moka pot madness, or, mastering the glorious cafe cubano, or, coffee as sweet as my husband

I’m back on the sauce.  Coffee, that is.  Glorious, aromatic, black and tan COFFEE.

I had given it up by accident when I started drinking green smoothies.  I would drink the smoothie and just not want any coffee right then (coffee + smoothis = yuck), and then the day would get on and before I knew it, I wouldn’t have had any coffee all day.  I thought, hey, cool.  I guess I gave it up.  So I walked around feeling all virtuous and pure.

Then I was finishing up Children of the Fallen, and getting up super early to do it, and Paul had coffee and I would just take a sip of his… Just a little bit wouldn’t hurt me, right?


When I worked in South Beach Miami, there was this grubby, fantastic Cuban cafe down the street and I used to stop in there and get the works, black beans, fried plantains, blackened fish, and these tiny shots of super sweet espresso that would blow the top of my head off.

Cafe Cubano. O. M. F. G.

So yeah, a couple of weeks ago, stealing sips of Paul’s coffee and pretending I was just a social coffee drinker, I could quit any time, I found myself combing the internet for info on those tiny, mystical, Cuban Coffees I used to down like sweet shots at every single opportunity.  Surely there was a way to get such syrupy coffee goodness here in North Carolina?  Surely I needn’t buy a ticket and fly down to Miami just for a hit of the good stuff?

I understand now it was all just exactly like picking back up a drug habit I thought I had kicked.  The obsession, the glassy eyed look, the talking about your works, your drug-making gear, the shakes when you have to wait too long….

Bit of backstory: before I had kids, I was a HUGE COFFEE WHORE.  I had the income of a migrant cucumber picker but I had a Rancilio espresso machine, and a high-end burr grinder.  Hell, I modified a popcorn popper in which to roast my own beans that I bought green on the internet.  This is not unlike saying, “I can carve a bong out of a carrot.”  Shamelessly I pursued the God Shot, that perfect shot of espresso, with a daily, ritualized prostration over my stainless steel espresso machine and I was happy, I tell you, happy.  It was god damn beautiful.

I gave it all up when I got preggo.  And then I nursed for years and you do NOT want a caffeinated baby.  I only started back because I was a freaking zombie, nursing two babies and getting four hours of sleep a night, and my Uncle Jamie said, “Why not drink coffee?”  “Oh, it will give me headaches, I’ve been off so long…” “Naw,” said Jamie, “Just power through.  You’ll be fine.”

I remember staring at him, like the smog had just been cleared from my sleep-deprived brain and the sun had finally burst through—it was all so logical.  Just Power Through!  So, I started drinking coffee again, just pour-over drip, nothing fancy, but OH how I loved it.  I didn’t have the time for espresso and God Shots, but that was okay. Instead of demitasse cups I did Alice In Wonderland boat-sized mugs of the stuff full of double sugar and triple cream….

Fast forward to the green smoothies, then to the novel, then to me fiendishly rubbing my hands together as I pulled the trigger on an ebay order for one of these:

The note is from Sophie, who was answering my, “do you want some coffee with your toast?”  Relax, I only make her decaf.

Because, if you’re going to make Cafe Cubano, you have to have a moka-pot.  Or, as they are now called, a stove-top espresso maker.  Whatever.  I would have done it with my old Rancilio, but I discovered, much to my horror, that the boiler has cracked at some point in the last eight years of being in storage.  SOB.  I then discovered that it will cost over $200 to get it fixed.  DOUBLE SOB.  Well, I don’t have the counter space for it anymore, anyway.  Best stick to the traditional moka-pot.  They’re only $20 or so.  Bang.

Moving on!  The moka pot I got is a stainless steel Bialetti, 6 cup size—one cup being 1.5 oz or so.  In American terms, that’s one mug (9 or 10 oz) of super strong stuff, or three demi-tasse very full (3 oz each), or 6 tacitas, which are the Cuban thimble-sized cups I used to get my Cafe Cubanos in at the aforementioned grubby Cuban cafe.

But wait, back up, does this mean I found out how to make the Cuban coffees?


First, Paul talked to a woman he knows who grew up in Miami and whose mother is Cuban and got the inside scoop.  It has to do with adding the first few drops of espresso that perc out to a fuck-load of sugar—I’m not kidding, it’s like, a heaping teaspoon per tacitas—and then whipping the coffee/sugar mixture into a frenzied paste while the rest of the coffee brews.  Huh?  What the heck was he talking about?  To youtube!  Where I found confirmation on several coffee vids, plus this excellent tutorial with photos.  If you do it just right, you get this sweet, syrupy black stuff with the caramel colored foam on top, the espumita, man oh man oh MAN.

I’ve been working on my technique.  Sophie likes them, too, so I’ve been making hers in decaf and we share tiny cups of coffee each morning, such a pleasant ritual.  We always clink the cups, like we’re at a tea party.  Clink!  Mmmmmm.

In this way, I started with just a little cup in the morning, easily justified.  The cup is so small!  I’m only having one!  But then…okay, well, I found I really, really wanted another around mid-afternoon.  But I don’t want to make a whole pot, not without Sophie and Paul to help me drink it, what to do?

So last week I got one of these:

Action fingers shows off her Vanna White skills.  You’re pointing the wrong way, Action Fingers.

A miniature, single cup (remember, that’s 1.5 oz), moka-pot!  It’s tiny.  It’s SO CUTE.  Meet my new Vev Vigano (which Paul can’t say with a straight face) which makes half a demi-tasse cup of espresso at a time.  It’s really more the tacitas size, which is just about perfect for a mid-afternoon shot of coffee goodness.

Unfortunately, it is SO small that it’s almost impossible to balance on the prongs on my gas-stove top thingy.  Indeed, yesterday, just as the black gold was percing through, I knocked it slightly and it fell over, spilling my espresso everywhere.

I wanted to cry.

Paul took one look at this mess and did his little, “huh,” sound and disappeared.  I was vaguely aware of him rummaging through the recycling, then of the sound of power tools outside, as I ground coffee beans for another miniature pot to replace my squandered one.  By the time I was ready to put it on to boil, Paul comes back in with this:

A DIY trivet made out of a flattened, drilled, can top.

Wow!  What a great idea!  What a sweet husband!  I have him a big kiss.  “You’re the best!”

It works!

Then I made him one of these:


(Excellent music in this one….)

16 thoughts on “moka pot madness, or, mastering the glorious cafe cubano, or, coffee as sweet as my husband

  1. Pingback: moka pot madness, or, mastering the glorious cafe cubano, or … | Coffee

  2. John Murphy

    Hah, I did the modified popcorn popper thing when I was in grad school. Melted the plastic top, but made damn fine coffee!

    I find that one of the secrets to making good sweet coffee is to use brown sugar — it doesn’t have the same acidic tang as white sugar, and that hint of molasses goes very well with the coffee.

    1. maya Post author

      Another popcorn popper coffee roaster! Woo hoo! I melted the plastic top on mine, too. Yes, I’m using Rapadura which is a really flavorful brown sugar and I totally agree it is much nicer than the harsh white sugar. Thanks for the tip!

  3. John Murphy

    I’ve tried and liked Sucanat (which Google seems to think is similar?) but I’m not familiar with Rapadura; I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks!

    1. maya Post author

      What did you think of the Sucanat? I think it has a pretty large texture? Kind of slow to dissolve? But a nice caramelly flavor, if I’m thinking of the right stuff. Rapadura is similar except more powdery in texture, dissolves more quickly. Rich flavor. Around here the kids call it “coffee sugar.” It’s made by Rapunzel, the people who make the chocolate bars. I think the Cubans use turbinado in their coffee, or so I’ve read.

  4. grimmly Grimmly

    Just come back from Santorini…did I mention I was going/have been to ….well, SANTORINI, you might know it from an old 80’s movie, Summer something… anyways, just came back from Santorini, nice black beaches, with a severe Greek coffee addiction. I have a Turkish ibrik but it’s two cups, nice but you don’t get the Zeus shot from a double. Just ordered a single cup version, better foam supposedly.Seems the trick is to take it off the heat just as the foam comes to the centre, get it just right and it’s super strong but every second you delay takes it down a notch in strength. Very very cool watching the foam do it’s thang. Just made a cuban with my espresso machine seems another approach is to put a spoonful of demerara sugar in the basket under the coffee so it drips through…works but doesn’t sound as much fun as whisking like mad thing, will try that tomorrow.

    1. maya Post author

      Yeah, yeah, you and your Santorini can bite me. 🙂
      Hey that ibrik sounds cool, I like coffee making that includes special effects. For some reason I want making coffee to be challenging and complicated, or so Paul “what’s wrong with the pour over kind?” says.
      Yes, I’ve heard of the sugar in the basket approach, I haven’t tried it yet. Maybe tomorrow…. The whisking gives you a little cardio, you know, have to get the workouts in where you can.

  5. grimmly

    Bought a 1 cup moka pot this afternoon, absurdly cute pot. Ended up having three shots just because I was trying things out. Forgot to ask, all this talk of sugar but which coffee are you using….or did you say already.

    1. maya Post author

      Ah, another coffee whore! Yay! Aren’t the tiny moka pots adorable? I want to make mine a little hat. Or glue googly eyes to it. I would totally do the googly eye thing if I could find an appropriate glue.
      As for what kind of coffee. I’m lucky in that there are several really good local roasters (since I am no longer roasting my own) around here. I can get beans that have been roasted within the week and grind them in my excellent burr grinder. John Van Gogh coffee is good (and I’ve met the owner who is very nice). Larry’s Beans is another local-to-me coffee roaster that is lovely. Finally there is Counter Culture Coffee which is excellent, and also local to us. Local means the roasted beans aren’t sitting around on a truck for days. I like FRESH ROAST. Also these companies do all sorts of sustainable, fair trade sort of things which makes me feel less guilty about drinking coffee and less guilt is always a Good Thing.
      Having said all that, I’ve been tempted to buy some Pilon coffee, since it is what they used to use in the Cuban cafe I used to visit. Just for the total experience.
      What are you drinking?

  6. grimmly Grimmly

    I’ve been looking at Pilon, can get some on ebay. We have Monmouth over here, I get their espresso when i can, Misa used to work down the road but then she selfishly changed jobs. illy is the easiest substitute when I can’t get freshly ground. I heard columbian was a good substitute for cuban so picked up some of that but I think I’m going to go for the pilon and then make a trip to monmouth and try their Columbian.
    I need my own grinder don’t I, been thinking about it for some time but pricy and which to buy, need something good for espresso.
    Supposedly there are techniques for making your regular moka pot deliver crema, exploring that at the moment.

    You could always try and indelible marker pen for the eyes : )

    1. maya Post author

      The Rancilio Rocky is good for espresso. If you want something more versatile, I’ve got an older version of the Baratza Virtuoso which grinds espresso but also french press, pour-over, and now moka pot coffee and it has been great for over a decade. These are mid-grade burr grinders, not the $1000 buck jobbies. The Baratza Encore has a lot of the same features and is quite affordable and highly rated, only $130 or so. has a lot of helpful reviews.

      I’ve heard the moka pot “brikka” makes crema, but I have to admit I’m a bit leery of the aluminum. Let me know how your experiments work! What are the tricks?

  7. grimmly Grimmly

    I was tempted by the brikka too but it’s more than twice the price of a regular moka pot. Supposedly you can get crema in a regular pot by forming a little dome of freshly ground coffee (must be freshly ground). Then some say you should put boiling water in the pot so it’s on the heat for the shortest amount of time, others say low heat and don’t let it bubble. Not luck here so far but then i don’t have freshly ground….yet.

    Mines a regular, traditional aluminium pot, don’t Italians have one of the longest life expectancies?

    1. maya Post author

      I know, I know, the whole aluminum thing is probably a superstition. Not total consumption–I do think not eating it is probably a really good idea–but the amount you would get from a four minute exposure in a coffee pot has got to be insubstantial. A homeopathic dose as it were. Too bad about the brikka, I selfishly hoped you would try it and report back, haha. I haven’t focused too much on the crema because I’ve been doing all this whipping of the sugar that produces (sometimes) that nice foamy top. I used to be quite creama obsessed when I used my espresso machine. Best, most and easiest crema was when I was roasting my own beans–fresh roast, a day or two old to get the gasses out–makes incredible crema. And obviously it was freshly ground, too. I was a total coffee SNOB let me tell you. I’ve eased up now in my old age.

  8. Pingback: aeropress coffee maker, or, i am a coffee whore | mayaland

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