Café con leche at Hotel Nacional in Havana


Today is National Coffee Day.

I can’t think of a better reason to celebrate something I love. Clearly, I’m not the only one, as roughly 83 percent of us drink it daily in the U.S.

But in Latin America, coffee and food just about hold equal billing. It’s not only a jumpstart, it’s social, it’s rico.

In Cuba, the running choice is a cafecitoa sweetened shot of its dark brew, served in a doll-sized cup.  It’s a quick sip and often several times a day.

Café con leche is the same coffee topped with milk, which may or may not come on the side; in a cortadito the milk is steamed. Breakfast in Cuba is typically bread or a pastry dipped into either.

I love to drive around Hialeah, Miami’s Brooklyn, and watch the older Cuban guys in their guayabera shirts and stylized hats, gather with una colada, which is a larger cup of cafecito that is served with thimble-sized cups for sharing, and a game of dominoes. They sit for hours rehashing their lives in vivid animation.

It’s a scene direct from the island.

In Havana, my mother-in-law, Ana, picks up ground coffee for the month with her libreta, a government-issued ration book, from the neighborhood bodega.

When I used to visit regularly 15 years ago, she received dark espresso beans in their raw form, roasting them in a deep, cast iron pan with chícharos, or split peas. Sounds odd, I know, but trust me here, it is anything but, despite the initial pungent, charred smell that used to make my nose itch even from upstairs.

There was a large hand grinder affixed to the countertop that completely intimidated me, but she wound the thick handle around and around until a fine powder was produced. It was one heck of a workout, but I cannot fully impress the smell of the handcrafted café. I would have eaten the entire batch with a spoon if I could have.

Though she uses the packaged version today, Ana is gifted in the kitchen and works magic with whatever she’s got.

An old-school manual coffee grinder in Havana
To make the coffee, she fills the base of the stovetop pot, a cafetera, and screws it back on. Water is poured into the upper half and the gas burner is lit by hand. Once steam starts to pour from the small covering and the coffee is bubbling, it’s done.
A few drops are mixed with several teaspoons of sugar, which makes a sweet, frothy foam called espumita. This rises to the top when the remaining liquid is poured over.
It’s crazy good on it own, but for over-the-top decadence, Ana will whip up a meringue of raw egg whites and a touch of sugar, maybe cinnamon.  It’s artful. Decadent. Divine.
Whatever your poison, enjoy today and every coffee day!
Classic Cuban shot: Luis and his cafecito

How to make a proper café cubano

2 thoughts on “THURSDAY’S BREW

  1. Great post! Why is it that these simple, human things that so many others in the world get right – coffee, soccer, healthcare – are so difficult for us to get a handle on?

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