The Café au Lait
In this article, we’ll walk you through a timeless classic in the coffee world, café au lait. Transport yourself to a Parisian cafe without ever leaving the house.
Too often, we treat coffee as just a way to stay awake. The trouble with that is coffee doesn’t actually stimulate us – caffeine does. At Good Fika, we believe that quality coffee is so much more than what it does. Few coffees can provide more proof of that than an old Spanish favorite: café con leche.
Café con leche is a coffee beverage made with equal parts espresso and scalded milk. Although the 1:1 ratio between the espresso and milk is a defining factor, there are variations. For example, café con leche de desayuno and café con leche en vaso can contain a higher ratio of milk.
Whichever variation you prefer, this is a rather honest coffee. The Spanish words “café con leche” translate literally to “coffee with milk”. Don’t be fooled by the earnest name, though; café con leche has a history as rich as the beans we brew it with.
As the name suggests, café con leche originated in Spain. It’s a beverage so ingrained in Spanish culture that no one really knows who invented it. However, we know that as it grew popular in its native country, this coffee quickly became a staple wherever coffee was sold in its native country.
To this day, café con leche is one of the most popular hot beverages you can order in a traditional Spanish bar. By the time its popularity in Spain peaked, however, this humble cup of coffee and milk was ready to take the world by storm.
As a Spanish coffee, café con leche naturally found its way to other Spanish-speaking regions, namely in South America. But how popular can it be that far from home? Well, if you order a Cuban breakfast in Havana, you might ask which fresh fruit and pastries will be served with your café con leche.
Despite its espresso base, this beverage isn’t produced to be a cup of “fuel” for movers and shakers. Café con leche is traditionally served as a breakfast coffee. Sunrise is the perfect time to enjoy the balance between the espresso’s intense flavor and the velvety warmth that only scalded milk can produce.
However, that doesn’t mean you have to sit down to enjoy a steaming hot café con leche. If you’re in Florida, chances are you’re pretty close to La Ventanita. (Spanish for “little window”). Cuban restaurants in the Sunshine State serve café con leche out of these little windows to thousands of customers every morning.
Whether it’s served in a hotel lobby or on the walk to work, a café con leche should be savored. If all this coffee did was pump energy into someone’s morning, it would have been buried by the rise of instant coffee. Instead, café con leche continues to thrive all around the globe.
Café con leche is so much more than its caffeine content. It was brewed to greet the sun as it rose over Spanish hills. The aroma that steams out of each cup is now synonymous with coffee houses thousands of miles from Madrid. Not that café con leche is only ever served in a cup.
Porcelain cups are fantastic because they retain heat well without burning your fingertips. Café con leche was around long before glass crockery entered the mainstream. Still, there is something about serving this old classic in a modern tumbler.
The 1:1 ratio gives the body a neutral, nutty brown that just looks good on any table. While a café con leche is usually served flat, topping it off with a foam cap is a flavorful way of breaking from tradition.
Before we show you how to make café con leche, we should clear up a fairly common mistake. Restaurants can have vastly different coffee styles – especially across continents – so a café con leche in one region can feel close to a latte served in another. At Good Fika, we love both of these coffees equally, but they are different.
So, just how different are they? Well, here is where things start to get ironic. The clearest difference between these two famous coffees is in their names. “Café con leche” is Spanish, while “latte” is Italian. The irony is that they both mean the same thing: coffee with milk. No one can be blamed for the confusion, but as you’ll see with the brewing method below, the details are what matter.
Although lattes and café con leches share the same core ingredients, a latte is typically made with a coffee-to-milk ratio of 1:2 or higher. If both drinks were brewed with the same bean, you could still pick out a latte by its lighter color. Thanks to its higher milk content, an avid coffee drinker might even be able to spot the latte in a blind taste test!
The differences become more pronounced depending on where either coffee is served. While café con leche already has a higher percentage of coffee, a Cuban espresso can make it even bolder. The quality of the milk can also make a huge difference, depending on the local agriculture.
A café con leche is made with scalded milk. In the days before pasteurization, scalding is how people removed harmful bacteria from fresh milk. These days, the milk at the supermarket is likely pasteurized. Still, scalded milk keeps your coffee hot from the first sip of the morning to the last. Lattes are usually prepared with steamed milk.
Right, it’s time to get brewing. We hope that giving this classic beverage a bit of historical context makes it even easier to savor. Now for the mechanics, let’s start with what you’ll need.
If you want the ultimate old Spanish experience, the first thing you’ll need to make your café con leche is a sunrise. It is a breakfast drink, after all! Truth be told, though, if you buy quality ingredients, it tastes great any time.
The first half of a café con leche is the espresso. You’ll need strong coffee grounds for café con leche, but you can use any strong coffee you enjoy.
Full cream milk will give you a rich and flavorful drink, but you can use any milk you like. If you want to make a vegan café con leche, swap the milk for a plant-based option like soy or coconut milk.
If you don’t have a dedicated espresso machine (not many of us do), you can still brew your coffee on the stove before straining it. Alternatively, a Moka Pot is perfect for making bold coffees with minimal equipment.
Scalding milk is simple – you just need to boil it (to a point). Since we no longer need the practical benefits of scalding, though, you can focus your brewing entirely on the senses.
Brew the espresso first. This isn’t necessary, but starting with the coffee element lets you control how strong you want it to be if you’re using a Moka Pot or French Press. You’ll only need to fill your cup halfway with espresso, so measure accordingly.
While your espresso is brewing, it’s time to scald the milk. Pour the milk you’ll need into a pot and get it on the stove. Stir the milk as it comes up to a boil. If you have a food thermometer, now is the time to use it. Once the milk reaches 180 degrees F, it’s been successfully scalded.
What if you don’t have a thermometer? The eye test works too! Pay attention to the edges of the pot while you stir. At the right temperature, properly scalded milk will develop a thin layer of foam as bubbles form around the edges. Remove it from the heat at this point to prevent burning.
Now comes the fun part. Start by pouring your scalded milk until the cup is half full. To help the foam rise to the top, lift the cup lightly and gently tap its base against the counter. Put a dish towel down first to protect your crockery.
Once the foam is set, tilt the cup slightly before pouring the espresso down the sides of the cup. This prevents the espresso from ruining the foam cap. And that’s all you need. Don’t stir it until you sit down – that’s a small pleasure all on its own.
Welcome to the countryside.