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The Mark of a Good Macchiato

Anyone who has spent some time with me will notice my coffee habit. I'm not a one-cup-a-day kind of guy. I'm more of a one cup, followed by a double espresso an hour later, and another after that, kind of guy.

A loyal coffee habit may be the most common thing shared by both chefs and writers.A loyal coffee habit may be the most common thing shared by both chefs and writers. Coffee fosters creativity, and some days you need all the help you can get. A lot of menu ideas in The Preservation Kitchen came together during coffee-fueled meetings with my co-author, Kate Leahy.

As my wife can confirm, I'm something of a coffee fanatic. I have a few fancy contraptions on my kitchen counter, including a gravity-fed coffee grinder. I even figured out a way to work coffee into my book. Maybe too far — while reviewing the manuscript, our editor, Jenny Wapner, politely said enough already with the coffee. Still, some of it survived the editing process, including a recipe for iced coffee. (I cold-brew coffee and sweeten it with a milk jam that tastes like dulce de leche. Now that will keep you going for a while.)

So I thought I knew a few things about coffee. And then I met some true coffee pros while opening a new café adjacent to Perennial Virant. The guys at Elaine's Coffee Call know their stuff. They also make the best espresso macchiato around. Which got me thinking, why is their macchiato — a shot of espresso "stained" with milk — so good?

I put Nino Selvaggio, Elaine's general manager, to the task of explaining:

"The art of creating a perfect espresso macchiato is as fleeting as it is nuanced," he said. "All the subtle steps involved in producing an espresso drink have to be flawlessly executed."

What steps?

"From dialing in the grind and adjusting for atmospheric pressure and temperature to exhorting approximately 30-40 pounds of pressure when tamping the coffee and extracting textbook espresso based on timing and the composition of the shots to texturizing the milk to an ideal velvety consistency with a healthy sheen. Finally there is the pour, a delicate balance between artful and technical skills."

When these components come together, a real coffee pro can tell a good cup just by looking at it, Nino concluded. Just like a seasoned chef can quickly decipher the fine line between a perfectly cooked piece of fish and one that has been seared with little care. Still, this stuff takes practice. For me, it's back to the espresso machine to work on steaming milk and pulling shots. I figure I still have three or four espresso drinks to go before the day is over.

÷ ÷ ÷

Paul Virant has been featured in Food & Wine, the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, and Time Out Chicago. In 2007, Virant was named a Food & Wine best new chef. In 2011, he took over as executive chef at Chicago’s Perennial restaurant, renamed Perennial Virant. Kate Leahy is a freelance food writer and coauthor of the IACP 2009 Cookbook of the Year, A16: Food and Wine.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. A16: Food and Wine
    Used Hardcover $25.00
  2. The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft... Used Hardcover $21.00

Paul Virant, with Kate Leahy is the author of The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Doux

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