Life is full of foodie rituals. I am not talking about the weigh-in at the truffle fair in Verona or the annual tomato street fight in Bunol, Valencia, but those small, private rituals that make our working day richer. Mine start early, shortly after waking, 15 or maybe 20 minutes each morning that I value above all others. Precious, private minutes, on which nothing and no one may intrude save, I suppose, the postman with a parcel. These are minutes reserved for the first espresso and the newspaper.
Making espresso is a habit that, by paying close attention to the most minute detail, I have inadvertently turned into a ritual: the warming of the tiny white Italian cup; the 'tamping' of the finely ground coffee so that it sits tightly packed; the almost ceremonial unwrapping of the sugar cube. The bit that is most special of all is watching the stream of coffee pouring oh-so-slowly into the cup, watching the frothy, cinnamon-coloured crema appearing on top and knowing exactly the moment at which to stop. Then there's the real geek stuff such as counting the last drops after switching the machine off (six) or putting the sugar in first so it dissolves without stirring. All of which I am sure will be used in evidence against me one day. I wouldn't even begin to tell you how I make my afternoon pot of green tea.
At 7.30 in the morning, all that registers is the addictive smell of coffee and newsprint. It is a complex smell, one with the faintest notes of almond and chocolate, and fruity, too, a smell of which I need a regular fix.
Yet I don't drink that much coffee. Two diminutive cups first thing, then maybe one during the morning and another after lunch. Not a drop passes my lips after that. I drank my first espresso, actually so small and piercingly strong it was more likely a ristretto, in Milan. Appropriate enough, but a mistake - I really wanted one of the deep, frothy coffees everyone else was drinking, but was too embarrassed to ask the waiter to change it.
I don't grind my own beans. What is the point when the Italians have got the grind and the packaging down to a fine art? What matters is the smell, the flavour and the crema. But what has any of this to do with cooking?
Espresso is strong enough to use as a flavouring, just as you would a distillation of violet, rose or orange petals, or perhaps an eau de vie or liqueur. You can scent a cake with it, a tray of biscuits or an ice cream. You can make a coffee custard for pouring over a thin slice of chocolate cake or flavouring an icing. The best éclairs I have ever eaten were those whose chocolate had been replaced with a thin frosting of coffee icing.
The recipes, and there are many of them, that list instant coffee powder as an ingredient are often better made with espresso. Made with a small, very strong espresso, the flavour is deeper and more interesting. Coffee this strong has a welcome effect on chocolate, too, somehow making a chocolate cake, mousse or sauce taste more of itself. There is also the possibility of using the coffee as itself, as in the classic affogate al caffe, where vanilla ice cream is surrounded by hot steaming coffee - a ritual I could get into all too easily.
Affogate al caffe
This recipe has much going for it. Apart from the dramatic, almost shocking contrast between the burning-hot coffee and the frozen vanilla ice, there is also its not-to- be-overlooked convenience. Serves 4.
8 neat balls of very good quality vanilla ice cream
4 small cups of hot, freshly made espresso coffee
small almond biscuits to serve
The ice cream needs to be really cold for this - soft ice cream will just dissolve in the coffee.
Put 2 balls of ice cream in each of 4 cups. Make the coffees then pour them over the ice cream and eat immediately before the ice cream melts. Serve with little almond biscuits on the side.
Chocolate chip espresso cake
This is a thoroughly modern cake, not too deep, a light though rich sponge with a slight nutty chewiness to it. The cake is moist enough as it is, but if it was to be a dessert I would want a jug of cream with it, too. Serves 8.
250g golden caster sugar
75g shelled hazelnuts
120g dark chocolate
4 large eggs
125g self-raising flour
4 tsps strong espresso
You will need a 20-21cm cake tin with a loose bottom.
Set the oven at 185 C/gas mark 4. Line the base of the cake tin with greaseproof paper. Cut the butter into small chunks and put it with the sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer, then beat till white and fluffy. Toast the hazelnuts in a dry pan over a moderate heat, then rub them in a tea towel until most of the skins have flaked off. Grind the nuts to a coarse powder. Chop the chocolate into what looks like coarse gravel.
Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them gently. Slowly add them to the butter and sugar mixture, beating all the time - it may curdle slightly but it doesn't matter. Stop the machine. Tip in half the ground nuts and half the flour, beat briefly and at a slow speed, stop the machine again, then add the rest together with the chopped chocolate and mix briefly.
Fold in the espresso gently, taking care not to knock the air from the mixture, then scoop into the lined cake tin. Smooth the top and bake for 45 minutes, covering the cake with tin foil for the last 15 minutes if the top of the cake is colouring too quickly. Remove the cake from the oven and test with a skewer - you want it to come out clean, without any uncooked cake mixture clinging to it.
Leave the cake to cool a little in its tin before turning out and peeling off the greaseproof paper. Let the cake cool almost completely before eating. Serve as it is, or as a dessert with a jug of cream.
Chocolate covered espresso beans
Frivolous, I know, but I love these little chocolate-coated beans.
75g dark chocolate
30g whole espresso coffee beans
Melt the chocolate by breaking it into squares and warming it in a basin over a pan of simmering water. When the chocolate is liquid, stir once or twice, then add the roasted coffee beans. Stir to coat the beans, then lift them out with a fork and drop them on to baking parchment. Separate each bean with a skewer then drop into the cocoa powder and leave to harden. Remove the beans with a palette knife and keep in an airtight jar.