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Coffee partners - what types of coffee to serve with different foods

Red wine with meat, white wine with fish...just when we've finally mastered those pairings, we're faced with new ones: Which coffee to serve with what dessert? In the coffee renaissance that's brewing nationwide, it's no longer a one-size-fits-all world of beans. Like wines, coffee can either complement a food or clash with it. A Kenya coffee that sizzles with your breakfast bacon will fizzle when paired with something rich and sweet. If you don't know beans about coffee, a quick geography lesson will perk your repertoire. Robusta coffee grows on low hillsides. It's the kind you'll find in those familiar big, round supermarket tins because it's produced in greater abundance than other coffees. It's higher in acidity and milder in taste than "designer" beans.

Arabica coffees, which grow best in altitudes above 4,000 feet, are just the opposite--full-flavored, low in acid, and more expensive. Because arabica trees are more susceptible to disease, frost, and drought, they require more careful cultivation than the hardier robustas. This contributes to the limited availability and higher price tag. But a small quantity can provide pleasure at pennies per cup, and specialty coffee stores gladly sell them in quarter-pound and half-pound bags. They're the supreme bean to serve with something special for dessert.


Next quiz: Which arabica to choose? Again, turn to the map. The bright, snappy floral and winey flavors of East African coffees, such as the Kenya and Ethiopia blends, or the light and fragrant beans from Mexico will wake up your muffins and a gamut of other mild, rich breakfast foods, from pancakes to bacon and eggs. These brisk, lively beans also make good choices to complement fruits or fruit sorbets.

To accent the flavors of light desserts, such as simple cakes, cookies, or fruit-filled pies, choose Guatemalan, Arabian Mocha, or Colombian coffee. Their added complexity, balance, and hint of acidity make a perfect warm-up act.

Indonesian coffees reside at the opposite end of the flavor spectrum from those lighter, brighter Latin American beans. Coffees from Sumatra, New Guinea and Sulawesi are full-bodied and smoky in flavor, low in acidity, and prized for depth and fullness. These syrupy-smooth Indonesian coffees make agreeable partners for rich, liqueur-laced desserts such as a chocolate truffle, trifle, or tiramisu.

When serving something chocolate, no wimps need apply, think rich, dark coffee. Mousses, cakes, tortes, and truffles paired with espresso are marriages made in--well, you decide where, just bring out the pot. Espresso's piquant, pungent tang performs like jumping into a chilly lake after a steamy sauna: It magically cleanses the palate. Choose a full-flavored espresso roast or smoky Italian roast for your espresso machine. The more pungent French roast is ideal for brewing by the pot. (The darker the roast, the less acid and caffeine it contains.)

If you'd prefer a bean with lots of posh but not so much pow, go for the Vienna, or "city," roast. It's richer than a breakfast blend, yet not as "burned" in taste as an espresso roast. This is a good all-purpose coffee to carry you through dinner to dessert. As a footnote to our geography lesson, these beans don't come from, and are not roasted in France, Italy, or Vienna--they're simply the name of the style of roast.

To give the elite arabica beans their due, buy them in small quantities. Store them in the refrigerator for up to a week or in the freezer for up to a month. If you buy whole beans to grind at home, store them whole and grind the amount you need just before brewing. For best results, select the proper grind for your coffeemaker (the faster the brew, the finer the grind called for). For a coarser, less powdery grind, use several on-off pulsing cycles of your grinder, rather than a continuous cycle.

For each cup desired, measure 2 level tablespoons of ground coffee for each 6 ounces of cold water. If your tap water has an off taste, use bottled water for brewing arabica coffees so that their unique flavors can shine through. Do not keep coffee on the burner for more than 20 minutes (otherwise you'll taste the burn, not the bean), and do not reheat.

To discover your own flavor preferences, conduct a "cupping" exercise. Just do as the experts do: Brew separately several types of arabica coffees. Pour each in its own cup. First sniff each one with your nose close to the surface; then taste the brews by slurping the coffee from the edge of a spoon and letting it spray over your tongue. Write down your impressions of each, with ideas for food pairings. Later try each cup when it's cooler; many change flavor as they cool.

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