Cheap Eats:
Café Brulot &
Coffee Liqueur

What's the madder? The madder family of plants, Rubiaceae in Latin, includes among its more than 6,500 species of tropical herbs, shrubs, and trees such fragrant delights as the gardenia, such medical wonders as quinine, and such necessities of modern life as coffee. The coffee shrub is an evergreen. In the wild, it grows to heights of 26 to 33 feet. It produces bunches of white flowers that smell much like jasmine, which in time produce a fruit. The fruit, when ripe, is called a cherry, and its fleshy pulp contains two seeds, what we know as coffee beans.

The word coffee may have evolved from the Arabic qahwah, by way of the Turkish kahveh, but some etymologists link it with the Kaffa province in southwest Ethiopia, reputed birthplace of the genus. The first domesticated species was Coffea arabica. The varieties of this species produce the finest, smoothest, most highly regarded coffees. Though they grow in the tropics, arabicas tend to like higher altitudes and cooler weather. Hence, any time you hear something being described as "mountain grown," it will be an arabica.

Coffea robusta originated (or was developed) in East Africa. C. robusta varieties are stronger and more resistant to disease than C. arabica. They also yield more fruit, and are adapted to warm, humid climates to which arabica coffee is not suited. While the robusta coffees are more neutral in taste, less aromatic, and somewhat more acidic than arabicas, they are more easily grown and harvested, don't spoil as quickly, and are therefore less costly. They also have more caffeine. (And this not spoiling quickly applies after harvesting and roasting, as well. So if you buy a can of coffee and keep it for two years in a cupboard, the robusta will be less changed over time; arabica coffee should be refrigerated, and should be purchased in smaller amounts, so you use it within a few weeks, or if you grind your own, within a month or so. It won't be rotten, it just loses much of the aroma and flavor for which you paid.)

There are numerous myths and fables about who, in Ethiopia, first discovered that the fruit of the coffee plant was consumable, but the truth is lost in the mists of time. However, it appears that Coffea arabica had been domesticated by as early as the sixth century. The first written references are Arabic, and, as the name indicates, it is the Arabs who took the first real interest in cultivating and utilizing coffee. It appears that, at first, the berries were chewed, pulp, seeds, and all. Later, the fruit was boiled whole to create a beverage. It was not until the 13th century that the beans were separated from the pulp and roasted before infusing into what we now recognize as coffee.

Coffee became the wine of the Muslim world, because real wine is forbidden. In fact, the Arabic word for coffee, qahwah, originally meant wine. The stimulating beverage first gained popularity among the Muslim sect known as dervishes, who could whirl that much longer thanks to the caffeine. Coffee drinking reached Aden in the middle of the 15th century, then traveled to Mecca, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and on into Constantinople. The world's first coffee house was established in Constantinople in 1554.

It was a few more decades before European travelers to the Middle East began bringing back more than just stories of the black drink that helped prevent drowsiness. When it first arrived in England, it was sold more as a medicine than a refreshment, with claims that it prevented everything from eye-sores to gout, scurvy, and consumption. But it was not until a Jewish merchant from Turkey opened a coffee house in Oxford in 1650 that coffee culture really caught hold in Europe. France was next, then Vienna, and soon it was all over Europe.

The people of the Middle East long maintained control over the coffee trade. For fifty years, English and Dutch buyers had to go to Mocha to trade for the beans. But then, in 1720, the Dutch discovered that coffee would grow in their territories on Java in the East Indies. (So now you know where coffee got two of its more common sobriquets.) By the mid-1700s, coffee had pretty much spread to tropical areas around the world.

While there are few things more satisfying than a plain, honest cup of good coffee, the beverage is versatile, and can be dressed up for special occasions. Café Brulot is a lovely way to top off a really nice dinner. I like serving it in Irish coffee glasses, simply because it signals that this isn't just an ordinary cup of joe. It's okay to add cream, but you may want to suggest that your guests taste it first, because they won't want to "doctor" it as if it were plain coffee.

The first time I prepared it for a dinner party, the highlight of my day was succeeding in peeling both the orange and the lemon in unbroken, spiraling strips. Fortunately, having it come off in pieces doesn't affect the taste of the final product, and unless you drag your guests into the kitchen to see it (which I did), no one will ever know what condition the peel is in.

As for the coffee liqueur, it is not only fun to make for one's own consumption, it's also dandy for gift giving. You can buy nice bottles or just save empties from other beverages. It's much cheaper than commercial liqueurs, and home-made always conveys a more personal touch.

Café Brulot

8 cups strong coffee

3 or 4 cinnamon sticks

peel of 1 lemon

peel of 1 orange

3 tsp. brown sugar

1 cup brandy

Add cinnamon sticks and peels to coffee and simmer 10 minutes. Dissolve sugar in brandy and pour into simmered coffee immediately before serving.

Coffee Liqueur

1 fifth 100-proof vodka

2 ounces instant coffee (regular or decaf)

4 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean


In a large pot, dissolve sugar in 3 cups boiling water.

Dissolve coffee in 1 cup boiling water. Add to dissolved sugar.

Add vodka to mixture in pot. Split vanilla bean lengthwise, add to pot, and stir. Let stand at room temperature for 10 days. Remove vanilla bean and bottle your liqueur.


Note that, while the café brulot can be made the same evening you need it, the liqueur requires 10 days to age.

The vanilla bean can be used more than once, though three times would probably be the maximum.

Using vodka produces a liqueur that is reminiscent of Kahlua. Substitute rum to make it more like Tia Maria. And there is no reason you couldn't experiment a little—for example, adding a cinnamon stick or using a flavored coffee. Just make sure you don't fool too much with the amount of sugar and alcohol, because that's what keeps it from growing mold while the liqueur is aging.

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