Waiting in line to go through customs at London's Heathrow Airport, it was all I could think about. Why couldn't there have been a Starbucks, a convenience store, a little espresso bar, anywhere for me to get my caffeine fix before I had to stand in that interminable line? By the time my passport was stamped, of course, Marie was already at the baggage carousel waiting for me. She's been an early riser from the time that we shared a residence room during our undergrad; we got on just fine nevertheless (it helps that I'm a sound sleeper) and even though she now lives an ocean away in the UK, we're still good friends. By the time we had whizzed away from the airport, chatting excitedly as the skyscrapers of the city came into view, I had almost forgotten about my craving. Once I'd settled in at her flat on the western edge of London, though, I remembered. "Do you have any coffee?" I asked. Presented with instant espresso in a packet, I was stymied for a moment. Being a graduate student and office employee has fostered my love of -- okay, let's be honest, dependence on -- coffee, while living in a city with an ever-expanding selection of excellent independent coffee shops has turned me into a bit of a coffee snob.
I am so used to finding coffee wherever I go in Canada that I hadn't thought of not having a freshly brewed cup (it's not for nothing that Tim Horton's is a marker of Canadian identity). I was in the home of two tea drinkers, though, in a country where tea is the primary beverage. One recent study suggests that most people in Britain buy instant coffee to make at home rather than ground beans, which makes sense -- while a coffee maker takes up a good deal of precious counter space, kettles are ubiquitous in British homes. I soon got over my snobbery and enjoyed my instant coffee (though I think I went through two or three packets for one mug's worth of water). I can't deny that instant coffee has played a big part in my life, too -- from the French Vanilla cappuccino machine in my high school's cafeteria (a gateway coffee drink for a sixteen-year-old with a sweet tooth) to the dispensers at my university in France, which would provide instant coffee in a tiny plastic cup for fifty cents, perfect for drinking with a slightly stale croissant.
Coffee was included in rations during World War I. The worldwide spread of instant coffee, however, dates to 1938, when Nestlé began wide manufacture of instant coffee. Their product was distributed from Switzerland, but became very popular with American troops serving in World War II; so popular, in fact, that in 1943 the entirety of Nestlé's American supply was diverted to soldiers! Some of those soldiers did, of course, share their bounty with residents of the places they were stationed, such as the United Kingdom, giving the local population a taste for the instant coffee. While North American urbanites may look at instant coffee as something to keep around for camping trips, it isn't seen that way in much of the world. I was surprised to learn about uses for instant coffee around the world, from the iced frappés of Greece to the Indian-style instant coffee made with hot milk instead of water.
|Image courtesy of Nescafé|
I had assumed that the use of instant coffee in the recipe was due to the popularity of convenience foods in the 1970s, when the book was published. While this may be true, as it turns out, instant coffee has its place in all sorts of recipes. Take the Soufflé Kocisky from Les Dîners de Gala, for instance. The recipe comes from the kitchens of Le Tour d'Argent, which promotes itself as one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. Glancing over the directions, I was confused: why did I need to include undissolved coffee granules in the pastry cream? As it turns out, as long as the mixture is heated before, the granules will dissolve themselves. Using instant coffee granules is a way to infuse a dish with coffee flavour without adding extra liquid to the mix. Even if you don't enjoy the taste of a cup of instant coffee, the dehydrated granules are quite useful to keep around if you enjoy adding coffee flavour to baked goods.
The recipe worked well as written, although I never did find a use for the leftover pastry cream that wasn't used in the recipe. I also found that, by making the soufflé on a warm, humid night in June, I did not need to heat the pastry cream to incorporate the instant coffee, which melted into the mixture in a matter of minutes. The soufflé fell because I was too nervous about whether it was fully cooked and ended up poking at it a little too much. No matter, because I had heavy cream left over from making Oasis Leek Pie a week prior. I whipped it with vanilla extract and sugar and topped the whole thing with fresh strawberries to make this dessert a little more summery. The result was not much like the picture in Dali's cookbook, but it had a pleasant, strong coffee flavour tempered by the sweetness of the whipped cream. I think I preferred this to the suggested presentation in Les Dîners de Gala, where the coffee beans perched atop the soufflé resemble capers - not what I want in my dessert! Indeed, the inclusion of coffee beans in this dessert seems a cop-out -- what the Soufflé Kocisky is, to me, is a celebration of what instant coffee does best; it's there just when you need it for a boost of flavour (or caffeine, as the case may be). I think I may start keeping a jar in my cupboard for just this kind of dessert.