"We don't do flavored coffee. Sprinkling a little chocolate is as far as we'll go," I overheard a barista telling a hapless customer this morning at one of my new-favorite NYC coffee spots, Tribeca's six-month-old La Colombe Torrefaction.
The anti-flavoring stance is a cherished one among coffee geeks, and luckily I agree with it—only because I've always happened to hate hazelnut and vanilla and whatnot in my coffee. But that might be because I don't have much of a sweet tooth. While I like my brew on the dark and bitter side, I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with wanting your coffee to taste more like dessert. A few food writers I know and respect tend to oversugar and overmilk their coffees.
But I've just come around to an ancient way of flavoring coffee: dusting it with cardamom. I was inspired by a recent lunch at Gramercy Tavern, where they're serving pots of the complex, medium-bodied Yirgacheffe coffee from Ethiopia brewed with cinnamon, cardamom and orange. The restaurant didn't invent this. You find coffee flavored with cardamom (and sometimes orange) in parts of the Middle East and Africa, but when I've had it there I've always barely tolerated the cardamom. Suddenly I'm crazy for it. I've even loaded a spice-grinder with cardamom seeds so I can flavor my coffee at home (everything from the Arabic brew I make in a stovetop kettle using Café Najjar beans from Kalustyan's, to the French-press version I make with beans from Brooklyn's Gorilla Coffee).
Grinding the cardamom along with the coffee beans—or adding it to the ground coffee before brewing—is the best method, but sometimes I'll just lazily sprinkle the spice onto the finished coffee. For those feeling a little apprehensive, I assure you that buying green cardamom pods and cracking them open to extract the seeds will earn you back any lost coffee-snob cred.
Is cardamom a more respectable flavoring than natural hazelnut or vanilla? Hard to argue why it would be. But it just...tastes better.
This coffee recipe is from Aida Karaoglan's terrific Middle Eastern cookbook, Food for the Vegetarian. It calls for an optional splash of orange-blossom water, which I usually skip (along with the sugar).