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Lightplay 015 – Espresso

Dear Reader —

What does it mean to be a self? Where does the self end and the world of not-me begin? Is identity … an illusion?

I imagine a three-panel comic, each frame zooming in on the face of a very confused man: me, Jasper, your loyal if intermittent correspondent, head-scratchily toiling over another installment of Lightplay, my newsletter about home cooking, the writing life, and—apparently—intractable philosophical questions.

Welcome to your late summer Lightplay! Please stay; I promise not to get too worked up over eternal questions of life.

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Maybe it’s just been one of those weeks where I feel extra connected to the rest of humanity, the rest of planet earth. And not for joyous reasons, alas. Between the IPCC’s reiteration of the profound fuckedness of our climate emergency and the painful end of a war that began two-thirds of my lifetime ago, it’s been a long week. By Tuesday, my partner and I made a pact not to read the news the rest of the week. But still, the weltschmerz lay heavy on my heart.

So I went for a swim with an old friend who was visiting from out of town. In the Pacific: the biggest ocean in the world, and the most beautifully named. We splashed in the waves, dove under them. A million tiny bubbles. A single seal snoring some distance down the beach. Kids boogie boarding. Out beyond the breakers, a pelican splash-dove. A big wave crested. I jumped in with it, body surfing for a second, then tumbling, salt water shooting up my nose. Breaking the surface. Feeling like a seal myself. Laughing. We sat on the margin where the waves rush up the sand. Listening to the surf’s soft susurrus. Forgetting everything else.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re doing well, staying safe, and, if that’s what you need, taking yourself to the beach, getting in the water. It’s been a hard week.

A picture of a tiny, green espresso cup and saucer, the cup full of black espresso.

I want to rap at you about espresso. Did you know that espresso is really good? Maybe I just think this because drip coffee makes me feel hollow and insane, while this concentrated coffee extract makes me feel sharp and warm and extra awake. I don’t know why that is, but I do know that I love espresso. 

I don’t mean bad espresso of course, that bitter sludge that one is often served at non-coffee-snob cafes. I mean the coffee snob stuff, obvi. 

The amazing thing is that you can make yourself coffee-snob-level espresso at home in under five minutes, with just a few (awesome) tools and a little practice. It’s really satisfying. Let me pitch it to you.

An image of a moka pot

I. Meet the Moka Pot

Beyond how delicious espresso is, getting to use the ingenious and, frankly, steampunk contraption known as a moka pot is a big part of why at-home espresso rules.

This device was invented in 1933 by an Italian named Alfonso Bialetti. It uses the laws of physics to push hot water through coffee grounds at a rate over which you have significant control. The way it works is that you fill the lowest chamber, the “boiler,” partway with water. Then you fill the next component up (a funnel) with coffee grounds, tamped down just so. When you screw all the pieces together and light a flame under the moka pot, the expanding water vapor eventually creates enough pressure in the lower chamber that it steadily forces the water up through the funnel, through the coffee grounds, and up a further tower up to where it spills into the upper chamber, as espresso. Magic!

An illustration showing the different chambers of a moka pot and how they work.

NB: Should you become interested in making your own espresso in a moka pot, I recommend that you get a beautiful stainless steel one, rather than one of the ubiquitous (and, I’ll admit, iconically faceted) aluminum models. Aluminum, unfortunately, is a reactive element that will both corrode over time and will leach into your espresso. Yuck! Happily, there are many stainless models available today. (Thank you Virginia for giving me my treasured moka pot almost a decade ago!)

A diptych showing on the left side beans in a coffee grinder and on the right a freshly compacted moka pot bowl.

II. The Three ‘Spresso Skills

Before I discuss the three things you can control in making espresso, can I just quickly say that I have come around to loving the way that some coffee joints call this sacred elixir “expresso”? I suspect my view is unpopular, but I think this purposeful misspelling is playful and silly and fun.

Okay, the three skills:

Grinding    The size of the grind will determine how much surface area the coffee has, which in turn will dictate how easy or difficult it is for water to move through the coffee. For espresso, you want a really fine grind. But you also want it to be even, and this is really important for the coffee to extract evenly. There are many ways to achieve a good grind—the most obvious is buying a proper burr grinder. I do fine though with my $10 spinning-blade grinder. I shake it up and down as I depress the button, and I also pulse it on and off so the blade hopefully doesn’t heat the grounds too much. I don’t know if this makes a difference, but it works for me. What really makes a difference, I think, is that I’m always feeling the grounds with my fingers, looking at them, and generally trying to pay attention, noticing what works and what doesn’t.

TampingThis is the step where you compress the grounds into a perfectly dense puck in the funnel. The failure states are pretty obvious: no tamping at all and the water will create channels through the grounds by which it can avoid touching the coffee at all; too much tamping and the water will struggle to pass through and will end up over-extracting the grounds and making a bitter sludge. To tamp properly, you really do need a tamper. Luckily it’s a relatively cheap device. Once you have it, you just have to experiment and keep track of what works. I try to softly, evenly pack grounds across the funnel, then I push down firmly but not strongly (if that makes sense) with the tamper, rotating it as I go and trying to keep it level. Again, this is a skill built through making attempts and then reflecting on how it worked out as you slurp the results.

Heat Regulation    Deciding how much heat to apply to the boiler is the last decision you make that will determine the success or failure of your stovetop espresso. If the flame is too high, the water will erupt through the grounds with a great deal of pressure, it’ll probably channelize, and the espresso will be both watery and bitter. Too low and it will take minutes for it to come through the coffee, over which time the coffee will overextract. The good news is, once the espresso starts dribbling out the top, you can always adjust the heat. You want the finished espresso liquid to come steadily but not gushingly out of the tower and into the top chamber. If it’s coming too fast, quickly turn down your heat. Too slow, turn it up a tad. We have a gas range here in LA, and I find that a low flame—low but not quite as low as it will go—works best.

A close-up show of the flame under a moka pot.

III. Other Considerations

Picking Out Your Coffee    In general, I tend to want a darker roast for espresso than for drip coffee. With lighter roasts, this brewing method tends to emphasize the bitterness. An espresso roast on the other hand will be darker, more balanced, and often a bit chocolatey. Lately, like a true arriviste Angeleno, I’ve been loving David Lynch’s A-Plus Organic Espresso.

A triptych showing a bag of David Lynch Signature Coffee, then a still from Mulholland Drive of a man sipping an espresso, and then the third images is from the same film but that man is spitting the espresso out onto a napkin.

Serving Espresso in a Nice Cup    A key pleasure of espresso sipping is the little shrunken cup it comes in. The collapse of scale is delightful—and it’s important, too, to be able to brim-fill your vessel. After drinking espresso from an espresso cup, you will be horribly disappointed to return to drinking your potent but not voluminous decoction from a big ol’ mug. Don’t do it! Instead get yourself a special little sweetheart of an espresso cup.

Adding Milks    Okay, philistine, let’s talk about the other espresso drinks: cappuccino, latte, macchiato, mocha, americano, red eye, affogato, and, uhhh… flat white? I still have no idea what that last one is. But for the others, this espresso is perfect! Add to boiling water, fresh brewed coffee, or over dense vanilla ice cream to make an americano, red eye, or affogato. And for the drinks that use milks, I heartily recommend getting a heating-frothing machine—a magical device in which cold milk becomes perfectly hot and insanely frothy. (This is the one we have.) I used to use a stovetop steamer but this baby is way less scary and less of a hassle. Just add your milk, press the button, and then combine it with the espresso in an appropriate vessel. (For cappuccino, I love a real wide bowl, so I can easily eat the foam!)

An array of six images. The top row shows ice cream being made in a stand mixer, then ice cream scooped into a tiny bowl, and then espresso being poured over the ice cream. The lower row show espresso being poured into a wide cup and saucer, milk being poured in, and finally rich pillowy foam.

And that’s that on that. Do be in touch if you’re setting out on your moka pot journey and have any questions or need for hand-holding. I think you’ll eventually love making coffee this way. For me, the ritual of packing my moka pot and waiting for the espresso to burble out is one of my favorite and most relaxing moments of the day.

A shot peering down into the moka pot as the last espresso comes out into the basin.

That’s it for this installment of Lightplay. Thank you for spending some minutes with me, your far-flung friend who is… just another part of the grand organism that is humanity, the whole of double-helix life on earth, the unity of the galaxy, universe, multiverses, and more. Here’s one part of the whole, wishing all the other parts well. Catch you next week.

22 August 2021