I know it sounds completely insane, but I don’t recall ever NOT drinking coffee! From the moment I learned how to drink from a cup rather than a bottle my mother, like many other Cuban mothers, started off my day with a nice, warm cup of cafe con leche – espresso coffee or instant coffee mixed with milk and a spoonful or two of sugar. Yes, at the age of two!
I remember the delicious aroma that filled our second floor apartment in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood and how I loved getting out of bed to that tantalizing smell. Half asleep, I’d saunter to the kitchen table where breakfast awaited me. The main event – a mug filled with cafe con leche. Magically, by the time I was done with it I was feeling awake, peppy and ready to start my day. I wonder why!
By the time I was in kindergarten I had developed my own preferences for coffee. I liked to drink it hot, unlike my younger brother, Ralph, who liked it as cold as possible, meaning room temperature.
Since she had four kids to tend to, my mom made cafe con leche for my brothers and me in this order. While warming up the milk in a saucepan, she scooped a couple of teaspoons of Nescafe instant coffee into our mugs, followed by a teaspoon of sugar. When the milk was hot, she poured it into each cup. Some of the coffee granules floated to the top and I pretended they were chocolate chips. I’ve recreated my childhood cafe con leche and this is what it looks like. Notice the “chips!”
What I didn’t know then is that we weren’t getting the real deal yet. The cafe con leche my mom made with instant Nescafe, sugar and milk was milder than coffee she was making for herself and my dad in her Cuban-style cafetera. Come to think of it, the aroma that filled our apartment and woke me up to every morning was probably their cafe, not mine!
It wasn’t long before I was drinking the real stuff too. It made me feel so grown up. I loved the crema, the froth, or as we called it, the espumita on the top. Think about it, a first-grader pumped with sugar and a shot of espresso before school every day. That was me. No wonder I always left the house in a good mood and with a skip in my step!
There’s no real science to making the Nescafe instant coffee of my early childhood. But this is how you make a real cup of Cuban coffee.
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