Pros: Delicious flavors and exciting ideas
Cons: Impractical for anyone but a professional barista
Rating: 3 out of 5
I was looking forward to Michael Turback’s Coffee Drinks cookbook with great anticipation. I absolutely adored his Mocha and Hot Chocolate. They’re adventurous books, and do require a willingness to hunt down unusual ingredients or to get creative if you’re missing one piece of equipment or another, but despite that they’re eminently usable by a creative and open-minded cook. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same about Coffee Drinks.
First, I will say that when you can get to the finished products in this book, they are every bit as delicious as those in Mocha and Hot Chocolate. So if you have an espresso machine, a frother, and a whipped cream canister that takes nitrous oxide chargers, then you won’t have any trouble making some amazing drinks out of here. That said, there are still two other concerns. One is that, while the book does include sources for all of the unusual ingredients and equipment, there’s still the probability that some things won’t be available for very long. For example, there’s a recipe in here that uses fennel pollen as an ingredient. Sure, it’s available from zingermans.com, but to quote their own website:
It is rare and there in lies the problem: even in Italy this stuff is almost unknown. Even those who’ve heard of it have a hard time finding it. Even if you can find it, it’s not inexpensive. As a matter of fact, by the time you’re ready to order some from us, we may already be out – and we’re not sure we’ll be able to get more.
And yeah, a small jar costs $30 as of this moment. In addition, many of these recipes are quite complex—a much larger proportion of them, it seems to me, than in those previous books. So I hope you’re ready to make, for example, three different flavored syrups from scratch, just to prepare one coffee drink recipe.
Let me be clear—I don’t mind a coffee drinks book that’s designed to cater to people with expensive or gourmet tastes. However, the previous Turback books always reined that in with an edge of practicality, so that if you didn’t have a professional barista’s kitchen you could still get a lot of use out of the cookbook. That isn’t the case this time, in my opinion. This feels like a coffee table book without the expensive design—meant to be read and not used, or meant to appeal to a very narrow audience.
This is also the first of his books where I’ve found anything in a recipe that appeared to be a mistake. For example, the reason why some of the recipes in this book require a whipped cream canister with nitrous oxide chargers is because they make whipped cream out of a mixture that’s mostly half-and-half. One of those recipes says that you can use a mixer instead. However, having tried to do so, I can assure you that no matter how long you sit there going at it on the highest speed of a mixer, it isn’t going to whip up—it simply doesn’t have enough fat content to do so without help.
The results of such recipes as “Take the Cannoli”—consisting of vanilla whipped cream and French press coffee made with dried apricots—are absolutely delicious. Unfortunately they’re expensive (you’ll need two Madagascar vanilla beans just for six servings of coffee) and require either extensive substitution or specialized equipment (this is the recipe in which the “whipped cream” wouldn’t whip up without the help of a charger). Other recipes simply take a lot of time and/or effort, such as Ananas, for which you make a pineapple reduction and a honey-infused creme fraiche (which takes up to 48 hours), or Nocturne, for which you make cardamom pod candy, lemon syrup, and clove syrup. Again, none of these attributes are bad in and of themselves. It’s the fact that they’re not reined in at all and the potential reader isn’t given any warning unless you have a chance to thumb through the entire book before buying. I lauded Turback’s other books precisely because they gave us the opportunity to try complex and rare things while still being practical enough for many home cooks to experiment with. There was a greater range of difficulty and expensiveness represented among the recipes. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t achieve that goal.
I’m rating Coffee Drinks as highly as I am because of those delicious results, and because it does have one ideal audience—professional and hobby baristas. People who have all the expensive gadgetry that goes with making fine coffee and don’t mind hunting down expensive or rare ingredients. People who don’t mind spending an hour or so on one set of drinks, making a variety of syrups or other components. I’m disappointed, however, that the book doesn’t make it clear on the outside that its value is so limited outside of this audience—and I’m even more disappointed that Turback didn’t write this book to appeal to the wider audience of his other books. Where I still get plenty of use out of both Hot Chocolate and Mocha, I doubt I’ll use Coffee Drinks much at all.