just began again. obviously i hadn't caught enough yeasties. or perhaps conditions were too damp, too favorable to the beasties.

thus i tossed that batch and started again -- but with a difference. i made 2 chefs this morning, of slightly different compositions. one was more like pancake batter:

  • 1 oz. organic rye flour
  • 1 oz. white whole-wheat flour
  • 4 oz. volvic water

beat this well, cover with plastic wrap and begin the experience. the second was stiff and rather dry:

  • 1 oz. organic rye flour
  • 1.75 oz. white whole wheat flour
  • 1.5 oz. volvic water

the idea here is that if conditions were too damp for the yeasties, they might thrive in the drier chef. on the other hand, if the chef is quite wet, the mold sometimes has trouble settling in, while the yeasties can still do well in this type of situation.

results will be probably not be available until friday. please stay tuned.

posted by fortune elkins | 6:26 AM | top | link to this |


Wednesday, May 26, 2004


herding or agriculture?

with this unusual weather we are having, i realized on monday that conditions were perfect for starting a natural levain. so i did!

this is either herding or agriculture, i'm not sure which. i suppose it depends on whether you feel as if you are "capturing" the free wild yeasties from the environment and "corralling" them in the starter, or whether you are patiently "growing" them in the happy-warm-moist conditions they prefer.

as always:

just mix this into a soft dough with your hands, drape with a damp paper towel, cover that with a bit of plastic wrap, and secure with a rubber band.

pop that puppy into a comfy, draft-free place, like the middle shelf of your oven. moisten the towel a couple of times a day.

depending on the weather, you'll see bubbly activity in 36-72 hours. it's alive!

while i wait for the yeasties to survive the darwinian struggle in all that flour (i mean, this is new york we're discussing -- there's gotta be a lot of wacky tough beasties fighting for existence in there until the yeasties overwhelm them all with lactic acid, the stuff that adds the delicious tang to breads like this), i decided to take my own life in my hands.

by repeating yesterday's blooming harrar and vac pot setup, but this time i left the lid on! good girl. great coffee. . .

finally, phrase of the day: touchy-feely flapdoodle. hilarious. as usual with these stories, the editors should just headline it: author gets judgemental butt thoroughly kicked.

posted by fortune elkins | 6:55 AM | top | link to this |


Tuesday, May 25, 2004


over bloom, or i surprise myself

you know i often worry that complicated posts like yesterday's on the i.c.o. may confuse coffee lovers who are just looking for a really great ethiopian to brew up at home.

but i really have to stop underestimating you, dear readers. that post, whose topic at first seems so removed from our daily cup, actually received more views than any other this entire month: my urchin sez nearly 2,500 hits, plus about another 1,200 calls to the post in its plain-text, syndicated rss format.

i also need to thank scaa chief ted lingle for the standards pic i posted yesterday. whenever i need a document to support or explain what's going on, he always comes through, which tells you why i basically sleep with the coffee cupper's handbook under my pillow. . .

speaking of that ethiopian, i was given some fresh harrar from batdorf. looking to enhance its subtle flavors, i awoke this morning to make it in the vac pot.

vac pots work best when making a full -- or at least 2/3s full -- pot, so i filled the base of the bodum santos with a liter (about 33 oz.) of water and set it to boil. as i ground the coffee, it just smelled heavenly.

i weighed out 55 grams (about 1.9 oz., call it 2 for those with less accurate scales at home) of harrar in the top globe. when the water was boiling furiously, i turned the flame down low, and popped the top globe into the base.

the usual vac pot drama -- the water rises from the base to the top globe with a glorious turbulent foam. but i saw a small patch of coffee that wasn't quite wet along one side of the glass.

i took the lid off, picked up my wooden chopstick to stir, when boom! fresh coffee did its thing.

fresh coffee has a delightful bloom, and the batdorf was so very fresh it overflowed the top globe in a thick puffy stream. imagine a fabulous blueberry-scented coffee bath of bubbles. oops.

i snatched the pot from the flame and set it on a trivet. naturally the coffee began its descent back to the bottom globe.

too fast! aargh! but fortunately for me the coffee stalled. i let it hang there for about 3 minutes to get some brew time, placed it briefy back on a low flame to get it flowing again and wa-llah!

perhaps not ideal, but still delicious harrar. completely worth the hassle. . .

note to self: bloom. fresh coffee blooms. very fresh coffee blooms very!

(p.s.: of course, none of this is news to us scaa consumer members; dr. joe square dance pretty much covered it all in our recent member e-newsletter.

become a c-member yourself and get cool coffee health and brewing info months ahead of everyone else!)

posted by fortune elkins | 7:09 AM | top | link to this |


Monday, May 24, 2004


yes! after all this time. . .

long-time readers have patiently endured my rants on the importance of the u.s.a. re-joining the i.c.o. as one step towards ending the world-price depression known as the coffee crisis.

and last week, we did. what was the reason given?

to prevent the growing influence of the narco-economy in latin america. devoted readers may recall that i've been talking about this subject for literally years (and here).

and despite the article written by one of my dearest, dearest coffee friends in tea and coffee recently, this move shows my concern is valid.

readers with elephantine memories will also recall that part of the reason i was so interested in this subject was that with re-joining the i.c.o., the u.s.a. would also improve the import standard for what could be called pure coffee.

that is, the u.s. would supposedly adopt new rules on coffee purity, rules barring the import and sale of low-quality, trash coffee in this country without changing the labelling to say "coffee-by-products."

everyone wants to drink higher-quality, better coffee, don't they? no one wants to drink mere "coffee-by-products."

alas the powers-that-be (i think this means you, robert nelson and the so-called "big four," those multi-nationals responsible for the stuff in the supermarket cans: sara lee, nestle, kraft, p&g!) appear to have vitiated this requirement. and the government pled that it lacked the manpower to enforce stricter standards at this time.

what does this mean for consumers, for the average coffee lover? unfortunately, it means the american consumer is stuck with the current unsatisfactory import quality standard.

a standard that allows way too many blackened, moldy, bug-chewed, defective beans to end up in the coffee americans drink! the present standard allows a whopping 610 of these defects in a sample of green unroasted beans; the proposed i.c.o standard would have reduced this to 86.

to my mind, that was still too many, as this word document shows (less than a 120 second download on 56k). the scaa advocates only 5 such uglies in a batch.

it means that the best way to ensure you are drinking only high-quality coffee -- no junk coffee, no moldy coffee with "insect parts," or coffee-by-products -- is to buy fresh, whole beans from your local independent specialty roaster/retailer, coffeehouse, or bean store and grind them yourself in your own home.

despite this major compromise, re-joining will remain an important, useful step towards alleviating the poverty and suffering of 125 million human beings -- about 25 million families -- in 50 countries around the world. and that's the good news!

posted by fortune elkins | 12:22 PM | top | link to this |


Sunday, May 23, 2004


survey sez

107 million adults in the u.s.a. drink coffee every day -- this is probably oh, what about 50-55% ? of all those over 18 -- of whom 29 million drink "gourmet" beverages, by which i assume this study means cappuccino and flavored lattes.

we know from previous surveys that teens and students in the u.s.a. also drink coffee; a little over 1 in 4 teen girls has a vanilla latte every day.

"consumers seem to want more than 'just a cup of coffee,' " the report says. duh! i certainly don't want the standard "cup" of supermarket canned yuck.

i find market studies like this interesting, but also obtuse. the firm responsible for above survey, mintel, divides the u.s. market into 3 groups:

  1. lazy lattes -- those who always drink coffee out
  2. java snobs -- afflulent and well-educated "to-go" drinkers from whom quality is paramount
  3. caffeinated cultured -- middle-income singletons who go hang out at the local coffeehouse for the ambiance and of course to bump into other available singletons

nowhere in this group do i find anyone i myself know. hello, marketeers?? what about us quality-lovin' coffee drinkers who adore the coffee we make ourselves in our own charming kitchens?

despite the fact that ken davids' books on making and roasting coffee at home sell pretty well (25,000 isn't a bad sales rank at all for what at first seems like a narrow niche category), these researchers insist on the decline of home consumption. of course to some extent home consumption of nearly all things -- except perhaps video games and internet porn -- is in decline, as people stop making meals at home.

surprising as it may seem, many americans view coffee-making as "cooking." also we have to face the total decline of the family breakfast.

everyone alive has realized this fact: almost no 2 people in any household are at home at the same time in morning and/or have the ability to eat together. this is why all the appliance manufacturers have lately come out with new "1-cup" brewing devices.

instead of mother brewing up a pot of coffee, the various age groups at home are going to sequentially wander into the kitchen and make their own cup at different times. (except for teens/students and rushing moms, who are going to stop by a chain coffeehouse on the way to school or work.)

but the point is all these companies like melitta and keurig wouldn't be peddling these 1-cuppers if they didn't understand that people still want to drink coffee at home; they just don't need 8, 10, or 12 cups at a time any more.

right now, people want to drink a little less, but much higher-quality, fresher coffee. (altho', i contend, if the taste and quality of decaf continues to improve, many people will be tempted to have an extra cup, thus increasing consumption!)

that people are willing to pay more for improved coffee is clear by the fact that americans have so far accepted the very high price -- from US$0.27 to US$0.56 per cup -- of the pods and capsules these new machines require.

these surveys all remark that specialty coffee is only a part of the market now. small, but vociferous and growing! we become more mainstream every day, as we educate people to the fact that fresh, specialty coffee is fabulous stuff, that it can be appreciated as a fine beverage, and that there are so many kinds of coffee nearly anyone can discover an origin or espresso blend that appeals to them.

in europe, more than 80% of the population in germany, france, spain and the u.k. are coffee lovers, studies suggest. to my surprise, of this group, the germans drink the most/spend the most on coffee, although there has recently been a small decline in german consumption, compared to past years.

i would have thought surely the italians drank the most! but consumption in italy appears to be on the rise slightly, as it in in france, spain, and the u.k. altho' alas the british seem to be drinking more instant or "soluble" stuff. . .the idea of "super-premium" instant causes me confusion, i must confess!

it's generally accepted that of all europeans, the finnish drink the most coffee per capita.

a survey i would love to see is one supporting the trend long-time readers have seen me document from newspapers and business travelers: the rise of coffee in asia, in places like taiwan, india, singapore, and malaysia. there is apparently the beginning of a coffee boomlet in eastern europe and russia as well.

australia and new zealand are in the midst of an intense coffee renaissance, as is scandanavia generally. this can be seen from the entrants and winners of the world barista championship. these baristas wouldn't be competing if there wasn't the customer base to support the development of a high-level coffee cuisine.

posted by fortune elkins | 12:23 PM | top | link to this |

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