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The magic of espresso powder: Perk up cookies, muffins and savory dishes with coffee flavor

October 4, 2018
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A chocolate espresso glaze coats shortbread cookies flavored with more espresso. They're great with a cup of coffee.

In our family, coffee and sweet treats go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Of course, we all enjoy coffee without sweets, but rarely the other way around. We criticize fancy restaurants that bring dessert but don’t offer coffee until afterward.

Hot coffee proves the perfect beverage to counter sweet flavors and lubricate cakey textures and flaky-crusted pies. It soothes the chill of frosty ice cream concoctions and cuts the sweetness of candy bars.

My mom baked a homemade sweet nearly every day when the five children lived at home. She served the dessert right after dinner with percolator-hot coffee with a splash of cold milk. Family vacations always entailed midafternoon Konditorei (pastry shop) breaks — complete with indulgent pastries and specialty coffees. Today, the “Konditorei” almost always sits next to the electric coffee maker in my parents’ kitchen.

In my house, the workday starts with strong, black coffee and a banana. On the weekends, I crave that combination in a decadent muffin format. Think of all the specialty flavors of the local coffeehouse crammed into one handheld sweet — chocolate, toasted pecans, cinnamon, vanilla, cream — with a coffee backdrop thanks to espresso powder.

Espresso powder deserves a place in the pantry. I add a little to nearly every chocolate dessert I make — not necessarily to add coffee flavor, but to enrich the chocolatey-ness. Iced coffee and banana smoothies likewise benefit from the coffee boost. It’s useful in savory applications too. For example, a spoonful in a pot of chili somehow deepens the chile pepper flavor. Mole sauces like the dark bitterness as does a pot of rich beef stew.

Serviceable Italian brands of espresso powder can be found in most large supermarkets. My favorite espresso powder can be ordered online from thespicehouse.com. It has a rich, velvety, deeply coffee flavor. You can use instant coffee powders instead, but choose a dark roast. Store the powders in the freezer to keep the flavor bold all year long.

To ease my conscience a tad, I use whole grain flour when making breakfast muffins. But no fear, these muffins won’t taste like health food if you choose white whole wheat flour. Made from a variety of wheat that has a milder, less nutty flavor than regular whole wheat flour, white whole wheat flour has all the goodness without the heaviness. It is my preference when baking sweets, and is available from Gold Medal and King Arthur Flour in the supermarket aisle or online. I keep it in the freezer to prolong its shelf life.

If you like cinnamon in your coffee, boost the muffins with the addition of cinnamon chips. Otherwise omit them, and add more chocolate or peanut butter chips. White chocolate chips or small chunks taste great here too.

My sister makes a quadruple batch of buttery shortbread logs, dunked in dark chocolate and pecans, for the holidays. To my mind, adding some coffee flavor notes makes them the perfect everyday cookie to enjoy with a cup of joe.

When you love coffee, it often makes sense to put some of those dark flavors into the main course. Espresso with chili powder combines two dark, bitter flavors into a sum that tastes better than the parts. I love a chile-forward version with plenty of sugar on pork ribs and brisket. For lamb chops or duck breast, I use a less sweet version enhanced with ancho chile and a bit of ginger and sesame. To cool the effect, a side dish of creamy cucumbers does the trick.

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