For chefs, coffee used to mean merely the multiple shots downed to keep them going through long shifts. Now it is increasingly likely to be used in their dishes, savoury as well as sweet, as Bill Knott discovers
Anyone who ordered a coffee in a London restaurant in the 1970s might have reflected that it hadn’t improved much in 300 years. Habitués of Soho’s Italian bars and cafés might have been able to track down a proper espresso, but the rest of us lived in ignorance.
And since hardly anybody knew what proper coffee tasted like, it is unsurprising that the various coffee flavourings also available at the time - for use in cakes, puddings and ice creams - were equally wide of the mark. Coffee essence undoubtedly added flavour to a recipe: that the flavour bore only a passing resemblance to the flavour of coffee went seemingly unnoticed. Proper coffee was regarded with suspicion: scratchy, gritty brown stuff, much messier and more difficult to use than compliant, soluble instant coffee.
Nowadays, with coffee emporia lining every street, and homeware departments piled high with coffee grinders and stove-top espresso pots, there is no excuse. Proper coffee is everywhere - and everybody knows what it tastes like. And chefs, for whom coffee was once merely the caffeinated kick-start to a long day in the kitchen, have started to use the unique, richly subtle flavours of coffee in their cooking.
Chocolatier Paul A. Young, whose bespoke, jewel-like creations fill the shelves of his three London shops, loves using coffee in his chocolates, but has some words of warning. “Coffee and chocolate have a natural affinity - after all, they come from the same parts of the world, and they are processed in similar ways - but you have to be very careful how you balance them: it is easy for one flavour to overpower the other.” It is a combination with the potential to go disastrously wrong. “It’s ‘mocha’, really, that flavour I remember from when I was a child. Nobody ever really got it quite right, and when I started putting coffee and chocolate together it didn’t always work, either: some of my early experiments tasted like the coffee cream in Quality Street.”
One of Paul Young’s favourite combinations uses a strong infusion of medium-roast Dominican Republic coffee with Madagascan chocolate: “The cherry and cranberry notes of the chocolate work really well with the fruity, aromatic coffee,” he reckons. He also uses actual coffee beans in chocolate bars, “just crushed, not powdered, so you get a nice crunch without any grittiness”. How, though, do you work out which chocolate is best with which coffee? “Start with the coffee. The best way to tell which chocolate to use with it is simple: put the coffee bean in your mouth, absorb the aromas and take it from there,” he advises.
Some of my early experiments tasted like the coffee cream in Quality Street
It is not just in sweet dishes, though, that coffee is finally finding its culinary feet. Coffee has long been a (not particularly well-kept) secret ingredient in barbecue sauces and spice rubs - its robust, slightly smoky character is well suited to the aromas of a wood fire - and it also finds a role in many down-home American marinades for steaks and chops, but it now lends its distinctive aroma and colour to the palette of more artistic chefs. Hélène Darroze, at The Connaught, for instance, who serves Loire pigeon with quinoa and a coffee jus while - in a similar vein - Paul Welburn, head chef at Rhodes W1, serves breast and crisp confit leg of pigeon with a rich cep risotto and an espresso sauce.
John Williams’s spring menu at The Ritz sometimes features five-spiced duck with grapefruit confit, vol au vent printanier, with a cardamom and coffee jus, and even the hautest of haute cuisine establishments, Jean-Michel Lorrain’s three Michelin-starred La Côte Saint Jacques, in Burgundy, offers coffee on its luxurious carte, as well as the more conventional post-prandial pick-me-up: Lorrain’s milk-fed veal chop with truffled jerusalem artichokes, creamed peas and arabica jus is justly famous.
You have to look quite hard to find coffee being used as a flavouring for anything other than sweet dishes, but (perhaps predictably, since even other Italians will grudgingly acknowledge it as the home of the espresso) it has a distinctive role in the cuisine of Naples. Giuseppe Mascoli, owner of the Franco Manca pizzerias and an expert on Neapolitan cuisine, points out that coffee may be a new ingredient for avant-garde chefs “but in Naples we have been using it for centuries. It is a classic ingredient in the Neapolitan version of ragù, for which the meat is marinated and then cooked for a long time, until the sauce starts to caramelise, at which point you can add an espresso. The sauce doesn’t taste of coffee, but it adds a subliminal rich, smoky quality and another layer of flavour.
“It is used in baking, too, especially in focaccia, which turns out a startling black colour, with a hint of coffee flavour,” he adds. “It turns a dense rye bread from dark brown to jet black. And you can even use a sprinkling of coffee in pumpkin ravioli, made with ricotta and a splash of amaretto.”
The trick, it seems, is to forget about coffee as a drink and think instead of its possibilities as a spice. After all, other aromatic, woody spices - cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and star anise, for instance - find a place in savoury as well as sweet dishes.
Use coffee for tiramisu and coffee cake, of course, and it is sensational mixed with a little Pedro Ximinez sweet sherry and poured over vanilla ice cream. But bear it in mind for a steak marinade, perhaps with tamarind and soy sauce, or brew an espresso to add the finishing touches to a rich gravy for roast game. Get it right, and the ‘guess the secret ingredient’ dinner party game could keep guests busy until cups of coffee are served.
READY, STEADY, COFFEE?
Coffee is particularly good in a barbecue marinade for chicken wings or pork ribs, adding a deep, dark, smoky richness to the meat. Follow a good barbecue sauce recipe - which usually involves simmering onion, garlic, chilli, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and spices for at least an hour - and finally add a couple of strong espressos. Reduce the sauce until it can be painted thickly on the meat, leave overnight, then cook slowly over charcoal or in the oven, basting with the marinade every now and then until tender.
Boil the rest of the marinade with another espresso and serve on the side as a sauce. Coffee, like tea, can also be used for home smoking. Use an old biscuit tin, fashion some sort of rack so that whatever you want to smoke - try quail, chicken or scallops, painted with a mixture of maple syrup and soy sauce and left in the fridge for a few hours - will sit over the coffee.
Roughly crush a couple of handfuls of coffee beans, add some star anise and a cinnamon stick, then start to heat it until it starts to smoke. Put the meat on the rack and close the tin with its lid. Smoke until cooked through: it may be sensible to disable your smoke alarm first.