Cooking Chapbook

Notes from my kitchen in the D.C. area & beyond

Category: Drinks

Magic tea in February

Time the tea

I believe it may be time for tea.

February. Oh, I could do without you.

Your quietness exhausts me. Your monochromatic skies bore me. Your snowy lint irritates me.

But then, my dry hands cradle a cup of hot liquid. My tight shoulders loosen a centimeter. Then two. The first scalding sip warms my throat, my belly, my bones.

If December is all glüwein and hot chocolate, and January is fit for resolutions and a motivating cup of joe, February is the perfect month to reacquaint yourself with tea.

Oh, tea. In the middle of a blazing summer, I forget how much I like you.

February, I must grudgingly admit, reminds me.

Magic tea leaves

Magic tea leaves

Let’s talk about tea leaves.

Like many things, at first, I did not understand. Why not a tidy little bag? Why not a string? Why bother with a pile of dried, crackly leaves and things? Why wrestle the soggy mess out of a ball of a strainer?

But, like so many things, millions of people know something I don’t. Tea tends to be fresher when it’s loose. More carefully handled. Better.

It only takes one cup of brightly brewed loose-leaf tea to shock the system. And herald a conversion.

Teapot sings ready now

Teapot sings: “Ready now!”

There’s a lovely little tea store in Stuttgart that has become a fixture on my visitor circuit. I bring visitors to the Schlossplatz (palace square) and the Königstrasse (king street).

And then we go buy tea.

The batch pictured above is called Micraculix Zaubertee, which the tea lady translated as magic tea.

Made of black tea, green tea, mistletoe, and rose petals, the tea is named so because it tastes differently to different people, she told me. Perhaps it resembles green tea to you, and black tea to your friend.

Tea, steeping

Shhh. The tea is steeping.

To me, it tastes like a sweet, floral green tea, a more palatable version of the straight-up green tea.

Chai is also lovely, with a dollop of milk and spoonful of brown sugar.

Pretty tea leaves

A rose by any other name would taste as sweet.

I’m not yet a tea scientist. I haven’t figure out the exact temperature and timing.

Some days, the tea is slightly bitter or grassy.

Other days, it’s as bright and sweet as an apple.

As temperamental as the weather.

Part of me rather likes not knowing how it will turn out.

Tea strainer

All ready?

This cup comes from Scotland, via one of my most cherished friends. All sorts of “nessies” dance around the cup. Not Loch Ness himself, but his unsung incarnations: Cheery-Ness, Tired-Ness, Queasy-Ness. My favorite is Wonder-Ness.

Hello from Scotland mug

Tea is best served with a little sweetness.

And February, you might well be Dreary-Ness.


My first little espresso maker

Don’t ask how it happened. I don’t really know. But I somehow seemed to have missed the part of growing up where you learn how to make coffee. And the part where you buy your first coffee maker.

I also missed “Star Wars” entirely, but that’s a separate transgression.

This month, I finally bought my first coffee contraption – at age 30-something, on the eve of our friends’ visit. (House guests are the key to making so much go from rumination to reality.)

I was waffling between the ordinary drip coffee pot (cheap, hulking, the usual starter appliance) and the French press (cheap, slim, fussy to clean). Both could produce adequate coffee, though nothing like the strong stuff I’ve come to crave in Germany. We’re expats at the moment, and anything bought with a cord is perishable. A fancy expresso machine seemed unreasonable, and though some friends have trekked their beloved Keurigs across the Atlantic and attached a hefty voltage converter, that seemed a bit much to me. (I’m a coffee novice, clearly.)

But it turns out there is another option. No electricity required. No throw-away filters. Stronger than your average American brew coffee. Simple to clean. Shiny and cute. And less than $40.

I present to you: the moka pot.

Bialetti Venus moka pot

Bialetti Venus 4-cup stovetop espresso maker

You might not recognize this little pot, but you’ve probably seen him before – looking more angular. The original moka pot was patented in the 1930s. It’s still made today in aluminum by Bialetti.

Bialetti man on a moka pot

One more, please! Apparently, the little Bialetti man is a caricature of the company founder’s son (Wikipedia)

This particular version is made of stainless steel, which I read was better – at least in some ways – because it doesn’t impart the taste of aluminum. And it’s friendly to all types of stovetops.

Venus espresso pot, separated

Two parts of the three-part espresso stovetop maker.

The bottom half holds the water and a little removable compartment of ground coffee beans. Once the pot boils, delicious espresso bubbles up into the top pitcher-like half.

Where the ground coffee beans go

Where the ground coffee beans go

Hochland espresso kassico

Our current espresso beans from Hochland. Yes, we like bears.

Venus pot compartment with coffee beans

Fit it up with ground coffee beans – just don’t press it in

I made the mistake of leaving lots of room in the coffee compartment, because the instructions warn against packing it too tightly. But our visiting friends (experienced coffee connoisseurs) showed me the way: If you want the strongest brew you can get, you have to fill up the little cup as much as you can.

Venus stovetop maker – on the stovetop

Please don’t leave me. I like to be watched.

Then screw on the top part and set it on a burner. I had to experiment with temperatures, because I started way too low. Turning the knob to medium-high (about 9 o’clock) works well for my stove, but I’d suggest starting lower to find your stove’s sweet spot.

Coffee brewing in Venus pot

Here comes the coffee!

After a few minutes – maybe 4? I should time it – the water begins to rustle. A minute later, it will start percolating up the spout and spilling over into the top compartment. From that point, it takes little time at all. (Sometimes, I’ll just turn off the burner at this point. The residual heat keeps it going.)

I love the gurgling sound. It rises to a growl, which reminds me of a tea kettle. So organic and pleasant. When you hear the growl, pull the pot off the burner.

Pour of espresso

Sweet taste of near espresso. Call it super coffee.

The taste is so much stronger than a typical drip pot of coffee, a big jolt in the morning. And bonus: Once the pot cools, just rinse the three parts and set them aside to dry. No soap recommended!

The only downside is that I bought the 4-cup version. 4 cups ≠ 4 cups. “4 cups” = 50 ml times 4, or 4 pseudo-espresso shots. Oops. This meant that we made 5 or 6 or 7 “pots” of coffee during each breakfast with the four of us. On the upside, the brew was tasty enough that our friends sought out the Hochland beans to take back to the States.

Next up: Foaming milk to make a cappuccino. Any recommendations?

In Europe, coffee as art

I never quite got coffee in the States.

I didn’t get the cheap cups at 7-11 or the communal coffee pot in the newsroom or the “first coffee” period in business school. (I tried to do the coffee thing then, really tried, out of some duty to the “process,” and ended up switching to green tea after headaches ensued.)

In Europe, though, I have fallen madly in love with cappuccinos. They are delicious. They make my head buzz happily and productively. I crave them. Sitting in a cafe for a few hours with a book or my sweetheart and a warm cup filled with rich espresso and delicious cream is heaven. Bliss for 2.50€.

And I never fail to be delighted if  my cappuccino comes bedazzled with art.

These three beauties came from a breakfast in Croatia.


I wondered how one creates such prettiness, a question YouTube promptly answered.

Watch a barista make a bear and a leaf in this video. I really can’t wait to get a bear on my coffee.