You know when you stumble upon that amazing little coffee shop in Buenos Aires, or Tokyo, or Lake George; spend some time there ruminating on life; maybe you'll Instagram the experience or scribble a little ode about it on a napkin, and tell yourself: I will never forget this? Then a couple of years pass and you do, in fact, forget the name of the place, or how at peace you were in that moment?
That's what happened to me with Café de L'Ambre in Tokyo, a dark little windowless yet cozy hideaway in the twinkle-toed Ginza neighborhood. It was like walking into a Rembrandt painting. It reminded me more of a bar than a coffee shop, mainly because I sat at a bar and my drink arrived in a champagne coupe.
Then, a copy of Lonely Planet's Global Coffee Tour landed on my desk, and I knew that Café de L'ambre would be in there. How could it not?
The shop opened in 1948, and its owner Sekiguchi Ichirō is over 100 years old. The shop specializes in aged coffee beans. According to the book, "Decades ago, a shipment he ordered took five years to arrive. He roasted them anyway, and was pleased with the result." It didn't surprise me one bit to learn that Ichirō also designed a lot of the enamel kettles, copper pots, and cups used in the shop. I didn't know it at the time, but the drink I ordered—the No. 7 Blanc & Noir Queen Amber—is their signature. (I literally pointed at a person down the bar and said to the barista, "I'll have what he's having.")
The barista brewed the coffee by pouring hot water through a sock filled with coffee grounds and some sugar. He then poured it into a chilled martini shaker, opened the freezer, and sort of rolled the shaker along a giant hulk of ice. He put a chilled glass in front of me, poured the coffee out of the martini shaker, and topped it with what I initially thought was condensed milk, but was actually cream. He poured it very close to the rim, so that the cream touched the glass before it spread out slowly over the coffee. The drink mildly suggested sweetness, and the barrier of cream provided a tasty buffer to the dark coffee.
One morning, after making the Food52 cult favorite Magical Coffee—for which coffee grounds, brown sugar, and cinnamon chill in water overnight—I decided to top it, rather than mix it, with cream. The result was everything I loved about a coffee I had in a near-mythical experience, with the ease of a coffee I drink regularly during the summer. I highly encourage you to do the same.
If you want, get out your champagne coupes or regular glasses (you want them to be clear, to admire your handiwork), and chill them in the refrigerator as well. You could also pop them in the freezer for 15 minutes before you drink your coffee, but make sure nothing is in them so they don't explode.
I like just a centimeter or so of cream on top of my coffee, but you can adjust it to your liking. You must use heavy cream. Shake it in its container a bit before you pour to introduce some air. This lets it sit prettier on top of the coffee.
Finally, when you pour the cream, pour it so it flows from the side of the glass to the surface. Be slow and deliberate about it, because this is extremely satisfying.
But of all the options, the Magical Coffee version takes me back to that afternoon in Tokyo, because of that touch of sugar that gets added into the brew. And it lets me be flexible: I've mixed the cinnamon with ground cardamom, or replaced all the cinnamon with pumpkin pie spice (finally—a regular use for it!) to wonderful results. I think that's a pretty okay way to settle with the fact I don't have a giant hulk of ice in my freezer, or freshly-roasted Brazilian coffee beans from 1973.
Do you have a favorite way of drinking iced coffee in the summer? Let us know in the comments below.