A warm cup of coffee seems a universal morning ritual. Bad coffee seems pretty universal as well. But it’s not difficult to make a good cup of coffee. It just takes the right ingredients, a repeatable technique and a little trial and error.
Here are some tips for making a better cup of coffee.
Many people focus on brewing method - tools over technique - but no matter which method you have at hand, materials and preparation are most important.
To make a great cup of coffee you’ll need:
- Freshly roasted beans.
- An adjustable burr grinder.
I can’t overemphasis how important freshly roasted beans are to quality coffee. Some people say the first week or so after roasting are the best. More than a month is too old. If you buy directly from the roaster, they should be able to tell you when it was roasted. Many roast to order. If there’s no roast date on the bag, assume the worst.
Grinders are available in many sizes and prices, from $50 hand grinders to giant commercial electric grinders costing hundreds of dollars. The most important feature is the ability to adjust grind in small increments. I use a Kyocera CM-45 hand grinder and a Lelit PL-53 stepless burr grinder. The Kyocera is getting hard to find, but I’ve heard good things about Porlex hand grinders. In electric burr grinders, the Baratza lineup has something at a variety of price points and they have a good reputation as well.
On to preparation…
I prefer espresso, but for simplicity we’ll walk through brewing a simple single-serving of drip-brew coffee. This uses a “pour-over” filter holder like those made by Melitta, for example (here are some other options from Sweet Maria’s), and paper filters.
First, put approximately 4 tablespoons of the beans in your grinder. The actual amount isn’t as important as being consistent in how much you use. Grind the beans.
Put a filter in your filter holder and heat up the water to not-quite-boiling. Put the grounds in your filter and pour in two cups of water. Again, precision is not important, but you don’t want to overfill your coffee cup and you do want to keep the beans-to-water ratio consistent from cup to cup. Let the water brew through the grounds.
Here’s the important part to making a great cup: Taste the coffee. Prep it with milk and sugar if you like, but taste it.
Does it taste good? Fine, you’re done. Do the same exact process next time.
Does it taste watery and thin? Tighten the grind setting on your grinder slightly to make finer grounds. Do everything else the same.
Does it taste bitter, or did the water fail to brew through the coffee after a minute or so? Loosen the grind setting slightly to make more coarse grounds. Do everything else the same.
Brew another cup. Better? You can keep making small changes to your grind settings toward a more coarse or find grind until you get a great cup.
The trick here is controlling for all but one variable: grind. If you change beans, you may have to fine-tune your grind again.
Other brewing methods offer additional variable to tweak, from Aeropress or French Press steeping time to espresso machine pressure and temperature settings. You can imagine, however, that it’s easy to get out in the weeds with too many settings. No matter which method I use, I always go back to the basics: fresh beans, hot water, and adjusting the grind until the cup is tasty.
These days I get my beans from Barrington Coffee Roasters and Lucy Jo’s, who sell directly at my local farmer’s market. I also recommend Counter Culture Coffee who not only sell great beans, but are also leading the charge for direct, sustainable relationships with coffee growers around the world. In NYC you should give Cafe Grumpy a try. Wherever you are, find and support your local roasters.
We had some friends and their children over for Christmas/Hanukkah dinner, and the playhouses I wrote about last week got some serious product testing.
There were seven adults in the house trying to have some grown-up conversation, and six kids — 1, 3, 4, 5 and two at 8 years old — simultaneously climbing into, out of and around the playhouses.
Eventually the red door came off the cottage, and some wrestling between three of the boys tore part of the lower-front corner of the cottage. Fixed it with some packing tape this morning.
I think some of the parents were appalled by what their kids were doing and I had to repeatedly tell them it was all in good fun. I wanted the kids to do their worst so I could see where the playhouses failed. We were all amazed that they provided as much fun and held together as well as they did.
Best playtesting ever.
I don’t know if other kids are like this, but our girls have demonstrated again and again that an empty box can provide as much engaging play time as the toys that may have come in it. And certainly more fun than the boring mommy and daddy stuff that arrives in the bigger boxes.
Of course, the bigger the box, the bigger the possibilities… which ultimately led to making these playhouses for the kids.
They were easy to build and I will explain how you can build some, too.
You will need:
A box. The bigger, the better.
A box cutter or something similar. I like my classic Stanley 199 utility knife. A fresh, sharp blade helps make clean, straight cuts.
Glue or tape. I use Gorilla wood glue, which just happens to be made in the USA.
A pencil, and maybe a ruler (though you can use a cut-off box end as a straightedge like I did).
Paint, if you want.
You could probably get fancier than this and, I don’t know, make curtains or something. I will leave that to you and your therapist to work out.
Building the Playhouse
The steps to build the playhouse are straightforward.
First, secure the flaps on one end of the box. This will be the bottom of the playhouse. If you are starting with a used box, it may already be taped shut, which is fine. Gluing the flaps shut makes the entire structure more secure (which extends the life of the playhouse) and keeps them from flopping about.
If you glue the flaps, give them a few hours to dry. You can “clamp” the flaps together by turning the box bottom side down and placing something heavy like paint cans on them.
Now cut off all four flaps on the other end. This will be the top. I will come back to why I leave the top open in a minute.
If you want to add a roof profile of some sort, this is a good time to cut those bits out. Use your ruler or the edge of a cut-off flap as a straightedge. Learn from my mistakes: do not succumb to the urge to eyeball your cuts. As Norm cautions: “Measure twice, cut once.” It doesn’t need to be perfect, but stupid mistakes lead to frustration, which leads to making this not as much fun as it should be.
This is also a good time to plan for your door. Just cutting an open space is one easy option. One of the cut-off end flaps provides a handy template that is big enough for kids up to probably 5 years.
In previous playhouses I have just cut through the top, bottom, and one side of the door, then made a slight score on the other side of the door as a hinge. This is quick and easy, but the top corner of an unreinforced door tends to bend and collapse over time, particularly if you cut in a window.
For this set of playhouses I glued one of the cut-off flaps onto the side of the box to create a much stronger double-layer door. When the glue dried, I cut a window, cut the three edges, then scored the remaining edge on the inside to create a hinge.
If you have problems with the door, do not despair. A little packing tape cures most problems. Worst case scenario: just cut out the door and go without.
Windows can be cut out either before or after painting. I like to carefully map out the first window, then use the cut-out piece as a template for the other windows. One on each side lets in plenty of air and light. Just be careful of cutting out so much that the box becomes weakened.
To Paint or Not to Paint?
That choice is really up to you. I did not paint our first few attempts and the kids were perfectly happy. Eventually they decorated the boxes themselves with crayons and tempera paints.
This time I had some leftover interior primer — the 5 gallon bucket seemed like such a good idea — and used it as a neutral base. A roller makes this go on fast. Do not apply the paint too thick, though, because the moisture may warp the cardboard. On the other hand, I think the dry paint gives the box a little added rigidity. Your mileage may vary.
Let the paint dry thoroughly in a well-ventilated area. Then, you can add any decoration you like with whatever paint you have around the house. I raided the kids’ tempera paint supplies, mixing colors as needed. (That greenish castle door was an ill-advised attempt to make brown. Should have looked it up, first.) Again, rollers are handy for large areas. Don’t bother putting the paint on too thick. It’s not a Hollywood set, after all.
And that is it. I would like to get some carpet squares to put in the boxes eventually. That is on the roadmap for vNext.
About the Open Top
Earlier I mentioned cutting the top off the box. We did not do this on our first attempt years ago, but here are a few reasons why I do so now:
Ventilation. An enclosed box, even with a few side windows, can get hot and stuffy inside. Plus, some boxes and paints outgas a bit, which can’t be good for the kids. Top off equals cool, fresh air.
Easy access. The open top makes it much, much easier to retrieve toys and children as well as cleaning out any messes.
Safety. We can always see what’s going on with the open top. And if a rambunctious child tips the box over — it happens more often than you would think — the open top allows you to get in or the child to crawl out easily. One enclosed box tipped over on the door will convince you of the wisdom here.
I have tried making A-frame roof structures over the top, leaving the gable ends open, but never figured out a method appropriate in effort to a disposable cardboard playhouse. The kids don’t seem to care, so I haven’t revisited the problem.
Reuse and Recycle
After our last two moves we ended up with, of course, a good selection of large moving boxes from which to build playhouses. The large wardrobe and appliance boxes are best. But not all boxes are created equal.
You don’t want boxes that are too beaten up because they lose structural rigidity pretty quickly.
They also get dirty in transit, and it is not easy to wipe down a box to clean it up. Paint does help trap and hide dirt. Make sure to check the inside of the box for dirt, oils, smelly smells and bugs.
Boxes that have been soggy are poor choices. They are already starting to fall apart and I would not bother. I am also sensitive to mold and mildew, and most boxes that have been in storage for a few months will have picked up some fungus. Again, best to avoid these. You may, however, have better luck in a very dry climate.
For the set shown here we picked up new wardrobe boxes from a nearby big-box home improvement center for about $10 apiece.
Depending on your tolerance for chaos and falling-apart toys, as well as the mayhem created by your lovely children, these boxes will last anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. When the door breaks, cut it off. When a corner rips, tape it up. When the whole thing starts to warp, bend and fall apart, please recycle.
Then build a new one.