Woodwind Gourmet: Irish Coffee

IMG_8279“Frederick the Great [1712-1786] used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water he used champagne. Then, to make the flavor stronger, he stirred in powdered mustard.

Now to me it seems improbable that Frederick truly liked his brew. I suspect him of bravado. Or perhaps he was taste-blind.” — M.F.K. Fisher from Serve it Forth

Granted, history does not provide us with many examples of composers who were innovators in the home kitchen (though G.F. Händel [1685-1759] was a notorious gourmand). Rather than stimulating the taste buds with exotic combinations, composers are concerned with expanding our perceptions of sound and tempting us with unique timbral mixtures. Sometimes, however, those experiments receive a reception something akin to what I suspect coffee hour at Freddy the Great’s house must’ve been like! And yet many of the greatest works in Classical literature are the result of an intrepid, defiant composer asking musicians — and the audience — to try something new.

IMG_8318I recently discovered a brilliant new sonata for oboe and piano by Jenni Brandon (b. 1977), On Holt Avenue. Admittedly, she had me at the first movement, entitled “Morning Coffee”. Aptly, her tempo marking indicates “cheerful and caffeinated”. As the movement progresses, the graceful melodic line soars higher and higher as the composer begins to eliminate beats from the meter, quickening the pulse, propelling the soloist forward with wide-eyed gusto! You can hear all four movements of this lovely sonata on Jenni Brandon’s CD Songs of California: Music for Winds and Piano. You can also hear a live performance at an upcoming Manitou Winds concert (stay tuned for dates!).

In the third and final recipe in our series about Composers & Coffee, we hold the mustard and instead tame coffee’s octane with the mellowing power of Irish whiskey to create a cocktail that’s at once stimulating and soothing! While I don’t recommend it as your morning coffee, it would make an excellent encore to top off a special dinner. Sláinte!

Irish Coffee
Serves 2

4 tablespoons chilled heavy creamIMG_8336
2 ounces Irish whiskey (I like Bushmill’s)
2-3 teaspoons turbinado or brown sugar
2 cups strong, hot brewed coffee
Unsweetened cocoa powder (optional)

Rinse two Irish coffee mugs or any large coffee mugs in very hot water until mugs are thoroughly heated.

In a 1-cup measuring cup or a small bowl, whisk the cream until frothy but only soft peaks are reached; set aside. (You can do this step easily with a hand-held milk frother or a small whisk instead of getting out a hand-held mixer.)

IMG_8335Pour 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of whiskey into each mug and stir in 1-1.5 teaspoons of sugar into each, stirring to begin dissolving. While stirring, pour the hot coffee into each mug and stir until the sugar has completely dissolved. Divide the lightly whipped cream between the two mugs, allowing the cream to float on top. Garnish with a sprinkle of cocoa powder if desired.

The authentic way to enjoy this heart-warming, comforting drink is to sip the hot coffee through the cold whipped cream rather than stirring the two together.

The other recipes in the Composers & Coffee series:

Pan-Fried Chicken with Red-Eye Gravy


Woodwind Gourmet: Tiramisu

IMG_8276“Every morning I have to write, correct, and score till one o’clock, when I go to Scheidel’s coffeehouse in Kaufinger Gasse, where I know each face by heart and find the same people every day in the same position: two playing chess, three looking on, five reading the newspapers, six eating their dinner — with me making up the seventh.” — Felix Mendelssohn from a letter to his family

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) is another example of a brilliant composer who enjoyed his daily coffee. Though renowned for both social and musical conservatism, he was apparently an avid fan of coffeehouses and the ritual of people-watching through the rising steam from his cup. Reading of his life, you get the sense that he might’ve lived longer had he taken time to smell and savor his coffee rather than swilling it down and moving on to the next task. Sadly, he died at the age of 38, grieved and overworked.

Incidentally, Mendelssohn’s great predecessor, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), was also a fan of coffee. We already know Beethoven was an exacting composer — his scores often demanding musicians push their techniques to the very limits of physical stamina. We also know he personally destroyed a piano or two simply by playing them forcefully. Thus, we owe the modern piano’s improved durability to Beethoven’s pianistic paws Beethovenof fury. But, did you know he insisted each cup of coffee he drank should contain exactly 60 coffee beans? No kidding — he counted them himself!

To test Beethoven’s coffee recipe, I weighed 60 average coffee beans. It turns out Beethoven liked about 6 grams of coffee beans per 4-ounce cup. Though I do drink my coffee in modern, 8-ounce cups, I was excited to discover Beethoven and I may prefer the same coffee-to-water ratio. Unlike Beethoven, however, I use a kitchen scale every morning to ensure I have 12 grams of beans per 8oz cup rather than counting out 120 beans. To those who can’t be bothered to measure their coffee in the morning, I raise a furry Beethoven eyebrow.

The second recipe in our Composers & Coffee series is for the serious coffee enthusiast — the kind of enthusiast who is exacting in their technique to ensure every bean counts and every bean is counted.

Serves 8

3/4 cup brewed espresso (or double-strong brewed coffee)
3 tablespoons water
2 1/2 tablespoons Kahlúa (coffee liqueur)
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
8 ounces mascarpone cheese
4 ounces neufchatel cheese (1/3 less fat cream cheese), softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla paste or vanilla extract
24 each ladyfingers
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder

Combine the espresso, water, Kahlúa, and 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar in a shallow bowl; stir to dissolve sugar, set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the mascarpone cheese, softened neufchatel, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and vanilla paste with a hand-held mixer until smooth (sugar will dissolve when the mixture is thoroughly creamed).

Dip half of the ladyfingers one at a time in the espresso IMG_8324mixture and arrange them so they line the bottom of an 8×8 baking dish (feel free to cut them to fit as needed). Drizzle additional espresso mixture over the ladyfingers so that you have about 1/2 of the mixture remaining. Spread half of the mascarpone mixture evenly over the layer of ladyfingers. Dip remaining ladyfingers in the espresso mixture, placing them atop the mascarpone layer evenly; drizzle remaining espresso mixture over ladyfingers. Spread remaining mascarpone mixture atop ladyfingers. Sprinkle top generously with the cocoa powder.

Cover and chill for about 4 hours before slicing and serving.

The other recipes in the Composers & Coffee series:

Pan-Fried Chicken with Red-Eye Gravy
Irish Coffee

Woodwind Gourmet: Pan-Fried Chicken with Red-Eye Gravy

IMG_8283Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was known to burn the midnight oil, feverishly scribbling out brilliance by candlelight. Responsible for creating reams of new, original music for very prominent performances for myriad occasions throughout the year, he may have felt his life was a long series of encroaching deadlines. Fortunately, J.S. Bach was a tireless workaholic who probably enjoyed his vocation with a zest and verve many of us could never hope to claim.

Still, no matter how much you enjoy your work, a deadline is a deadline and sometimes even the best composer needs a little boost. Fortunately for Bach, there was an exotic, miraculous new thing popping up in eateries all across Europe: coffee!

While we’re not at all certain how many cups a day Bach swilled down while scribbling away, we do know the beverage played a significant role in his life — so significant that he wrote an entire cantata about it: Schweight stille, IMG_8277plaudert nicht, BWV 211 (“Be Still, stop chattering”). The plot centers around its heroine, Lieschen, whose only goal in life is seeking out her next caffeine fix much to the chagrin of her father who wants to unload his jittery daughter on a suitor asap. To please her father, Lieschen concedes that she might give up coffee if it meant finding a lover, but we soon find out she intends to have both!

Lieschen proclaims in her aria (floridly accompanied by the flute): “Coffee — I have to have coffee!…if someone wants to pamper me, then bring me coffee as a gift!” Since Bach rarely wrote secular music, we can assume his inspiration must have been deeply felt enough to thumb his nose at the anti-java crowd who apparently existed even in his day. After all, the moral of the cantata stated clearly in the final movement is “drinking coffee is natural.”

To highlight the often intimate connection between composers and coffee, I’ve put together a small series of recipes to feature coffee in ways that go beyond that regular morning cup to get your juices flowing. Today’s recipe makes coffee a prominent part of a delectable dinner entrée.

Pan-Fried Chicken with Red-Eye Gravy
Serves 4

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 6-ounce boneless skinless chicken breasts
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup minced onion
8 ounces cremini or portobello mushrooms, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup double-strong brewed coffee, room temperature
2 ounces lean ham, finely chopped
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

For the pan-fried chicken: combine the flour, paprika, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, and black pepper in a gallon-size zip-top bag. Place the chicken breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap; flatten to about 1/4-inch thickness using a rolling pin or meat mallet. Place the flattened chicken pieces in zip-top bag, seal bag, and shake to coat.

Heat the oil and butter in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until butter just begins to brown. Add chicken pieces, reserving any remaining seasoned flour; cook 3 minutes per side or until just golden. Remove chicken to a plate tented with foil; keep warm.

For the red-eye gravy: add the minced onion, mushrooms, and IMG_8311salt to the oil remaining in the skillet. Saute until mushrooms release their juices and liquid almost completely evaporates (about 5 minutes). Meanwhile, in a 2-cup measuring cup or large bowl, combine the coffee, ham, brown sugar, 2 tablespoons water, all-purpose flour, and any reserved seasoned flour. Add the coffee mixture to the mushroom mixture; bring to a boil and stir until thickened slightly. Lower heat to a bare simmer; return chicken pieces and any accumulated juices to the skillet; cover and allow to simmer an additional five minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

Serve chicken atop parmasean cheese grits or mashed potatoes topped with a generous portion of the red-eye gravy. Any leftover gravy is excellent served with brunch over eggs or omelets.

The other recipes in the Composers & Coffee series:

Irish Coffee