A secret vice, stolen moments, the giddy covert activities of a schoolgirl usually so well behaved and never naughty. The second her back was turned, up I would steal, silently, invisible to her ever-watchful eye and snatch mouthfuls, long pulls on a straw or sips grabbed by stealth while ice cubes pressed up against my hungry, eager lips, threatening to clatter against the glass, tumble out and give me away. There was something magical, alluring about those tall, dreamy iced coffees my mother would fix herself. How I detested the bitter taste of her morning coffee, yet how I loved the creamy, sugary goodness of these summer afternoon libations she prepared only for herself: a splash of coffee, rich with milk, ever so sweet like coffee ice cream or candies popped in your mouth surreptitiously, frosty with ice cubes galore clinking and jiggling so elegantly against the glass. She protected those summer treats like a mama bear protecting her young against scavengers and outside intruders, so I was reduced to snatching gulps each time she stepped away, leaving that bewitching glass of heaven unattended, ignored. Try as I might, no matter how small I made myself, hanging around nonchalantly, inconspicuous in a corner of the kitchen, waiting, she always knew what I was up to and the warning came out sharp and business-like… “Stay away from my iced coffee!”
Yes, this was the only form I could or would take my coffee, until those heady years of college when drinking pot after pot of strong, aromatic coffee in some all-night diner became a ritual. Thick white ceramic mugs placed in front of each one of us, my girlfriends and I, and that silver coffee pot crowned by swirls of steam passed from hand to hand. Sugar, milk and a plateful of thick, dense, hot homebaked southern biscuits washed down with our now favorite addiction. The taste for coffee came upon me gradually, so long averse to the disagreeable acrid flavor in those freshman years. Friday or Saturday nights after hours, after parties, after girls’ nights in, slipping away to spend a few hours under the harsh lights of our favorite joint, hard wooden benches and sticky tabletops only adding to the charm and devilry, coffee and laughter just seemed to be a part of the sweet memories.
Did it take weeks or months to develop an inclination, nay, an overwhelming appetite for the dark, bitter brew? When did I develop a partiality, an absolute weakness for coffee? Even after all those years of iced, my predilection soon became for the hot, nearly scorching… I was once told a story that my great-great grandfather drank cup after cup of scalding tea, the hotter the better and I sometimes wonder if this tendency, this veritable need for my liquid to be hotter than hot is genetic somehow. Yes, one will rarely find me drinking iced coffee these days; pour it hot, halfway up the side of the mug, if you please, allowing room for scalding milk. Hot and milky and just a tad sweet, a third of a small, rectangular cube, more to caress, enhance and accentuate the exotic, troublesome, delightfully severe flavor of coffee than overpower it.
Which brings me to my love for all things coffee. Shall I condemn those long-ago purloined sips of mother’s frothy, chilly drink or those crazy, joyous, giggly, tipsy evenings out on the town with my best friends? Shall I blame it all on nights spent sitting with the girls, gossiping, bemoaning our single state and complaining about men, spoons stuck out of pints of luxurious, silky, frosty coffee Hagen Dazs like so many invitations to serenity? Coffee-drenched ladyfingers the crowning glory of luscious Tiramisu; cool Panna Cotta like a smooth, velvety café au lait; espresso-drunk chocolate genoise, dense and moist, the perfect backdrop for a rich mocha frosting; a nutty layer of meringue kissed by the earthy fragrance of the bean, the perfect, crispy, lightest of dacquoise, cradling froths of cream like an edible, ethereal cappuccino… My pleasure, my weakness, my downfall… Do I, one must ask, break more easily under the temptation of chocolate or coffee? Coffee or chocolate? Chocolate, I must admit when pressed just a bit too adamantly, was my first love, seducing me oh so easily with that first taste. My knees still go weak, my heart pounds, my tastebuds tingle to life when the exhilarating, inebriating odor encircles my senses, that first sensation as it touches my lips, my tongue, whether dark or light, crispy, crunchy, gooey, or smooth it knocks me over and I am enslaved. Yet, yet… coffee is my very adult addiction, learning to love the provocative brew as I stood on the threshold of womanhood, discovering the two as one and I was moved to intoxication.
Riz au Lait is a simple, homey favorite reminiscent of childhood and nursery, the verdant French countryside and afternoons curled up in front of a roaring fire with a good book, comfort food at its best. Espresso kicks it up a notch, giving an adult twist to an old treasured family treat. Make it creamy and just sweet enough and the fascination takes hold, my subjugation to this magical potion complete.
CAFÉ LATTE RIZ AU LAIT
Coffee-Flavored Rice Pudding for 6 to 8
7 oz (200 g) uncooked rice for risotto or pudding
3 ½ cups (850 ml) whole milk or half low-fat milk + half light or heavy cream
½ cup (100 g) sugar or to taste
1 Tbs + 1 tsp (about 5 g) instant powdered espresso
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter
Place the rice in a colander with tiny holes (so as not to lose any rice out the bottom!) and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.
Place the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover generously with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.
Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with the whole milk (or half low-fat milk and half cream), 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the espresso powder and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring very often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth, not al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and about 2 tablespoons of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls.
Top with heavy cream, either a drizzle or a dollop of whipped. Dust with a tad of cocoa powder.
Riz au Lait is best eaten warm but this particular pudding is delicious at room temperature and even stays creamy when chilled (if, for example, there are any leftovers).
And for CAFFÉ CORRETTO RIZ AU LAIT, simply stir in a tablespoon or two (or three) of Amaretto or coffee-flavored liqueur at the end of cooking to taste.