Friday Night Dinner Party

Friday night we had Brian and Geng over for dinner, an intimate dinner for four that lasted until about 12:30 in the morning.  As mentioned before, I think that 4-6 people is the right size for meals at our place, that way everyone can fit around the same table and my kitchen is not overtaxed.

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Above, Tawn, Brian and Geng toasting in the new lunar year.

I also continue to improve my skills at planning meals that can be prepared largely in advance and aren’t overly complicated to prepare.  The menu, which I assure you sounds much fancier that it was, was as follows:

Taiwanese pumpkin and ginger soup

Winter greens with goat cheese and raspberry vinaigrette

Maple syrup glazed magret du canard (duck breast) with cherry sauce

Pan-fried sundried tomato polenta wedges

Roasted cherry tomato and pepper compote

Individual chocolate souffles

 

Brian and Geng arrived shortly before eight, one of the drawbacks of starting dinner after work.  They brought a huge basket of fruit for Chinese New Year and also two bottles of very nice wine.  We worked our way through the first one over cheese, crackers and some salami (from SF) and olives.

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After about an hour we decided to actually start eating the food, lest we fill up on cheese and crackers.

The soup started out with the butternut squash and ginger soup recipe I like.  It has coconut milk and curry powder in it, and I add some tumeric and bay leaf as well.

Ran into some difficulty as the market had no butternut squash in stock – remind me again why I bother to go to the market at Emporium? – so I settled for some Taiwanese pumpkin.  Also, I followed the recipe more closely this time and used water instead of chicken stock.  In my opinion, while the soup was good, it tasted a little flat and watery.  The missing ingredient was the chicken stock.

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Left to right: slicing the pumpkin; sautee the aromatics while the pumpkin bakes; pumpkin flesh and the secret ingredient Aroy-D coconut milk; the soup before blending.  Below: the soup, served up after an overnight rest to let the flavors mingle, garnished with a dollop of sour cream and a grating of fresh nutmeg.

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All in all, still a pretty tasty and satisfying soup.

For the salad, which was mixed greens including escarole and endive, I wanted to do a raspberry vinaigrette.  I was a bit shocked that when you use real raspberries to make a vinaigrette, you get an extremely vivid and thick dressing, below.

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The sundried tomato polenta was another make in advance item.  I prepared it on Thursday evening and then let it set in a cake pan overnight.  On Friday I sliced and pan fried it, reheating it in the oven before dinner.  Nice and crispy, especially with a little melted mozzarella cheese on top.

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My earlier attempt with duck this week was a trial run for Friday’s dinner.  I learned some lessons and Curry’s W provided a few suggestions.  Among other things, I air-dried the duck breasts in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cooking them.  Also, I used only the lightest film of olive oil before cooking and spooned off the duck fat as it collected in the pan.  This way the breasts came out with a nice exterior and a lot of the fat rendered.  I also added just a little bit of Chinese five-spice, salt and pepper for seasoning.  After pan-frying I drizzled some maple syrup on top and placed the pan in the oven for a few more minutes.

That’s actually when I managed to burn my left palm.  After removing the pan from the oven and taking the breasts out, I grabbed the handle with my bare hand, completely forgetting that I had just taken the pan out of the oven.  Thankfully it wasn’t too hot and I was able to put my hand under cool water and ice it, so by this morning the swelling was down and there isn’t much pain.  Clearly, I need to pay more attention when I’m in the kitchen.

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To accompany the polenta and duck I roasted cherry tomatoes and bell peppers in the onion with olive oil and rosemary.  That makes a very nice compote and intensifies the flavors.

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I was able to prepare all these components in advance and keep them covered n a low oven, so very little last minute fussing was necessary.  Below, the final plating of the duck.  I kept empty space on the plate for salad, forgetting that there were salad plates on the table already, leaving this plate looking a little lonely.

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I have to say, the duck turned out much nicer than earlier this week.  Moist, not too fatty, beautifully pink but fully cooked.  I might not give up on duck quite yet.

Dinner conversation was really great and we had a fun time.  For dessert, I baked some souffles.  Cooks Illustrated has a recipe (and I think you can do this with any of the souffle recipes) where you fill the ramekins then freeze them.  They can then go straight from the freezer to the oven and puff up beautifully.

The tops of these souffles were a little dark by the time the interiors finished; maybe the heat was a bit high.  I have to remember that with a convection oven, you need to turn down the temperature a few degrees.

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Still, they were very tasty and I think a souffle never fails to impress!

 

Dear Editor: Was that an Ad or an Article?

The Nation is one of Krungthep’s two English-language papers.  A year ago, the paper refashioned itself as a primarily business focused paper, separating the arts, lifestyle, entertainment and sports sections into a separate free paper called the Daily Xpress.  The Daily Xpress is included in my subscription copy of The Nation and is also distributed free throughout the city.

Ever since that reorganization, I’ve been pretty disappointed by the lack of depth in The Nation’s reporting.  It has gone from my favorite Krungthep newspaper to my least-favorite (out of two!) as “News McNuggets”, advertorials and cut-and-paste news lifted verbatim from press releases replaces investigative journalism and objectivity.

Each Thursday in Daily Xpress a page is dedicated to health news.  One of the columns “Ask the Pros”, written by Khun Sirinya, purports to answer readers’ questions about health, tapping the expertise of professionals in fields related to the questions.

From the January 15th column:

Does a colon flush really work?

[“Letter” from unnamed reader]

I’ve been hearing about detoxification a lot lately.  One method is colonic irrigation, also known as colon hydrotherapy, and I wonder what it really is.  Why do people go for colon hydrotherapy?

[Answer from “pro” Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin, MD, the president and founder of S Medical Spa.]

Colonic irrigation is an efficient and safe way to remove toxic debris from the digestive system, thus restoring its normal functions and regularity.  It’s a treatment that’s been around for more than 3,000 years, beginning with the sue of a saline solution to rid the large intestine of bacteria.

People these days ingest more toxins because of the kinds of foods we eat, from smoked and grilled meats to dairy products, sugar and alcohol.

The accumulation of toxic debris along the walls of the intestines weakens the digestive system.  It can’t absorb nutrients as well, and the resulting imbalance stymies the immune system.

Eating too many dairy products and too much sugar encourages the growth of yeast, which can cause problems such as dandruff and acne.

Colon hydrotherapy helps clean up acne, since the yeast overgrowth in the intestinal walls is removed.  The complexion improves overall, and allergies can be cured.

Colon hyrdotherapy is also one of the safest and most effective ways to lose weight.  It’s best to undergo the therapy under the supervision of a doctor and registered nurse.

 

Reading this, I was a bit concerned about the impartiality of Dr. Pakpilai’s opinion.  I don’t doubt her medical expertise, but given that her claims about the efficacy of colon hydrotherapy are widely debated and that she is the founder and president of a “medical spa” that provides colon hydrotherapy as one of its primary services, it seemed to me that she was in a pretty biased position to offer unbiased opinion.

Nation OpEd 1

So I wrote a letter to Khun Sirinya and The Nation’s editor.  An email exchange ensued and when I opened the January 29th edition of Daily Xpress, I saw the following:

From the January 29th column – portions in brackets are part of my original letter that they edited out of the column:

Clonic sceptic flushed out

Dear Editor,

Regarding the “Ask the Pros” column published on Thursday, January 15 in Daily Express, how can Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin, president and founder of S Medical Spa, be considered an unbiased professional to answer the question of the safety and efficacy of colon hydrotherapy?

Her spa specifically provides that service, so her opinions on the subject are heavily biased because she and her company stand to profit from a positive answer.

The claims she makes[, including that colon hydrotherapy is one of the safest and most effective ways to lose weight,] are greatly disputed within the medical and scientific communities.  [Most importantly, though, is that even if her claims were not in dispute, she is still not an unbiased professional.

This is an unacceptable practice which I’ve observed The Nation engages in all too often: passing off advertorials as legitimate, unbiased journalism.  As a reader and as a subscriber, I expect higher levels of journalistic integrity from my news sources.]

Chris Schultz

Bangkok

[Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin, MD, the president and founder of S Medical Spa, provided the following response.]

Dear Chris,

I write from my own experiences using colon hydrotherapy and am sorry to hear you think my opinion biased.

I would point out the S Medical Spa is not the only company offering colon hydrotherapy in Thailand and we don’t profit from recommending the treatment if a consumer decided to go elsewhere.

Colon irrigation is, in my experience, an effective way of treating skin conditions like eczema.  Along with adjustments to the patient’s diet, it can cut the accumulation of toxins in the bowel that seem to be a factor in eczema attacks.

Best regards,

Dr. Pakpilai Thavisin

 

So, dear readers, let me ask you: Were my original concerns of bias justified?  Did Dr. Pakpilai’s response satisfy those concerns?

 

Random Bits

Did I tell you about my newest project?  It’s a coffee table book called Overloaded Trucks of Thailand.  Here’s one of the photos:

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My friend Stephanie, the younger sister of high school friend Samantha (who herself is a talented cook), went over the top for her youngest son’s fourth birthday.  Joaquin’s school doesn’t allow parents to bring sweets for birthdays, espousing a belief in a healthy eating environment, so Stephanie stayed up late the night before making this fruit tray, arranged in the image of Mickey Mouse.

I share this so that if you think I’m an overachiever, you’ll know that there is someone who outclasses me by far!

Fruit cake

 

The other day while waiting at the Thong Lor Skytrain station, I watched a lovely sunset.  One of the upsides to having a lot of haze in Thailand (honestly, not just pollution; it is the humidity, too) is the beautiful sunsets.

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Received news from my aunt Sandy that my cousin Michael and his fiancee Sara have decided to postpone their August wedding.  They are both working part time and still studying.  Trying to make ends meet plus host a wedding is just too much stress. 

A very brave decision, I think.  As I wrote in an email to them, the wedding is a single day but the marriage is the rest of your life.  You need to make the decisions that lay a stable foundation for the whole lifetime, not just focus on that single day. 

A lot of couples get stressed out about the wedding and making sure it is perfect, only to find themselves in a lot of debt afterwards.  As I can attest from personal experience, finances are one of the biggest sources of stress in a relationship, so much better to start out without unnecessary financial pressure.

We’ll reconvene in 2010 and have the wedding then and, with any luck, we’ll all be enjoying a more stable economic environment at that time.  Here’s to hoping…

 

Hearty Food for Wintry Weather

The coolest of the cold season has already past, but we are still enjoying what is, compared to the rest of the year, very pleasant weather.  Of course, wintry weather leads to the craving of hearty foods: soups, stews, braises and baked goods.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve pulled out the Dutch oven several times, filled with a desire to cook.

On the menu last week was a roasted sweet potato soup.  I’ve always been a bit confused at the distinction between “yams” and “sweet potatoes” in the US.  The confusion is more pronounced here in Thailand as there seem to be three distinct varieties all sold under the single lable of “sweet potato”: a purple skinned variety with bright orange flesh (what I called a “yam” in the US), then two pale yellow flesh varieties, one with purple skin and another with a white skin.

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Settling for the purple skin and pale yellow flesh, I rasted the potatoes directly on the oven rack for ninety minutes, until the flesh was soft and sweet.  Sadly, it was also very dried out and fibrous, leading me to wonder whether these were the slim pickings of last season’s crop.

At the same time, I prepared a simple chicken stock: celery, onions, carrots and chicken wings simmered for an hour. 

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After straining the vegetables and wings, I peeled and chopped the sweet potatoes, adding them to the stock, pureeing with the immersion blender and then letting the soup simmer for another hour.

The mixture was enhanced with some salt, pepper, bay leaf, tumeric and cumin, lending a subtle but pleasant South Asian flavor.  As is the case with almost all soups, the flavor was much enhanced after a day spent resting in the refrigerator.  The ingredients just needed a chance to meld together and exchange flavors.

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I served the soup garnished with homemade croutons a shaving of Parmesan cheese (although a dollop of plain yogurt would have been nice, too) accompanied with a simple salad of mixed organic greens and roasted Italian sausage.

 

The cooking adventures continued this week as I’ve long wanted to try a recipe for no-knead bread that appeared in the New York Times.  I’ve heard of this from several sources, the idea that what makes for a really good bread isn’t so much the kneading as it is the amount of time the dough is allowed to rise.

The premise of the recipe is that you make a very wet starter dough, cover it and let it rise in a cool spot for about 18 hours.  The challenge here is that we don’t have any very cool spot, although we did have relatively cool weather over the weekend. 

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To keep the dough from rising too fast, I actually brought the bowl into the bedroom where the air conditioner was running overnight.  Tawn was a little concerned that I might let it sleep on the bed, too.

The following afternoon, I encountered difficulty following the instructions: using as little flour as possible, work the dough into a ball and then set on a floured towel and let rise again for two hours. 

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The dough was so wet and sticky that it was like sticking my hands in a vat of paste.  I ended up using more than one and a half additional cups of flour (on top of the three cups already in the recipe) and doing some kneading to incorporate the flour into the dough, before it was dry enough for me to handle without all of it sticking to me.

So much for no-knead dough…

About a half-hour before the dought was finished rising, you place a Dutch oven on the lowest rack of your oven and pre-heat it to the highest possible temperature – about 500 F / 250 C.  Then, being very careful because the Dutch oven is really, really hot, you remove it from the oven and then place the dough into it without much concern for shape or appearance.

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You then put the lid back on and return it to the oven, baking covered for 30 minutes at the highest temperature.  Then you remove the lid and continue baking at a slightly lower temperature for another 15-30 minutes until finished.

When it came out of the oven, my bread had risen but not as much as I expected.  It was also very covered with flour, which gave it a rustic look but literally needed to be brushed off later. 

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Removing the bread from the Dutch oven was a bit of a trick, resulting in a lot of toasted flour being scattered in the kitchen and nearly singeing my hand.

As the bread cooled on the rack, you could hear it pop and crack as small fissures in the crust expanded.  I actually tried to record the sound with my digital voice recorder but the microphone wasn’t sensitive enough to capture it.  Sorry!

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The end result was actually pretty good.  The texture was closer to those large loaves of rustic sourdough or Italian pugliese than I’ve been able to make before.  The flavor was addictive, especially with some extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar!  Still, there’s some work to do to improve upon the recipe.  I need the dough to be dry enough to handle, or else the whole “shape into a ball” portion of the recipe just won’t work.

Also, I’d like to try a smaller circumfrence for the loaf.  Maybe if I put a ceramic souffle dish inside the Dutch oven?  I’ll keep experimenting.  If you want to come over for some bread, let me know.

 

The third wintry food was braised red cabbage and pan-fried duck breasts.  This is a specialty I’ve enjoyed at many restaurants, most recently at Minibar Royale on Sukhumvit Soi 23.  Red cabbage is so healthy for you and when braised slowly, it becomes so sweet and plesant to eat.

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Playing around with a melange of several recipes, I made mine a bit heavy on the carrots and onions, as both of those are nice when braised, too.  The premise is that after sauteeing the ingredients for about ten minutes, you add spices and equal parts of red wine and stock (homemade veggie stock, in this case), cover the Dutch oven and put it in the oven for about three hours, stirring every so often.

That’s all good, but I discovered that my Dutch oven doesn’t have quite as tight-fitting a lid as it could, so the liquid absorbed/evaporated and a half-hour into the oven, the vegetables were threatening to scorch.  I added more liquid and then placed a sheet of aluminum foil under the lid to better seal it.  That worked pretty well, but I still had to add cooking liquid a few times.

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Along the way, I seasoned and fried a pair of duck breasts.  This is the first time I’ve cooked with duck at home, so I wasn’t entirely sure of how best to prepare them.  Pan frying worked okay, although I didn’t get as much of a sear on the exterior as I wanted.

Afterwards, I added the duck breasts to the cabbage mixture for some exchange of flavor.  This had mixed results.  The duck tasted okay, although a bit under-seasoned, and was a little tough. 

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Maybe placing with the cabbage wasn’t such a good idea and it should have just been pan fried and put on top?  I’m open to suggestions if you have any.  (Maybe I should just stick to a single recipe and improvise a little less, especially my first time out?)

To accompany the meal, I prepared some polenta, chilled it in a tray then sliced and baked it.  It could have used a little longer baking to develop a crispier exterior – maybe pan fry first – but topped with some sundried tomatoes and melted mozzarella it was pretty tasty.

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Above, the finished product: sliced duck breast served with braised red cabbage and baked polenta with sundried tomatoes and cheese.

Whew!  That’s a lot of cooking.  What to prepare next?

 

Happy Year of the Ox

Growing up in one of the most diverse areas of California, Santa Clara County (what we called it before it became “Silicon Valley”), I was privileged to have a large number of friends who are Chinese or of Chinese heritage.  Privileged because this afforded me a literal seat at the table for various cultural holidays and festivals, none of which was more enjoyed by me than the lunar new year!

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Illustration courtesy of Singaporean cartoonist (and friend and all-around good guy) Otto Fong.

We are starting the year of the ox, specifically the year of the Yin earth ox.  Raymond Lo, a professional Feng Shui practitioner, advises:

The Year of the Ox, 2009, in the Hsia calendar, is symbolized by two elements – with earth sitting on top of earth. So is the same element on top of each other.  According to the cycle of birth and destruction, which governs the interrelationship between the elements, earth and earth are like brothers and sisters and so they do not have birth nor destructive relationship with each other.  They can be friends and they can be competitors. Therefore, earth sitting on earth does not give sign of conflict.

The Earth on top is Yin earth which symbolizes a garden, and garden gives sense of harmony and peace and relaxation. The Ox underneath is actually matching with the picture of a peaceful field with ox eating grass.  As such, I anticipate this elemental relationship will bring a year of more harmony and peace in international relationships and it is a year for healing and cure and relaxation from the turbulent time the world has experienced since 2001.  It is a time for rebuilding and reconstructions from the damage brought by war and natural disasters, and the financial tsunami of 2008, and also a time to seek peace settlement and to narrow the differences between different culture, religious believes and begin to care for one another, and make some achievement in solving the global warming issue.  It is a year of pure earth element and the theme for this year should be caring for our planet earth.

So to all of my friends who celebrate the lunar new year – and to everyone else as well – best wishes for good health, happiness, prosperity and peace in the coming year!

 

P.S.

As a little aside, if you scroll down Mr. Lo’s predictions and overview of the year of the ox, there’s this random tidbit:

The Earth element is also associate with homosexuality. It so happens many famous homosexuals is born on the day of earth – this includes Leonardo Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Tchaikovsky, George Michael, Boy George, Andy Warhol, Tracy Chapman, K.D. Lang. Rosie O’Donnell etc. As such, there could be more issues in this aspect in 2009. It is not really clear how earth element is linked with homosexuality. Perhaps earth is an element of more neutral nature, compare against the other four, water and fire, wood and metal.

Strange, strange, strange…

 

Get To Know Us First

Borrowing from the entry in Chris Crain’s Citizen Crain blog, news about GetToKnowUsFirst.org, a non-profit organization that created and is distributing a series of public service announcements about marriage equality.

The first round of PSAs, embedded below, ran during the broadcast of the inauguration ceremonies in the 42 California counties (out of 58) that had a majority vote in favor of proposition 8, the initiative that took away the right of same sex couples to marry.

One hitch along the way: KABC, the ABC-owned TV station in Los Angeles, refused to air the ad, saying it was too controversial to air during the inauguration, when many families would be watching.

After a meeting between GetToKnowUsFirst, KABC, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the station apologized for any misunderstanding, revised its previous statement, and has worked to find high-visibility slots for the ad starting this weekend.

Here’s the most notable thing, though.  Throughout the No on 8 campaign, one thing that was noticeably absent was the g-word.  All of the advertising skirted the issue of gay and lesbian people, instead framing it simply as a matter of hate or equality.  This managed to keep the No on 8 campaign from bringing a human dimension to the issue, leaving that ground to the Yes on 8 campaign and its campaign in which little Suzie returns from school and announces that she learned that when she grows up, she can marry a princess.

These are each thirty second spots.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

Xavier & Michael

Sonia & Gina

Miguel & Ru

Diane & Robin

 

Rituals Make a Home

Part of what makes a place feel like a home is the rituals you create.  For example, when I move into a new place, it isn’t until I’ve cooked there several times that I begin to feel like I belong in the space.  Along the same lines, it takes time to create routines and rituals around other things such as your morning or preparing for bed.

Most mornings, I wake up an hour or two before Tawn, even on weekdays.  This gives me some quiet time to check personal email, update my blog and read subscriptions, and scan the news headlines from around the world.  The soi is quiet and once the mosquitos have gone away, I open  the windows, turn on a fan if necessary, and enjoy the morning.

P1130745 Something I like about this morning ritual is that it gives me a chance to notice the weather here and how it really does change from day to day and season to season.  In the middle of the day, beneath the shining sun in a hazy sky, the weather seems monotonous. 

But in the mornings, I can see the difference.  Is the breeze still or does the wind blow?  Is the sky clear or overcast?  Can I feel a hint of coolness in the air or does yesterday’s heat still remain?

This morning, for example, we had something unusual: fog.  Not the usually smoggy haze but true, San Francicso style fog.  Tall buildings a block or two away were absent from my view and the top of the adjacent condominium tower was flirting with invisibility.

The only difference was that, unlike fog in Baghdad by the Bay which can chill you to the bone, the Big Mango’s fog is warm and still, muffling the city in its heavy embrace.

Driving to the airport this morning to meet Mario and John for breakfast – they transitted overnight at the airport hotel on their way to Vietnam from Chicago – we were amazed at how thick the fog was.  The expressway seemed to float in a cloud, nothing by the immediately adjacent trees visible to us as we sped east to Suvarnabhumi.

Part of my morning ritual is coffee.  Not so much the caffeine, but the process of preparing it.  On weekdays, I’ll go in and wake Tawn up about seven-thirty, opening the curtains and putting on a jazz CD or, if the day requires, something a bit more up-tempo.  Then, while he slowly ascends to consciousness, I go to the kitchen and turn on the espresso machine.

First, I prime the pump, running water through the steam wand and then through the brew head.  Next, I warm the cappuccino cups then grind and measure out the espresso beans.  While the steam pressure builds, I start a pan of oatmeal warming on the stove, choosing different dried fruits each day to add some variety to our breakfast.

The newspaper is usually slid under our front door by this point, so I bring it in, scanning the headlines: Have we had another coup or not?

P1130525 By this point the machine is ready for me to froth the milk, a feat that requires my meditative attention each day.  Some days, despite my best effort, I end up with a messy foam with huge bubbles – too much air for my liking.  Other days, though, I find my sweet spot and am able to steam the milk into a thick, velvety, meringue-like froth.

Carefully cleaning the steamed milk from the wand – once it dries on it is difficult to remove – I proceed to draw two one-ounce shots of espresso, counting the time to make sure that it takes between eight and ten seconds to pull the shot. 

When it is too quick or too slow, I make a mental note for the next day: grind the beans more finely, tamp the grounds a litle less.  Each day, a lesson to learn to help me improve the next day.

Finally, it all comes together: espresso, a pinch or sugar, steamed milk, a cap of foam, and a dash of cinnamon.  By now Tawn is out of bed and sitting on the sofa in the office, a blanket around his legs and reading the newspaper.  I bring in his coffee; another morning’s ritual is complete.