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Posts Tagged ‘coffee’

darwins notebook chai

“It’s only alchemy until you know how it works.”

So said a friend of mine recently, as he stood behind the counter at (where else?) Darwin’s, steaming the milk for my chai latte. That’s admittedly one of the simpler drinks they serve: one part spicy chai mix (which they make themselves), one part milk. But he was talking about the more complicated espresso-based drinks they offer: latte, cappuccino, macchiato, mocha, cortado. He had done a refresher course the day before, and found himself newly fascinated with this everyday alchemy, the process of taking disparate ingredients and blending them into something new.

I understood what he meant. I remembered the same aha! moment from my own barista days, when Barb and Cynthia showed me how to pull an espresso shot, steam a stainless-steel pitcher full of milk, add a dollop of rich chocolate or a smooth cap of foam, and create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not even a coffee drinker – I love the smell, can’t stand the bitter taste – but I found myself fascinated, then and now, by the process. It does make a new kind of sense when you watch the steps unfold one by one.

As I stood there that morning, though, listening to the whir of the milk steamer, the grind of the espresso machine, the morning music mix on the stereo, I thought: that factual knowledge doesn’t quite cover it.

I understand, empirically, that a shot of espresso plus steamed milk equals a latte, that a cappuccino has more foam, that a mocha includes a shot of chocolate and that chemical reactions explain a lot of the taste and texture (and pleasure) we get from those drinks. But there are also other, less measurable ingredients at play: the sunset-colored walls, the music, the smiles from my favorite staff members. That, too, is everyday alchemy (or magic) – and even though those elements are familiar and ordinary, they delight me every single day.

This applies to more than coffee: I understand most of the science behind the steps I follow to make a pot of soup, marinate and roast a chicken, stir up a batch of scones. But I believe there’s room for wonder alongside our knowledge of how those processes work. It isn’t alchemy in the Nicolas Flamel sense, perhaps – but it’s still everyday magic.

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darwins menu coffee shop cambridge ma

The menu at my favorite coffee shop, where I have been spending an inordinate amount of time (drinking, alternately, chai lattes and ginger peach tea) this summer.

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I’ve only been to Caffe Vittoria, tucked amid Italian restaurants in Boston’s busy North End, a few times. Usually, when J and I venture to the North End, we’re either leading friends down the Freedom Trail, to sights including Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church, or we’re sniffing out our newest spot for a yummy Italian dinner. (And I mean that literally; the aromas from restaurant kitchens waft out onto the sidewalks, enticing customers with garlic, butter, herbs and so many good things.)

We usually head to Mike’s Pastry after dinner for cannoli and call it a night. But last fall, my parents and I ended up in the North End one cool afternoon, so we stopped in for some rich, creamy hot chocolate:

This past weekend, we were with friends, some of whom wanted cannoli, so we sent them to Mike’s and stopped at Caffe Vittoria for gelato:

Mmm. I love a good versatile cafe. A cafe for all seasons, if you will. I’ll definitely be going back for more gelato – and hot chocolate – this fall.

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Confession: I’ve sort of developed a Starbucks habit.

As a former barista at a beloved independent (now defunct), I once swore up and down that Starbucks was the enemy. I refused to order anything, out of principle, when my family stopped there on our way out of town. I turned my nose up at all their products (I still don’t love their teas), and I was basically quite pompous and self-righteous about the whole thing.

This began to change when I lived in Oxford. My housemate Lizzie worked at Starbucks, and would occasionally phone down to the house on her long shifts, begging one of us to come up and see her. I’d hop on my green bike, glad for a break from schoolwork, and pedal and pant my way up steep Headington Hill, then breeze up a few blocks to her Starbucks and order a peppermint hot chocolate or a chai latte. Sometimes I perched at a table across from the register, so she could talk to me; sometimes I’d make myself less conspicuous, curling up in a soft green chair and reading or writing, and Lizzie would toss me a remark or two as she wiped tables nearby. I still spent more time and money at my other beloved Oxford cafes, but I didn’t mind Starbucks quite so much any more.

There are a couple of great indie cafes near my current workplace – I love Thinking Cup and Boston Common Coffee House, and I make frequent visits for lunch or other treats. But there’s a Starbucks right in my building, and on mornings when I’ve had too little sleep and not enough caffeine, or when the temperature in my office is colder than the rainy day outside, or when I just need a treat to warm me and cheer me, I head downstairs and order a tall chai latte. I watch the baristas joke with each other and chat with their customers; I sneak glances at my fellow customers, observe what they’re wearing and reading, wonder about their lives. And then I walk back up to my office with a warm cup of creamy chai goodness.

I’m still a staunch supporter of all things indie, and I’ll keep buying books at the Booksmith and yarn at the Windsor Button and produce at the farmer’s market. But I’m shelving my pride and admitting that, as far as chai lattes and convenience are concerned, there’s also room for Starbucks in my life.

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1. Qualifying – twice – for the National Spelling Bee.
2. Receiving poetry underlined in green – which means good things – from Al Haley, my creative writing professor.
3. Becoming a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, after reading it and loving it for three years.
4. Seeing my name in print in Radiant and ACU Today (and online in various places). Thrills me every time.
5. Every single time I’ve been offered a job. Because it means they picked me.
6. Mastering the long list of regulars – and their drinks – at the Ground Floor, so I knew everyone’s name and order when they walked in the door.
7. Sinking a basket in a seventh-grade basketball game (the only one I made all season).
8. Finishing my master’s thesis.
9. Living abroad, by myself, for a year – I had a strong community around me, but that year tested me in important ways.
10. Living alone in my own apartment for a year (the year before I moved to Oxford).
11. Knitting a whole sweater – big, chunky, a little lopsided, but an actual sweater.
12. Moving across the country to Boston – nearly a year ago now – and beginning to make a home here.
13. Singing a solo at the coronation ceremony before my senior prom. (And surprising everyone who thought I was just a bookish flute player.)
14. Giving the salutatorian’s speech at my high school graduation.

What are some of your triumphs? I’d love to hear them. I think we all deserve a cheer sometimes.

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Some people, when they move to a city, start looking for restaurants; others seek out clubs or bars, or similar hot spots. Me? Well, I go for the bookstores. And the cafes. Here are the ones I frequent:

1. Athan’s Bakery in Brookline, site of my weekly coffee night with Abi and Shanna. I love the big picture window, hung with golden-green draperies and twined with twinkle lights. The pastries are delicious, and I enjoy pouring tea out of my own individual pot-bellied silver teapot.

2. Starbucks on Charles Street, at the junction of the Common, the Public Garden and Beacon Hill. I’m usually an indie-cafe girl, but I love this Starbucks because my friend Lisa, when she lived in Boston, used to come here all the time. (We’ve taken to calling it “our” Starbucks.)

3. Boston Common Coffee House, around the corner from the Brattle, serves yummy cookies, comforting soup, other sweet treats, and Mighty Leaf tea.

4. Thinking Cup is a brand-new, cozy shop tucked off the east side of the Common. I stopped in for a chai latte one day and fell in love.

5. Francesca’s, on Tremont St. in the South End, is charming and twinkly, and their scones and drinks are delish.

6. Crema Cafe in Harvard Square – a new discovery – offers a bustling, comfy setting, delicious tomato bisque, and Felipe’s hot chocolate – which has cinnamon, nutmeg and zing.

7. Tealuxe, also in Harvard Square, is a tea connoisseur’s delight. I am intimidated, and delighted, by their extensive tea selection.

8. Caffe Vittoria, on Hanover Street in the North End, has a lovely European ambiance, rich hot chocolate and an excellent location.

For those who know Boston, am I missing any good ones? And for all the rest of you, what are your favorite cafes where you live?

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1. Damp earth after a rain.
2. Woodsmoke on a cold night.
3. The Leaves candle, from B&BW.
4. Banana Republic Classic perfume, which I started wearing because my mom wore it. So elegant.
5. Coffee perking (though I won’t drink it).
6. Cinnamon tea brewing. (I will drink this, gladly!)
7. Fresh buttered popcorn.
8. My husband after a shower. Mmmm.
9. Ripe peaches, dripping with juice.
10. Sweet treats baking in the oven. (A combination of butter-sugar-chocolate-yum.)
11. Mesquite-grilled chicken (sadly rare around here).
12. Old books.
13. Pepperminty lip gloss.
14. Curry.
15. Spring flowers with a subtle scent – tulips, daffodils.
16. Boston’s North End – garlic, butter, pasta, heaven.
17. Apple cider simmering on the stove.
18. Fresh-picked basil.
19. Pine needles.
20. Vanilla – so wholesome and sweet.
21. Citrus fruit.
22. Towels fresh from the dryer.
23. Salty sea air.
24. Soup simmering – tomato, Tuscan sausage, butternut squash, jalapeno, chili. The smell of spice and nourishment.

What do you love to smell?

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