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Serving Coffee

Keeping it hot

The only absolutely practical contribution that serving paraphernalia can make to coffee-drinking pleasure is keeping the coffee hot. This contribution is an extremely important one, however. It involves a delicate balance between too much heat, which bakes the coffee, and too little, which leaves the coffee lukewarm and our senses ungratified.

One way to keep coffee warm is to brew it in, or into, a preheated, insulated carafe. The other way is to apply some heat under the coffee as it is brewed.

An insulated carafe is by far the best approach technically. Any external heat, no matter how gentle, drives off delicate flavor oils, cooking the coffee and hardening its flavor.

Fortunately, there is no lack of brewing devices that protect coffee heat in insulated receptacles during and after brewing. Automatic filter drip machines that brew directly into insulated carafes are available in a variety of styles and prices, and several designs of French press brewer replace the usual glass brewing decanter with an insulated metal or plastic decanter. Designs incorporating insulated carafes typically cost a bit more than those that brew in or into conventional glass decanters, but for anyone who cares about coffee quality it is money well spent.

As for the less-desirable expedient of keeping coffee hot by putting some heat under it, solutions range from the familiar hot plates on automatic drip machines to gentler approaches like candle warmers and insulated cloth wraps for French-press pots. Filter-drip-brewing purists who pour the water over the coffee by hand have the option of keeping their coffee hot by immersing their brewing decanters in a bath of warm water. Simply gently heat some water in any kitchen pan or pot large enough to accommodate both water and brewing decanter, and leave the combination over a very low flame as you enjoy the coffee. Of all of the heat-applying approaches to keeping coffee hot, this one is probably the least destructive to flavor.

Serving Pots

Covered serving pots have been in vogue since the Arabs started drinking coffee. At import stores you can find the traditional Arabian serving pot, with its S-shaped spout, Aladdin's lamp pedestal, and pointed cover. You can also occasionally find an ibrik, or Middle Eastern coffee maker, with an embossed cover for keeping coffee hot. The changes in English coffeepot design are fascinating. On one hand stands the severe, straight-sided pewter pot of the seventeenth century, which suggests a Puritan in a stiff collar; on the other, the silver coffeepot of the romantic period, which takes the original Arabian design and makes it seethe with exotic squiggles and flourishes.

The coffee thermos, the space-age contribution to coffee serving, works like the old thermos jug but has design pretensions, and is much easier on flavor than reheating. The cheapest (about $15 to $20) are plastic and embody a bright postmodern chic. Bauhaus classicists can choose from clean-lined stainless steel designs (around $25), while crystal-and-silver types can find thermos ($60 and up) that rework traditional 19th century designs in brass or silverplate.

Mugs, Cups, Saucers

Coffee is probably best served in ceramic coffee mug or cups that have been warmed first with a little hot water. There are many stylistic directions to take: fancy china, deco and moderne revivals, new-wave whimsy, hand-thrown earthenware, inexpensive machine-made mugs that look hand-thrown, classic mugs and cups from restaurant suppliers, and contemporary imported restaurant ware from Europe. I prefer the restaurant-supply cup; it looks solid, feels authentic, reflects the hearty democratic tradition of coffee, and bounces when you drop it.

Straight espresso and after-dinner coffees brewed double strength are traditionally served in a half-size cup, or demitasse. It seems appropriate to drink such intense, aromatic coffee from small cups rather than from ingratiatingly generous mugs. You should have the small demitasse spoons that go with the cups; an ordinary spoon looks like a shovel next to a demitasse. You can save considerable money on such gear at restaurant-supply stores.

The half-size cups used in the Middle Eastern and Horn-of-Africa cuisine traditionally do without the little ceramic handle, and sometimes are mounted on elegant metal stands. Most large North American cities today harbor neighborhoods of Middle Eastern or Ethiopian and Eritrean immigrants where specialty stores carry a broad range of goods from back home, including an assortment of traditional cups and coffee gear.

Nearly every traditional espresso specialty has its specialized style of cup, mug, or glass: unadorned espresso or espresso macchiato, a heavy demitasse cup and saucer; cappuccino, a heavy 6-ounce cup and saucer; mocha, a substantial mug; caffè latte, a 12- or 16-ounce glass or bowl; latte macchiato, an 8- or 10-ounce glass.