It’s well known that I’m a coffee snob, and it’s one of my most endearing features (why does everyone tell me that in such a strange tone of voice?). I very purposefully nursed and encouraged this snobbery from the very beginning, from my “awakening” moment with coffee.
I came to enjoy coffee late in life, very specifically because I was born in New Orleans, a town that luxuriates in combining perfectly good coffee with bitter chicory — a throwback first to it’s French heritage, and secondly to the World Wars and the Great Depression when coffee was scarce and chicory was used to bulk it out or replace it altogether. Chicory lends a bitter, eye-squinting taste to coffee, masking or completely obliterating many of the essential and desirable flavors standard coffee offers. As such, coffee and I never saw eye to eye in those early years.
The most popular and well known variety of coffee and chicory in NOLA is CDM, aka Café du Monde, and comes in an iconic golden yellow can that can be found in every grocery store in the South, not to mention in NOLA itself. It’s the blend of coffee and chicory made famous by Café du Monde’s café au lait that is served alongside yummy orders of powder sugar heaped beignets.
Once I grew to appreciate actual coffee — not the unholy hybrid that almost ruined me for life — I also discovered that I couldn’t abide cold coffee, and more specifically iced coffee. There was something about how the flavor changed, and the way your taste buds were dulled by the cold that made the taste unpalatable to me… for lack of a better explanation, it “cheapens” the flavor.
After moving to Austin, a good friend — my coffee mentor — decided to blow my mind again by introducing me to my own personal contradiction addiction.
Cà phê sữa đá (aka, Café su da).
It’s a Vietnamese style coffee that is brewed using CDM (specifically in the South due to its comparatively inexpensive price, availability, and similarity to the coffee used in Vietnam) in a specially designed metal drip coffee filter (cà phê phin) that drips into a glass containing sweetened condensed milk, stirred then served over ice.
I know! I know, I know, I know. I have a hard time explaining it other than to say that the sweetness of the condensed milk and the bitterness of the coffee work some kind of voodoo when combined with each other over ice to make a blissful little bit of heaven in a glass. It’s a bold flavored cup of coffee that will make your eyes snap open with an audible pop and keep you moving for hours. Combine a glass of that with a huge bowl of phở (a Vietnamese beef and noodle soup), and you have the perfect start to a late, lazy weekend day, or the perfect cure for a hangover (whichever it happens to be, and that’s not to say they are mutually exclusive).
No respectable Vietnamese restaurant would exclude cà phê sữa đá from their menu, and it has become one of the core criteria we use to judge a restaurant by here. Vietnamese has become one of my staple nationalities when dining out — the restaurants are plentiful, inexpensive, and filling without being horrible for you. The food is fresh and simple, and let’s face it, they have the miracle coffee.
One of the gifts I received from Gemma for my birthday was a pair of cà phê phin filters so I could make cà phê sữa đá at home. I promptly went out an bought a can each of CDM and sweetened condensed milk. The process goes like this:
Pour 3 TBS (50 GR) of sweetened condensed milk into a shallow tumbler.
Unscrew the screen from the inside of the filter, add 2 TBS of CDM coffee, and screw the filter back down, tightening moderately. Place the filter on top of the tumbler.
Fill the filter ¼ full of boiling water and wait 20-30 seconds. Unscrew the filter screen at least 2 full turns then fill it the rest of the way with the boiled water. It should take approximately 5 minutes for the water to drip completely through the filter.
Thoroughly stir the coffee into the condensed milk while it is hot, taking care to scrape the sides and bottom of the tumbler clean.
Allow the coffee to enjoy one last moment of life as a hot drink as it contemplates the glass of ice next to it.
Pour the coffee over the ice, mix, and enjoy. If this is a new drink to you, you may want to be sitting comfortably, keeping clear of anything that could be kicked when you take your first sip, or knocked over when you stand suddenly, shouting “I can see the future!”
And I can rationalize enjoying this under the umbrella of coffee snobbery as there is special equipment involved, and a whole little ritual to be adhered to.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.