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Surviving Starbucks

January 2, 2018

Okay. Now it feels like winter.

We drove back from Pennsylvania on New Year’s Eve, and came back to a driveway covered in a few inches of snow and single digit temperatures. Fortunately, none of the pipes froze, and our house was none the worse for wear. Sure, I had to shovel out the driveway after a several hour drive. At least I had the help of my family.

Then I got to warm up with a modified spaghetti carbonara using a smoked pork chop instead of guanciale, because that’s all that was around. I used some extra olive oil to replace the fat that would have rendered off the meat. It felt great to cook a family dinner again.

One of the stops along our holiday road was at Raf’s house. I mention this because we’ve been engaged in a multi-year debate about which one of us is fussier. I’ll give you a hint. He is.

Hey, fussiness isn’t always a bad thing, especially when one of your fellow coffee snobs teaches you a trick that can help you survive in the wilderness of chain espresso.

Some time ago, I read that Starbucks had instituted a guarantee that if you aren’t happy with your drink, they’ll remake it for you until it’s right. Unfortunately, my standards for things like a cappuccino are so high, I don’t even think it’s possible for the machines at Starbucks to produce something that would make me happy.

Raf is the same way.

Like they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and Raf works in a part of Manhattan where there is no good coffee. There is only Starbucks. So he figured out a way to get the closest thing to a traditional cappuccino as he could.

First, it’s important to understand where Starbucks gets it wrong.

1. Starbucks is widely pilloried for the ridiculous names it has assigned to coffee sizes. The default size at Starbucks is the twelve-ounce “tall” which makes a traditional cappuccino a challenge, since the cup is the more than twice the size of the drink.

2. At some point, Starbucks must have gotten tired of hearing everyone ask for low fat drinks, so they changed the default milk option from “whole” to “low fat”. For starters, this does nothing to improve the healthfulness of a giant, super sweetened, whipped-cream-topped confection posing as coffee. More importantly, those fat particles in the milk are critically important for producing properly textured milk.

3. Using the steam wand of an espresso machine is a learned skill that requires attention, care, and precision. Not to mention that scalding the same milk over and over again produces a milk that tastes old and flat. The Starbucks machines have dumbed down the craft of grinding and pulling espresso shots. There is nothing you can do to avoid an espresso that tastes like burnt beans, but you can get textured milk that doesn’t taste like burnt milk.

So here’s the solution: Short cappuccino. Whole milk. Kids temperature.

Raf says, “It’s still Starbucks.” However, if you need the creamy comfort of a cappuccino and there’s no great coffee spot around, this is your best shot.

Even though they may not be on the menu, short cups exist behind the counter. They are eight ounces, and only look small by comparison to the ridiculous sizes on display. The important thing is that with a shorter cup, the ratio of milk to espresso produces a more flavorful drink.

While we’re on the subject of flavor, don’t skimp on the fat. Fat carries flavor. That’s part of the point of a cappuccino. And with less milk in the cup, you are also reducing the caloric load of the drink. So go for the gusto, especially since it will also produce better textured milk.

The hope is that when your barista gets an order for a short cappuccino, with whole milk, and kids temperature, they realize it’s for someone who knows a little something about coffee. Maybe, just maybe, they will give the foam a bit more care and attention. And even if they don’t, the milk will not be scalded beyond all recognition.

If you are very lucky, they may even pour some fresh milk into a canister to heat for the very first time. Which, by the way, is how every single espresso with milk drink should be made. Every. Single. Time.

There is a reason that Raf and I are friends. I gave this a try, and it actually worked.

Yes, it’s true. Friends don’t let friends go to Starbucks. But sometimes you are in Target, with a throbbing caffeine headache, and just need a little something that’s not totally awful to get you over. Right now.

Maybe I should be drinking less coffee. Although that’s a subject for another day.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2018 2:05 pm

    When I worked in Starbucks back in the day (late 90s) you still had to tamp the espresso. I think the grinders where automated to grind beans once you had taken an amount There were also little clocks on the machine and you had a range for pulling a good shot…

    From what I’ve seem now the whole process is automated. I still laugh at the orders people used to make. I had a “cappuccino, no liquid/all foam, extra caramel sauce” lady (she would get the espresso on the side and pour it over)…

  2. Lauren Darman permalink
    January 10, 2018 4:12 pm

    Next time you go to Utica, try Florentine or Caruso’s for a good cup of capp. FYI – Caruso’s has better pastries.

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