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The morning moka: a bleary-eyed ritual involving an aluminum pot (also known as a stovetop percolator or espresso maker), a small mountain of ground coffee, and that gurgling sound that sends people rushing to their kitchen as the coffee begins sputtering and pouring into the top chamber of the pot and sending out wafts of that incomparable, comforting aroma of freshly made coffee.
And while it is a vital morning ritual in Italy, taking pride of place over any other activity as the first thing to do after getting out of bed, it is also an after-meal ritual, a mid-afternoon ritual, and even, for some, a before-bed ritual.
It's a sign of good hospitality to offer guests—even those who pop around unexpected, and especially those who have come to dinner—a homemade caffè. In short, it's the lifeblood of the Italian household.
And like anything as important as coffee, there is an art form to making the perfect stovetop espresso. Here's how:
1. Know your moka.
Patented in 1933 and made famous by Alfonso Bialetti, the moka pot has three main components: the bottom chamber or the boiler, which is filled with water; the funnel cup, which sits snugly on top of the bottom chamber and which holds the coffee grounds; and finally, the top chamber, which is where the coffee is drawn as the boiling water in the boiler is forced through the filter holding the coffee grounds.
Moka pots come in all sizes (1, 3, 6, 9 and 12 cup). Take note, this refers to espresso cup sizes, not measuring cups. The 1 cup moka pot produces 60 milliliters or 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of espresso.
2. The water.
Italians love their bottled water and some will even use it over tap water for making coffee (particularly in areas where the water is very hard). Some say the temperature of the water makes no difference, while some insist on using hot water (not cold) to fill up the chamber and others say the opposite.
Whatever you end up using, do not fill it all the way to the top—stop when you reach the level of the small valve of the boiler. Too much will result in watery espresso.
3. The coffee.
Use a medium ground coffee for stovetop percolators, whether grinding yourself or using pre-ground coffee (the latter will often have an indication on the packet of whether it's suitable for stovetop percolators). Coffee that's too finely ground (for espresso machines) won't allow the water through properly, making the final drink too bitter, while coarsely ground coffee will result in a more watery, less flavorful espresso.
Place the coffee into the filter using a small spoon. A Calabrian friend of mine who prides herself on making the best coffee in her family says her secret is to pile the coffee into a small pyramid-like mound. Others say to keep the coffee level. There's an old fashioned practice to poke three holes into the leveled coffee grounds with a matchstick or a toothpick; many a nonna will do this, though I've still to find out exactly what it does. All agree that you should never press the coffee down. Wipe clean the sides of the chamber so there are no stray coffee grounds. Twist the top on and make sure it's twisted tightly.
4. The heat.
Use a low, gentle heat on your smallest burner to avoid burning the coffee (or melting the handle). This also allows the water to be drawn through the coffee grounds slowly, making for a more flavorful beverage. When you hear that distinctive gurgle of the coffee coming into the top chamber, lift the lid to check, and turn off the heat just before it has finished. The coffee will continue coming through, but you'll lower the risk of burnt coffee.
As the top half of the coffee is more watery and the bottom half is thick with sediment, a very good stir with a teaspoon ensures that everyone gets a uniformly good espresso.
6. The cups.
Like wine, you need the right vessel to enjoy coffee. First you need little espresso cups because this coffee is to be drunk (no, sipped) in small amounts. Ceramic or glass are both common, though Pietro Semino, who wrote an entire book dedicated to coffee, Sua Maesta' il Caffè, says porcelain is ideal not only because it maintains the temperature evenly, but also because it is pure pleasure to drink from.
Bring the coffee pot out to your guests with the warm espresso cups, sugar for those who take it (raw sugar is highly recommended), and teaspoons. Serve boiling hot.
If you like your morning coffee milky, then look no further to this adorable video of how to make the perfect cappuccino at home with your moka.
If serving an after-dinner coffee, some may like a splash of booze in it for a caffè corretto or “corrected coffee”; grappa, sambuca, brandy, or rum are good choices (or you could make its Tuscan relative, a ponce).
A special after-meal coffee is con panna, where you top the espresso with a spoonful of sweetened whipped cream. Or, serve your freshly made espresso as an affogato: Use it to drown a scoop of good vanilla ice cream. In hot weather, there's nothing like a caffè shakerato, espresso shaken with ice till frothy and creamy.
What's your morning coffee ritual? Share with us in the comments below!
Espresso cup photos by Bobbi Lin and James Ransom; all others by Emiko Davies