Having spent my formative years in Italy as an adolescent, I’m partial to Italian styles of coffee, particularly espresso. It’s amazing how ubiquitous espresso is almost anywhere I’ve traveled, whether I’m having a shot in Rome or I’m at a roadside gas station in Morocco or lost in Amsterdam… there’s always espresso! And most cultures and countries put a bit of their own twist on the drink, perhaps most famously, the Cubans. I have no idea what coffee culture is like in Cuba proper, but I know you can’t throw a rock without hitting a Cuban coffee shop in Miami! What is Cuban coffee, why is it so freaking awesome and can you replicate it at home? Let’s answer some of these questions!
A big thanks to Abuela Mami for getting me re-obsessed with Cuban coffee recently. They do a monthly subscription box full of Cuban foods, including coffee, and reached out to see if I wanted to try some coffees. Four vacuum-packed bricks of Cuban-style coffee (of course, all based out of Miami thanks to our embargo) arrived and down the rabbit hole I went! Check out Abuela Mami and tell them I sent you if you subscribe!
My first introduction to Cuban coffee was in 2012 at a restaurant called Qubano in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We were on our honeymoon and after a long trip from Kansas City this was the first place we dropped in to have a quick bite to eat. Not only did they have great Cuban food, but there were also Hungarian selections on the menu, of all things, and I’m half Hungarian! I couldn’t believe it! In the same way that my family fled Hungary in 1956 during the revolution, the woman who owns the restaurant had a similar story, except one of her parents went further south than my grandparents did. Such a small world in so many ways. In any case, after a sandwich I decided to give Cuban coffee a whirl and I was instantly hooked.
Of course there are a lot of versions and variations of Cuban coffee, but cafecito is going to be the focus of this article. Cafecito is essentially very concentrated espresso with a ton of sugar, but there are some important twists. In restaurants and bars, cafecito is usually made using a standard espresso machine. It’s a shot of espresso straight into a container of sugar and then a lot of stirring later, it’s served up in an espresso cup. Let’s review… espresso? Check. Tons of sugar? Check. Easy to see why it’s addictive, right? Full disclosure, I like my espresso the way God invented it, pure black. That being said, cafecito gets a pass and so does the espresso in, ironically, Italy, which usually benefits from sugar since the coffee itself isn’t that great.
Somehow, though, cafecito is not the same, not even close, to a shot of espresso with a couple spoonfuls of sugar in it. The big difference is that for Cuban coffee, you add a small bit of coffee to some sugar, which is then aggressively stirred to form a paste. Something happens during that process that does not happen when you toss a couple of sugar packets into an espresso, and that, my friends, is the magic of cafecito!
The cool thing is that you can pretty easily do this quite nicely at home and without an espresso machine. In fact, I have a nice espresso setup at home and the thought of making cafecito with it has never even crossed my mind, although I think I will correct that this week! But, all you need to make a kick-ass cup of Cuban coffee at home is the following:
- Moka pot
- A small, tough container (I use a 6oz stainless steel Bell creamer, available through Amazon Prime for $6.50, and it’s PERFECT for the small Moka pot size)
- Standard size spoon
- Sugar (demerara sugar is traditional, I use regular white sugar)
- A cup
- Some Cuban-style coffee
Let’s look at the coffee…. Again, for me Moka pots get a big pass when it comes to coffee and I am partial to those vaccum-packed bricks of coffee, whether it’s Lavazza or Illy in Italy or Pilon, Cafe Bustelo, La Carreta, or another brand of Cuban-style coffee. Of the four kinds Abuela Mami sent me, I liked La Carreta best, but honestly, all of these pre-ground coffees are more or less the same, so pick one!
Let’s look at the process now. It’s easy, trust me, but there are a few tips and tricks that will make things better. Here’s a nice, short video of a gorgeous Cuban woman making cafecito. Enjoy.
Alright, not that tough, I told you. That being said, there are plenty of ways to not do it right and I have spent a lot of time over the past few weeks working on this and every cup gets better and better. So, here are my tips and tricks for making the best cafecito at home:
- When you fill your Moka pot basket, don’t press/tamp the coffee. I tap the sides of the coffee holder thing to make sure the coffee settles in, but don’t press it. I overfill a bit, tap tap tap, then using a straight edge I scrape the top and excess off. Make sure you give the little lip of the holder a wipe because this fits against the rubber seal on the upper part of the Moka pot and if there’s coffee between the lip and seal, it won’t be tight.
- Great tip for the Moka pot, whether you’re making Cuban coffee or not, is to pre-boil your water, then add it to the bottom part of the Moka pot. Fill up to the pressure release valve and tighten on the top part, then set it on a pre-heated burner on your stove. This reduces the amount of time the coffee grounds are subjected to heat and it REALLY makes a big difference in quality. So, place a towel on your counter, preboil your water and leave the burner going. Place the bottom part of the Moka pot on the towel and fill to the pressure release valve with the pre-boiled water. Using the towel to protect your hands, grasp the lower part of the pot, carefully set the filled coffee basket in, and screw on the upper part, then place the whole works on the burner, being mindful of the plastic handle and keeping it pointed away from the heat. You should get coffee bubbling up in less than a minute or so.
- When I hear the bubbling start, I turn my burner down to about a 7. You want the coffee to gently bubble up into the upper part of the Moka pot rather than having it slam at full speed. This makes a big difference on the taste, too.
- For two cafecitos or one small, 6-ish ounce cup, I put three spoonfuls of sugar into my stainless steel bell jar.
- There are two tricks for making the sugar paste correctly. The first one is to not use too much coffee to wet it. This is easy to screw up. For my three spoonfuls of sugar, I use 1.5 spoonfuls of the first bit of coffee that bubbles up, then replace the Moka pot on the burner to finish up while I crazily whip up the sugar. It will be right if it feels a little on the dry side and is really black at first.
- The second trick to making the sugar paste is to go insanely aggressive on the stirring. This is not a light, easy stir. It’s real work. Go nuts, seriously, and as you whip up the sugar in a frenzy, you’ll notice it taking on air, getting lighter and fluffier and turning the color of light peanut butter. Keep going. You can’t overdo it. Really go nuts, give it at least a minute. The more the better, honestly.
Then add the coffee to the bell jar and stir for a while to get it all mixed up, and pour into your cups! My best cup, to date, was this morning and it’s pretty much all in the sugar prep. I got a nice, thick “crema” and it was super delicious.
All that hard work creates a really thick paste and gives the coffee tons of body. Of course, it’s also mind-numbingly sweet, so if you don’t have a sweet tooth then this isn’t the drink for you. Nothing will ever replace a good, straight shot of espresso for me, but Cuban coffee is a real treat that I try not to make too often because I have such a sweet tooth to begin with! The struggle is real, folks.