Irish Coffee

Originally published March 18, 2012.

Cream, rich as an Irish brogue;
Coffee, strong as a friendly hand;
Sugar, sweet as the tongue of a rogue;
Whiskey, smooth as the wit of the land.

-a traditional toast accompanying Irish coffee

 

Irish Coffee with Floated Cream

The Irish coffee typically served in restaurants here either has cream stirred into the drink, or whipped cream floating on top.  The traditional way to enjoy the drink is to gently pour heavy cream onto the surface of the coffee so that it floats, then sip the coffee through the cream.

Let’s discuss ingredients.

The Coffee – Use good coffee.  Brew it strong.

The Sugar – Irish coffee is made with brown sugar which has a distinct, cooked, molasses-like taste.  I use demerara, which is a very dark brown sugar.

The Whiskey – You can make a fine Irish coffee with Jameson or Bushmills, but for a superlative cocktail I suggest Redbreast.  It’s aged in oak barrels and therefore has more of the toasty vanilla and caramel notes that pair well with brown sugar.  I know many will cringe at the idea of pouring such a fine whiskey into coffee and sugar.  In fact there’s an old joke that Irish coffee simultaneously ruins three great drinks: coffee, whiskey, and cream.  The way I see it: how often do you make Irish coffee at home?  Maybe twice a year.  Use the good whiskey.

Sidenote: In Scotland and Canada they make “whisky.”  In Ireland and America they make “whiskey.”  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.

The Cream – What we call heavy cream is usually around 33% milk fat.  I find it very difficult to float this cream on the coffee and maintain a clean separation between the two liquids.  I prefer to use a higher fat cream, closer to 50% milk fat, something the British would call double cream.

Vital Green Farms is an independent dairy producer in Picture Butte, AB.  You can buy their milk at Planet Organic.  The Vital Green whole milk is some of the best milk I’ve ever tasted.  They also sell an organic heavy cream that is 52% milk fat.  Heavy cream is one of the few exceptions to the kitchen adage “fat is flavour.”  If you sampled a range of dairy products, from skim milk, through 1%, 2%, whole milk, coffee cream, and heavy cream, you’ll find that while whole milk is much more flavourful than skim, heavy cream has very little flavour.  I don’t know why, but that’s how it is.  Perhaps the fat in the cream somehow obscures the flavour of the lactose.  Despite its muted flavour, Vital Green heavy cream has the fat content we need to properly float our dairy.

Sidenote: people often refer to whole milk (3-4% milk fat) as “homo milk.”  In dairyspeak “homo” is short for “homogenized,” which means the milk has been processed to prevent the separation of fatty bits from watery bits.  All commercially-produced milk is homogenized, not just whole milk.  The next time someone asks you to pick up some homo milk, you should clarify this with them.

These sidenotes are ruining what should be a nice, succinct post.  Sorry.

Notes on Floating Cream – Fill the glass with the coffee, sugar, and whiskey mixture to within 1/2″ of the top of the glass.  Filling the glass very full will allow you to keep a spoon close to level as you add the cream.

Touch the tip of a large spoon filled with cream to the inside of the glass, just above the coffee.  Gently (gently!) tip the spoon so that the cream slides down the side of the glass and onto the surface of the coffee.  If the cream mixes with the coffee, you have ruined St. Patrick’s Day.

Since you’re going through the effort of floating cream, Irish coffee should be served in a glass, not a ceramic mug.  If you’re a sucker for tableside theatrics, as I am, bring the glasses to the table filled with the black coffee, sugar, and whiskey, then spoon the heavy cream on top in front of your guests.

A complete recipe, if you’re interested:

 

Irish Coffee (for four)

Ingredients

  • 14 fl oz. strong, quality coffee
  • 3 1/2 tbsp demerara sugar, packed
  • 4 fl. oz. Redbreast Irish Whiskey
  • 3 fl. oz. heavy cream (52% milk fat)

Procedure

  1. Add the sugar and whiskey to the hot coffee.  Stir briefly to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Divide the coffee mixture into four glasses, ensuring the liquid comes to within 1/2″ of the top of each glass.
  3. Float a portion of heavy cream in each glass (see Notes of Floating Cream, above).
  4. Consume immediately, sipping the coffee through the cream.

 

Sampling a glass of Irish coffee

A friend experimented with dunking oatmeal poundcake into his Irish coffee.  Initial impressions were favourable, but more rigorous study is required.

Dunking oatmeal poundcake into Irish coffee

Irish Cream

Homemade Irish creamThere are two drinks that we go through in unholy quantities this time of year.  The first without question is rum, as it is used in all kinds of preserves, baking, and cocktails.  The second is Irish cream, consumed on its own, or diluted with a bit of milk or coffee.

For years my standby has been Bailey’s, but this year I decided to make my own.

Irish cream is comprised of cream, sugar, and Irish whiskey, usually but not always flavoured with coffee.  It is around 20% alcohol by volume, and has a rich, viscous mouthfeel.  It’s basically an Irish coffee with the ingredients in different proportions.

If you plan on consuming Irish cream in coffee, there’s probably not much point in flavouring it with coffee.  I’m after a drink to be enjoyed on its own, so I’ve included strong coffee in my recipe.

I’ve come across some recipes online that use condensed milk to approximate the thickness of commercial brands.  The truth is that it’s not the thickness of condensed milk that gives the final drink a rich mouthfeel, it’s the sugar content.  Sugary liquids have a high specific gravity and give the impression of viscosity on the palate.  Granulated sugar and cream therefore work just as well as condensed milk.

The following recipe is a reasonable facsimile of commercial brands, though with a more distinct coffee flavour.  Obviously you can adjust the whiskey content to suit your taste.

Irish Cream

Ingredients

  • 4 egg yolks
  • 70 g granulated sugar
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 70 mL strong, high quality coffee, chilled
  • 70 mL heavy cream
  • 140 mL Irish whiskey, preferably Jameson
  • 1.25 mL vanilla extract

Procedure

  1. Whisk the sugar and salt into the egg yolks.
  2. Whisk in the remaining ingredients.  Let stand in the fridge overnight.

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day, now one of the kitschier holidays we celebrate, has been completely divorced from its origin.  March 17 is actually the Catholic feast day for St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.  The details of St. Patrick’s life are often debated, but for my purposes the popular traditions and stories are more important than the historical facts.  It’s the legend of St. Patrick that has informed the beliefs and practices of Catholics for more than a thousand years, so in a sense the legend is truer than whatever the truth is.[1]

Patrick was probably born in Scotland, but at a young age he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery to an Irish chieftain. He escaped, became a priest, and later returned to Ireland as a bishop.  He is commonly said to have converted the Irish to Christianity.  Though he no doubt won many converts, it is more likely that he was sent to maintain an existing Christian community.

Patrick explained the holy trinity to his followers using the three leaves of the shamrock, which also happened to be a sacred plant to the Druids.  This is an example of Christianity adapting by blending with pagan culture (something we will discuss a lot more when we get to Easter…)

Patrick is also said to have banished all snakes from Ireland after they disturbed him during fasting and prayer. There is an old wives’ tale that a snake will never slither over a trefoil (ie clover).  I’m not sure whether this belief predates St. Patrick, and the snakes left Ireland because of the bounteous clover, or if they now avoid clover because it reminds them of St. Patrick.  I’ve heard the story told both ways.

March 17 is the anniversary of Patrick’s death.

An old joke: I’m giving up drinking for Lent, and I’m giving up Lent for St. Patrick’s Day.

What is interesting about St. Patrick’s Day, given my focus on feasting and fasting, is that it is often excused from the rigors of Lent. In all of Ireland and in most diocese in North America, St. Patrick’s Day is formally exempt from Lent, and Catholics can indulge in meat and alcohol and dancing and all the other revelry normally forbidden at that time of year.

In my house we have St. Patrick’s Day dinners that are North American-style observances of the holiday: a celebration of Irish heritage, generally, and not a commemoration of the saint.  That being said, there are no cartoon leprechauns, no buckled top hats, and no green beer.  Instead, I prepare my own version of traditional Irish dishes, and serve them up with lots of alcohol, Celtic music, and some readings from Irish writers.

Some dishes I’ve made for past St. Patrick’s Days:

Black pudding with apples and colcannon. Photo by Andy Grabia.

Music-wise, I play The Chieftains, my favourite traditional Irish group.  Over the years they’ve done dozens of albums, collaborating with artists like the Stones and Elvis Costello, but for St. Patrick’s Day I stick to their original numbered series of albums..

As for Irish writers, my favourites are Yeats and Joyce.  They’re both pretty bleak (Yeats is a straight-up doomsday prophet), but there are still plenty of tracts from their work befitting a celebration.  Here are my two favourite excerpts from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air.  What did it mean?  Was it a quaint device opening a page of some medieval book of prophecies and symbols, a hawklike man flying sunward above the sea, a prophecy of the end he had been born to serve and had been following through the mists of childhood and boyhood, a symbol of the artist forging anew in his workshop out of the sluggish matter of the earth a new soaring impalpable imperishable being?
  
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

1. I was quite proud of that statement when I first published this post in 2012.  In the light of the current political climate in the US, it sounds a lot I’m condoning the use of “alternative facts.”  March 15, 2017.