How to make coffeeshop drinks: Equipment

Sep 28

One thing people ask me frequently is how to make their favorite coffee shop drinks at home. A lot of drinks are surprisingly easy to make, especially if you have the right things on hand. In this part of what will hopefully be an ongoing series of posts, I’ll give a quick introduction to the equipment you’d need to create most of these delicious concoctions in the comfort of your own kitchen.

Note: The items linked below are for example purposes only and do not consitute an endorsement or advertisement. Even the machine I have at home is a matter of personal preference.
Note 2: I’m going out of my way to avoid mentioning any trademarked drink names from any particular establishment. I don’t really want to be seen as encouraging people not to shop anywhere. Hopefully the generic, public-domain drink descriptions will suffice.

What you need will depend on what drink you’re trying to make. I’ll break it down by drink type.

Brewed coffee/cafe au lait: The proper brewing of regular coffee will be the subject of a whole ‘nother post. Suffice to say that for these, all you’ll need is a way to make plain old coffee. Options range from inexpensive French presses and regular coffee machines to more expensive brewing methods like Chemex, Keurig K-cups, and expensive machines that even grind the beans for you. If you just want a cup of joe, that’s all you need. If you’re making a cafe au lait, you’ll want a way to heat up the milk, so check the “Hot Espresso Drinks” section below.

Espresso drinks: This includes lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas, con pannas, affogatos, Americanos, and plain espresso shots. For these you’ll need something that makes espresso, which is not the same as regular brewed coffee. Espresso is more concentrated, and requires forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans.

Like with regular brewed coffee, there’s a wide price range of espresso brewers available. You can get something as simple and inexpensive as a stovetop espresso maker, something a little handier like a low- to mid-range countertop espresso machine (this is what I use), or something with all the bells and whistles like a super-automatic espresso machine. All of these will be significantly smaller and simpler than the machines the baristas use at your local coffee shop – after all, the average person making drinks at home is going to be serving at most a house full of guests, whereas a coffee shop needs to be able to quickly serve drinks to a constant stream of customers. Your machine will not need to be hooked up to your plumbing, nor will it need its own circuit breaker, and you’re not likely to have to call a specialized technician to come fix it if it breaks.

Which espresso maker is right for you will depend on a few things: How often you plan to use it, how much espresso you want to make at once, how much space you have in your kitchen, what your budget is, and whether you want steamed milk for your drinks. If you’re making cold drinks (“on the rocks” i.e. on ice), if you’re planning to put the espresso over ice cream (affogato) or whipped cream (con panna), or if you’re making plain espresso or Americanos, all you need is something that makes espresso. If you want, say, a nice hot latte, then the next section is relevant to your interests …

Hot espresso drinks: Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas. If you want to make one of these, and you want it toasty hot, you will need a way to heat up the milk of your choice.

To get closest to what you get at a coffee shop, you’ll want an espresso machine with a milk steaming wand. This heats the milk by forcing hot steam through it, and is also how you make that nice foam for the top of the drinks. Using a steam wand is a little loud, and can take a bit of practice to perfect, but the results are worth it in my opinion. This is how I make lattes at home.

Not everyone has the budget, room, or desire for an espresso machine with a steam wand, however, so there’s a couple other options. You can heat the milk in a pan on the stove, or in the microwave. Or, I suppose, in a slow cooker, rice maker, or any other device made to safely heat up liquid for human consumption.

This will get you the hot milk, but not the foam. If you want foam (which is an integral part of cappuccinos, for example), there are inexpensive “milk frothers” available at most kitchen supply stores, or even Ikea. These basically whisk the top of your milk into a froth that is similar to the foam created by the espresso machine. I haven’t done a head-to-head test of the two methods, but a cheap frother is probably good enough for most people.

Blended drinks: Any beverage that looks like a milk shake. I’ll be honest with you, your results may vary on these. Most commercial blended beverages include some kind of thickening agent that gives the drink its thick, shake-like consistency. On the equipment side of things, however, all you really need is a blender and a source of ice. Whatever plain ol’ stand blender fits your kitchen and your budget is probably fine.

Shaken drinks: These are shaken like an alcoholic drink, so any drink shaker will do. These are available at kitchen supply stores and anywhere that sells booze supplies.

Tea drinks: Anything that’s not made from a premixed tea base (some green tea lattes and sweetened chai are usually made from mixes) is usually brewed with tea bags, so no special brewing equipment is needed. However, if you want a better tea experience, look into brewing with loose tea leaves – either with an infuser or a machine.

And there you have a quick rundown on the kind of equipment you’ll need to make your favorite coffee shop drinks at home. Tune in next time when I cover the “ingredients” part of the equation.

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Review: Salted Caramel Mocha (Starbucks)

Sep 20

With all the buzz the Pumpkin Spice Latte is getting these days, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only seasonal drink on the menu this fall. If you take a look you’ll see there’s two other drinks being quietly advertised right now — the Salted Caramel Mocha and the Chocolate Chai. A review of the Chocolate Chai will have to wait until some morning when I can allow myself that caffeine (it can’t be ordered decaf), but here’s the rundown on the Salted Caramel Mocha.

Salted caramel mocha

The Salted Caramel Mocha

The SCM is espresso, milk, chocolate, and toffee nut syrup, topped with whipped cream, caramel sauce, and a mix of sugar and salt. It’s a sugary comfort drink with a nice mix of flavors. Unlike most Starbucks mochas, it’s pretty sweet thanks to all the other stuff that’s added. You can, of course, order it with less sweet stuff, but why? I order most drinks with half sweetener, but the only change I usually make to SCMs is to leave off the whipped cream. If you like chocolate and caramel, this drink is for you.

It’s also pretty versatile. Since it’s an espresso drink, it can be ordered decaf, made with nonfat or soy milk, etc. You can leave out the espresso, making it a Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate. You can get it on the rocks (iced), you can get it in Frappuccino form, you can even add other flavors to it if you want (try a pump or two of gingerbread once that’s back in stock).

Like any drink with caramel sauce, I recommend you stir it thoroughly before drinking. The caramel doesn’t dissolve well in milk, so if you want to get that delicious flavor well-integrated into your drink you’ll need to give it a little help.

It’s worth noting that you can get a caramel mocha any time of the year — the chocolate syrup and caramel sauce are always available. I don’t recall if the toffee nut syrup is, but the most seasonal part of this drink is the salt/sugar mix that goes on the top. That is only shipped during the early fall, and once your local Starbucks is out of that they won’t get any more till next year.

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Review: Pumpkin Spice Latte (Starbucks)

Sep 15


Many seasonal drinks have come and gone at Starbucks — the Tazo Citrus, the Vanilla Spice Latte, the Chantico* — but some become so popular that they come back year after year with a bigger marketing blitz each time.

It’s been ten years since the introduction of the Pumpkin Spice Latte, and Starbucks wants to make sure you know that. It’s printed on the cup sleeves, it’s on the in-store signs, it’s all over Twitter with carefully cultivated hashtags. It might seem a little weird to be “reviewing” a drink that’s hit the stores every fall since 2003, but hey. I’m here to drink the drinks so you don’t have to. This review will give you an idea of whether it’s worth taking a hit to your hipster cred to pick up the most (over?)hyped early fall espresso drink. Rest assured, however, I don’t actually own yoga pants and there’s really no “fall” where I live.

Pumpkin Spice Latte

The (in)famous Pumpkin Spice Latte

So what is it? The PSL is a latte (that is, espresso and steamed milk) with “pumpkin spice” flavoring syrup, whipped cream, and a dash of spices on top. I don’t know how much actual pumpkin is involved in the creation of the flavoring syrup, but the “spice” in the name refers to pumpkin pie spices: usually nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves.

Important note: Pumpkin spice syrup contains condensed milk. This means that even if you order the drink with soy milk and no whipped cream, it contains milk. If you are avoiding dairy for medical or ethical reasons, this drink isn’t for you. Hang on for a couple of months, and the Gingerbread Latte will be back — that can be ordered dairy-free.

This is a very sweet drink that tastes a lot like you’re drinking a spice of sugary pumpkin pie. It’s not very pumpkiny, but the pumpkin pie spices are nicely balanced and if you’re not a huge fan of coffee you’re in luck because it hides the taste of the espresso pretty thoroughly. If you prefer your coffee drinks to actually taste a bit like coffee, consider asking for half the usual amount of syrup and no whipped cream (this is how I usually order it).

Is it worth the hype? Well, if you like pumpkin pie and would like to be able to drink a slice so you don’t have to wash a fork, I’d say it probably is. If you miss it this year, it should be back every early fall around late August/early September, to tide people over until the winter holiday drinks return in early November. If you’re not big on super-sweet drinks, you should probably either pass or order it with less syrup and/or extra espresso.

I gotta say, though, Starbucks is pushing hard on the social media front this year. I’ll leave you with these fightin’ words they posted while I was preparing this review:


* I still miss the Chantico :(

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Once more unto the breach, with feeling

Sep 14

Yep, another “hey I’m still here” post!

For the past several months, all my creative juices have gone into creating this:

Tiny human

The tiny human, not the blanket.

I swear, I haven’t been able to write damn near anything while the baby was incubating. It really is as if every ounce of creative energy in my body was focused on making her little cells divide instead of making words come out my fingertips. But after a truly Sisyphean labor (which I may blog about at some point, without too much graphic detail), her journey from “tiny bundle of cells” to “independently breathing human being” is complete, so hopefully I can get the words out of my fingers again.

Don’t worry, this won’t become one of those dreaded “mommyblogs”* — I’ll still be posting about coffee-related stuff, mixed in with random personal stuff as it strikes my fancy. I have trouble remembering to use this blog for mundane personal posts, the way I used to use LiveJournal, but I’m working on that. You can see in the “Crap I’ve said lately” section in the sidebar, I still tweet random useless thoughts at random hours.

Posts currently brewing in my head include: the (in)famous Pumpkin Spice Latte, the Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate, bits and bobs on the new audio show I’m working on (stalled out during the great Babyfication process), and possibly the story of the Sisyphean labor. I might also copy some of my favorite posts over from LiveJournal. Any other requests, loyal readers**?

* Gotta say, I don’t like the derision usually aimed at “mommyblogs”. People should blog about what interests them, and for many women (and men!) that’s their children. I don’t see anywhere near as much internet scorn directed at, say, car blogs or movie blogs. That said, my kid will not be the main focus of this blog.

** All two of you

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