One of the great Vietnamese culinary pleasures is having a cup of inky coffee with condensed milk. Sipping on a cup of the caramely bittersweet coffee, all rich and creamy from the condensed milk, awakens my senses (literally) and reminds me of hot, humid mornings in Saigon when I’ve sat down to a breakfast of coffee and pho noodle soup. (I once met a German man in Vietnam who claimed that caffeine is good for hot climates as your blood vessels constrict and you can tolerate the temps better. Thoughts, anyone?)
At home in the States, I don’t have time to linger and wait for the coffee to drip from the flimsy metal contraption (which seems to fail me 1 out of 3 times). Nor, do I pop into a coffee shop for a Viet fix either. “It’s cheaper and more convenient to drink at home” is my motto. For that reason, over the years, I’ve made Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk in my home kitchen with an electric coffee maker, grinding the beans extra fine to ensure a dark, heady brew. The coffee has always been very good. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was consistently an 8.
For the past couple of months, however, I’ve been able to enjoy a morning cup of Vietnamese coffee that’s more like a perfect 10. How? Using this brilliantly strange coffee maker called the AeroPress and a Capresso burr grinder. Here's the low down:
AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker
This portable, lightweight coffee maker costs less than $30. The AeroPress is not sexy whatsoever, and is made from thick plastic and rubber, resembling a kid’s chemistry kit. In fact, the AeroPress was invented by Alan Adler, the inventor behind Aerobie frisbees, yo-yos, and other plastic and rubber sports toys. (Stop giggling!)
A barrista would shudder at the look of the AeroPress. However, it quickly makes a super smooth, rich cup of coffee in less than a minute. The bitterness from the beans is eliminated during the coffee making process. And, you can reuse the little paper filter several times. As Rory demonstrates below, this is what you do:
(1) Freshly ground coffee goes into the wide-mouth funnel designed to neatly allow
you to deposit the coffee into the plastic tube. (2) The funnel is removed and
hot (not boiling) water is added. (3) Then you stir with the AeroPress's funny stick,
again designed so that you have a spatula-like tool but it does not touch bottom.
Stirring prevents the coffee from becoming overly compacted before you plunge.
(5) Pushing on the plunger is a minor workout. You apply even pressure and
at the end of the line (6) are nearly hugging the plunger. Keep the pressure
steady though the thing will feel like it's going to explode. At the hiss, there is a
release of pressure and the plunger goes all the way down.
You can wash the filter and reuse it, if you like. We use 1 filter for our two morning cups. Our friends Alec and Michelle have used 1 filter for 4 cups when we've stayed over. You can make the coffee in a measuring cup or directly into your coffee cup. The unit also travels well; just heat up water in the hotel room's coffee maker and bring pre-ground coffee.
I love the flavor of coffee and the jolt that it gives me. With the AeroPress, even though we make the equivalent of 2 shots of espresso for each of us, the jolt is not so hard that it torments my stomach with pain. Neither does my morning cup of Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk make me overly surly.
The AeroPress is funny because it's got a high-tech design but the process of making the coffee is pretty low tech. The traditional Vietnamese coffee filter system is a beloved ritual but for mornings when I need my caffeine fix quickly, the Aeropress is the perfect race-car solution.
Capresso Infinity Burr Coffee Grinder
The AeroPress didn’t cost much and for the first couple of weeks, we grinded our beans with our trusty inexpensive Krups blade grinder. The coffee tasted great but Alec, our friend who turned us on to the AeroPress to begin with, suggested that we switch to a burr grinder because the burr (has Jawslike teeth) grinding mechanism evenly grinds the beans for a better tasting cup. Rory investigated all the options and the best value and performer turned out to be the Capresso Infinity conical grinder. It’s an investment for us, but then, we mostly drink coffee at home and figure the investment is worth it. The black Capresso grinder is much less expensive than the stainless steel one. They both work the same.
You can dial in how finely you want to grind the beans and the timer allows you to fill up the container on the top and grind just the amount you want – kind of like grinding to order. We estimate that 1 scoop (using the AeroPress scoop) takes about 3 1/2 seconds to grind in the Capresso Infinity when the grinder is set toward the larger end of extra fine (see the grinder).
Alec was right. The burr grinder produced a tastier cup than the Krups grinder. Now that I’m drinking a perfect 10 cup of Vietnamese coffee each morning, the old electric coffee maker has been stashed away in the garage and the old grinder is being used for grinding spices.
Vietnamese Coffee with Condensed Milk
1 tablespoon condensed milk (see below for tips on buying condensed milk)
2 shots of espresso from AeroPress*
Hot water, as needed
Put the condensed milk in a cup. Add the coffee and stir to combine. Taste and add extra hot water to dilute, if necessary. When you’ve arrived at the perfect “10”, make a note of the color. That’s what you want to aim for in the future. For iced Vietnamese coffee, pour your concoction into a tall glass filled with ice, stir, and enjoy.
* If you don’t have an AeroPress, substitute 3/4 cups of really really strong coffee.
What kind of coffee is good for Vietnamese coffee?
I like a dark roast that’s got a touch of mellowness. Right now, Rory is blending 1:1 Trader Joe’s Volcano with Peaberry or Moka Java. Experiment with your favorite. Or, go with the Vietnamese standard of Café du Monde coffee with chicory. It’s usually stocked right next to the condensed milk at a Vietnamese market. I’ve not tried any of the Trung Nguyen coffee from Vietnam; Trung Nguyen is like the Starbucks of Vietnam.
What brand of condensed milk works well?
If you shop at Vietnamese markets, stock up on the Longevity brand of milk. There’s an old man on the label (see the photo at the top of this post). It is more expensive than other brands because there’s real milk in the can. No filler junk. Check the labels carefully when buying condensed milk. Condensed milk made with whole milk is superior to the cheapie rest of the pack. At a regular supermarket, check the labels and look for a whole milk version, like Borden/Eagle Brand.