After several years of not drinking coffee, I had a café au lait in Quebec City–at Le Cochin Dingue, on Rue St. Pierre to be exact. The coffee was a rush, but it was the steamed milk that brought me back to the fold. The oversized bowls topped with peaks of white froth passing me by became irresistible. I was also attracted by the white ceramic cups with the Cohin Dingue–which means crazy pig–logo. I was on vacation, I was in a restaurant known for great coffee, and I didn’t need much persuading to fall off the coffee teetotaller wagon.
Coffee re-entered my diet that day, but it was really the steamed milk I craved. Steamed, frothed or foamed, if there are distinctions I do not know them. The coffee world is full or terms and techniques that cause me to glaze. I am referring to heated milk that has had air forced into it by agitation, which is an unromantic definition for a such a wondrously seductive mouthful.
Whether the tiny air bubbles are introduced with a battery-operated wand, from the steamer on an espresso machine, or because the milk was simply poured into a jar and shaken, the sweet foamy result slides down like silk. The coffee is just the vehicle.
At the local coffee shop I splash a few inches of coffee into the bottom of my mug, and then have it topped with steamed milk. They always ask if I want low-fat or whole, but I do not care. They both have the same buttery texture and it is so sweet, you might think it had honey in it. This is because milk sugar, lactose, becomes more soluble at higher temperatures, increasing the sweet taste. Many of us must have memories of our mothers bringing warm milk to our beds to help us sleep. How comforting that was, and even though chemistry says there is not enough melatonin and tryptophan to have any effect, sure enough, my eyelids would droop, and warm drowsiness overtake me. The cozy flannels nightgowns my mother made for my sisters and I might have helped, too.
On weekends I will grab a bit of coffee from the pot my husband makes and heat some milk in a saucepan. It is difficult to believe how little milk is needed to fill my mug with velvety foam. When I stick my little battery-operated frother in the half inch of milk in the bottom of the saucepan it grows in volume far more dramatically than those “drop in water and watch them grow” toys. I also have a stovetop espresso machine with a steam valve, and an Italian Vev Vigano plunge frother. But the battery-operated job does the trick easily and with no fuss, if not quite as elegantly.
I was back in Quebec recently and looking forward to breakfast, and ordering a steaming bowl of café au lait at Le Cohin Dingue. When we entered the restaurant, twenty school kids were grabbing places in the dining room by the street. We were mercifully led to a smaller room, with white washed rocks for a wall. I placed my order, and read the menu with half my mind, the other half was happily anticipating a froth-heaped bowl, just like the one at a neighboring table. Instead, a tiny demitasse cup arrived, with an apologetic server. “We have a group of school kids, all the bowls have been used. But, we’ll give you a refill,” he said.
My smile melted, but I said ok, and took a sip. Not even close. It was not the sweet, warm, milky, creamy, flavored coffee of my memory. It was like espresso, strong and with a bit more bite than I can handle.
We were joined by my cousin and her husband, who were in Quebec with us. They ordered café au laits and their big bowls arrived. I think my eyes were like saucers as I stared, but our sweet server winked and said, “yours is coming.”
It did, and it was worth falling off the wagon for.
Frothy milk with honey and spice for two
Put one cup cold milk in a saucepan, add two tablespoons of honey, a pinch of ground cloves and allspice and heat to almost boiling. Use a battery frother, or hand-held beater and whip.
Pour into cups, and spoon up or sip until you sleep.