Coffee, as we know it today, is a brewed drink produced from roasted coffee beans. These “beans” are actually the seeds that come from the Coffea plant, which is a small shrub or tree, and are found inside the berries of the plant. The genus Coffea is native to tropical areas of Africa, namely Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, as well as Madagascar. The plant produces small, edible berries, or “cherries”, which each contain one-to-two seeds, more popularly known as “coffee beans”, as shown in the figure. These cherries, as well as the leaves and stems of the plant, are entirely edible (albeit not as flavorful as the drink itself) and actually contain small traces of the chemical compound that make this plant and its seeds so desirable: caffeine. From a chemical and pharmaceutical perspective, caffeine is classified as a psychoactive stimulant that primarily affects the central nervous system. Essentially, it speeds up the electrical signals between the brain and the body, which increases alertness, concentration, reaction times, and reduces drowsiness. It is technically classified as a psychoactive drug and is in fact the most widely used psychoactive substance on the planet. However, it should be noted that while modern science has discovered a way to extract and insert caffeine into different products, such as in energy drinks and caffeine pills, caffeine occurs naturally in the Coffea plant and other plants used to make other popular food items (such as in certain leaves used for tea and cocoa beans used for chocolate).
The Coffea plant has played an important role in Ethiopian society for thousands of years, namely in the religious sector However, while the plant itself was widely used, the beverage that we know today as coffee was first brewed around the 1400s in what is now modern day Yemen. It was there where people first discovered that they could roast the seeds, and by the start of the 1500s the drink known as “qahwah” was widespread in Arabia.
It wasn’t long before “qahwah” made its way throughout the Arabic world, where it became known as “kahve” in the Ottoman Empire and “koffie” to the Dutch traders that bartered for it. That is how the word “coffee” established itself into the English language.
While coffee spread and gained popularity among the masses, the more powerful members of society became uneasy by the sudden excitement. In fact, many powerful Kings, Emperors, and religious figures challenged the popularity through fear and intimidation, such as labeling coffee as detrimental to public health and even going so far as to outlaw it entirely. Coffeehouses, which became increasingly more commonplace as coffee spread, were seen as locations that fueled political dissent among the masses. It’s true that coffeehouses provided ideal locations for visionaries and radicals to gather, such as the case with the French and American revolutions; however, many scholars point to the sobering effects of caffeine in coffee as the main contributor to these political uprisings. When the masses drink nothing but beer, wine, and ale throughout the day, nobody is sober enough to start a revolution.
As previously stated, coffee is made by brewing the roasted seeds, or “beans”, of the Coffea plant. However, few people are aware of how much labor goes into the planting, cultivation, and processing of these seeds, as well as how susceptible the Coffea plant can be to diseases, climate change, and deforestation.
There are two main types of Coffea plants that make up the majority of coffee beans used around the world: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. Coffea arabica makes up about 75-80% of all coffee production in the world and grows best in a mild climate and in higher elevation, which is why it grows in abundance in the high plateaus of eastern Ethiopia. The latter, Coffea canephora, makes up the other 20% but is growing in production due to its resistance to diseases and its ability to withstand warmer temperatures. However, the recent increase in global temperature due to climate change, as well as increasing deforestation and lack of water in major coffee producing countries, has put into the question the ability to successfully cultivate coffee in the future.
Once a seed has been planted, it takes approximately 3-4 years before the tree starts to produce any fruit. Most Coffea plants yield fruit once per year and live for anywhere between 60-70 years. They reach maximum production between 7-27 years, however they will continuing bearing long after. The fruit, referred to as “cherries”, will turn a dark red color when ripe, and are typically harvested by hand. Processing must begin as soon as the cherries are picked, to prevent spoilage. This is done by spreading them out onto large, flat surfaces and set out to dry under the sun. To prevent spoilage, they are turned multiple times throughout the day and covered every night, or whenever it rains (so as to prevent moisture). Once dried, the cherries are sent to a mill and processed through a hull machine, where they have the dried outer husk removed, leaving only the bean. They are then sorted by size and graded by quality before being exported. These beans are referred to as “green beans” because they have yet to be roasted. The different names to coffee, such as light, medium, or dark roasts, depends on the amount of time the green beans have been roasted. A light roast bean typically produces a light, almost sour, note and has higher caffeine levels. In the U.S., the most common roasts range from medium-brown to dark, which provide smooth, sweet-to- bittersweet tastes. In Europe, very dark to black roasts are more popular due to the stronger bitter flavors, and are commonly referred to as Italian or French roasts.
In its early days, coffee was served dark and occasionally flavored with cardamom, cloves, or rosewater (which is now known as Arabic, or Turkish, coffee), and served with sweetened dates or pastries to cut the bitterness. Cream and sugar became more commonplace once coffee began spreading throughout Europe, where dairy was a major part of their diet (and eventually sugar due to colonization).
While the Coffea plant originated in Africa, its ability to thrive in tropical climates has provided a profitable crop to cultivate in tropical countries around the world, namely in Latin America. This provides an ample opportunity for coffee to be incorporated into the local cuisine. After the colonization of the Americas by European settlers, cream and other dairy products, as well as coffee, became more common, resulting in a fusion of different cuisines. This can be seen in the different types of custards throughout the world.
In Europe, custard comes in many different forms, such as Bavarian cream and crème brûlée. “Flan” (also known as crème caramel) has become a popular dessert in many Latin American cultures, due to its history of colonization by the Spanish. Historically, flan originated as a European dessert, with earliest records dating back to ancient Rome; however, the abundance of luxury resources cultivated in Latin America, such as coffee and chocolate, added new dimensions to the otherwise “classic” dessert. This resulted in new recipes, such as “Chocoflan” and “Flan de café”.
The process of making flan is similar to making crème brûlée: they’re both thickened by egg yolks, both contain cream, sugar, and vanilla extract, and they’re both typically baked in a water bath. However, whereas a crème brûlée has torched sugar on top which gives it the desirable crust, a flan typically is baked with a caramel base underneath the custard. It is then flipped once plated so that the caramel can flow down the sides of the set custard.
In order to make a flan, more specifically a flan de café, a caramel must be made for the base. Once the sugar and water have been cooked to a golden-brown caramel, a ramekin or other desired dish is filled with the caramel roughly ¼ of the way, ensuring that the sides of the dish are evenly coated. The caramel filled dish is then set aside.
The custard itself is made with milk, vanilla extract, sugar, eggs (and egg yolk), and in this case coffee. The coffee is typically added in the form of instant coffee, which provides a more concentrated flavor and dissolves nicely over heat. The ingredients are combined (sans the eggs) and heated over a medium flame, until the sugar and coffee have dissolved and the milk is scorched (180 degrees Fahrenheit). Remove mixture from heat and set aside to cool slightly.
While the mixture is cooling, beat the eggs together in a small bowl, and slowly add the eggs into the mixture once cooled. Allowing the mixture to cool prevents the eggs from cooking, which results in a smooth and rich (and not scrambled) custard.
Once the eggs have been incorporated, the mixture is poured into the dish with the caramel, and placed in a hot-water bath to be baked. It is baked for anywhere between 1-1½ hours (or until custard has set and an inserted knife or skewer comes out clean) at a temperature of 325 degrees Fahrenheit.
Like most custards, flan is typically served chilled. Once the flan is out of the oven, allow it to cool completely before placing it in the refrigerator to chill. For plating, run a small spatula or knife along the edges of the dish, and carefully flip the flan onto the plate so that the caramel presents on top. If the caramel has hardened, place the dish into a pan of hot water to loosen.
Flan de café makes a delicious end to any great meal and, of course, is best when served with a nice, rich, dark cup of warm coffee.