“The secret to good café con leche, I believe, is cooking the milk very well.”
With a few words, Luis Julio, genial embajador and coffee maestro at Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach, dispelled the mystery behind his addictive café con leche—that is to say, Puerto Rican-style coffee with milk. The brew, rich and strong and topped with steaming milk, is just the right eye-opener for a lazy day—or a busy one, for that matter.
Back at home I thought: “How hard can it be to make good café con leche?”
After all, Luis Julio had given me a pound of freshly roasted and ground coffee from Hacienda San Pedro, Puerto Rico’s premier small coffee plantation. Founded in 1931, its beans, grown in the mountains around Jayuya, are handpicked and dried in 100-year old drums. In San Juan at San Pedro’s popular coffee house, we stood in a line snaking out the door in order to sample their espresso. In a latte, the dark roasted beans packed a surprisingly powerful punch, yet the flavors were complex, with lingering hints of caramel and chocolate.
But making good café con leche? That was a problem.
Oh I could make a decent cup. But it wasn’t great. Importantly, it didn’t have that very particular flavor that I’ve come to crave—the taste that makes me long for the sun to rise while I’m in Puerto Rico, and to recall longingly after I’ve gone.
After a weekend of frustrating attempts, Louis Julio bailed me out. It turns out that his version of café con leche is made with two shots of espresso—extra strong and extra rich—and then topped with a blend of milk and half-and-half that has been slowly cooked on the stove.
This gentle cooking over a low flame thickens the milk a bit and concentrates its natural sugars, so that it tastes just a little like condensed milk. The cooked milk not only stands up to the coffee’s intensity, but also rounds out its flavors.
Does it sound simple? Sure, once you know how to do it. But that slow-cooked milk made a big difference.
Now, what to eat? I enjoyed the tiny banana rum muffins on the resplendent buffet at Mi Casa, the resort’s high-end restaurant with a menu and recipes by the Spanish chef, Jose Andres. These mini-bites were just the right size to accompany a cup of milky coffee—and sweet enough to balance its strong flavor.
In fact, banana bread is often served with coffee in Puerto Rico—bananas grow all over the island, and the two make naturally delicious companions. At home I not only made a batch of Jose Andres’ mini-muffins, but also added rum to a banana bread recipe that I often made for Angus and Serendipity when they were small. That, plus extra spices and toasted walnuts, turned a simple treat into an indulgence.
Banana-rum bread—or muffins—and café con leche: Now that’s the way to start the day.
Jose Luis’ Café Con Leche
Makes one cup of café con leche.
2 shots espresso or very strong coffee (adjust for your own taste)
2 ounces whole milk
2 ounces half-and-half
1. Combine the whole milk and half-and-half in a small saucepan. Gently heat over the lowest flame, allowing it to “cook” without ever bubbling or coming to a boil. Cook 5 to 7 minutes, checking it frequently, until the milk has thickened slightly and has become a little sweeter. Remove from the flame.
2. Pour the espresso or coffee into a cup. Stir in the cooked milk and half-and-half. Serve immediately.
Note: If the milk boils or develops a skin on the surface, you may be able to remove the skin with a spoon. When pouring into the coffee, use a fine meshed strainer to catch any remaining clots of milk. Or just start over, taking care to cook the milk and half-and-half very slowly.
Most important: Be sure to use high quality, flavorful espresso or dark roasted coffee beans. If the brew is merely bitter, even the most perfectly cooked milk won’t save your café con leche from perdition.
Jose Andres’ Banana Rum Muffins
At Mi Casa at Dorado Beach, Veronica, the excellent pastry chef, uses this Jose Andres recipe to make the tasty banana rum mini-muffins that appear on the buffet each morning. (Disclaimer: My muffins, in the photo above, are definitely not as pretty as hers, but yummy all the same.)
In this recipe, the ingredient amounts are given in grams, always the most accurate way of measuring when you are baking. However, I’ve added approximate quantities by volume (cups, teaspoons, etc.) in brackets, in case you are unable to weigh the ingredients.
Makes 12 mini-muffins.
All purpose flour: 125 grams [approx. 1 cup + 1 scant tbsp flour]
Baking soda: 4.4 grams [approx ¾ tsp baking soda]
Cinnamon: .85 grams [approx 1 tsp ground cinnamon]
Mashed banana: 196 grams [approx 7/8 cup mashed banana]
Brown sugar: 30.5 grams [approx 2 tbsp + 1 tsp packed brown sugar]
Sugar: 50 grams [approx ¼ cup white sugar]
Melted butter: 56 grams [approx ¼ cup melted butter]
Milk: 25.5 grams [approx ¼ cup milk]
White rum: 15 grams [approx 1 tbsp rum]
Eggs: 25 grams [approx 2 tbsp of a beaten egg]
1. Mix all dry ingredients first.
2. Combine wet ingredients in a separate bowl including bananas.
3. Combine both mixes gently
4. Bake @400 degrees F for 13 minutes.
5. After baking, brush with caramel on top before serving.
I used a silicone mini-muffin pan, which makes it easy to pop the tiny muffins out when they are done. Be sure to put the silicone pan on a baking sheet so that it sits flat on the oven rack.
I baked the muffins for about 15 minutes, a little longer than specified, so that the tops of the muffins would brown. I did not use caramel—the muffins are delicious without it—but if you would like to do so, here is a recipe from Fine Cooking: http://www.finecooking.com/videos/how-to-make-caramel.aspx
Banana Rum Bread
(Adapted from The Penny Whistle Lunch Box Book by Meredith Brokaw and Annie Gilbar.)
I used haunt Penny Whistle Toys on Madison Avenue in New York. Its mascot was an adorable bubble-blowing mechanical bear, and babies could fling Cheerios on the floor with impunity while Moms shopped for birthday presents.
This recipe is adapted from a cookbook by the shop’s owners, Meredith Brokaw (yes, married to Tom) and Annie Gilbar. Over the years I’ve probably made the banana bread recipe for Angus and Serendipity a hundred times or more. It always disappeared quickly, a sure sign of love–and hunger.
Adults like the banana bread too. My parents once served it with café con piquete (black coffee spiked with tequila) to a group of architects on a morning house tour. They raved about it. Of course it might have been the tequila talking.
For this adaptation, I adjusted the flours slightly, amped up the spices, toasted the walnuts and added a splash of rum.
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
¾ cup packed brown sugar
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
2 or 3 ripe bananas, mashed until thick and creamy
¼ cup buttermilk or plain yoghurt (I use yoghurt)
½ cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter a 9-x 5-inch loaf pan. (For a daintier presentation, you could use mini-loaf pans instead.)
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter with the sugar until the mixture is fluffy and light brown in color. Add the egg and mix well.
3. In a medium mixing bowl, sift together the flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and allspice.
4. On a large plate, mash the bananas until they are creamy, add the buttermilk or yoghurt, and stir until well blended.
5. Alternately add the flour and banana mixtures to the creamed butter, mixing thoroughly after each addition. Add the vanilla and mix until all of the ingredients are combined. Fold in the walnuts by hand.
6. Pour the batter into the buttered loaf pan(s) and smooth the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. (If you are using mini-loaf pans, reduce baking the time.)
7. Place the pan (s) on a rack to cool for at least an hour. (If you try to cut it when it’s warm, the bread will crumble.) When cooled to room temperature, remove from the pan, slice and eat.
8. If you make the bread ahead of time, cover it in plastic wrap. When ready to eat, cut into slices, lightly warm them in the oven or a toaster oven, and serve.