Monday, June 17, 2013


 A girl never forgets her first time.

 Dread mixed with excitement. Anticipation colored by fear: will she enjoy it? Or hate it, repulsed? Does she resist the pressure, knowing everyone around her is succumbing, giving in and giving up? She is now a college student, after all. This, she is meant to understand, is what everyone does, a part of the experience. Does she approach it tentatively, trying several different techniques? Straight up or kicked up, this way and that? Or does she just dive in, all or nothing?

 Does she judge from her first time or wait, experience it again, give it a chance and a bit of time, try and get used to it? Does she risk becoming… addicted?! All that she has heard has her trembling in her boots as the question is put to her again, one more time, just a little too pressing for her liking. She blushes bright red as she slowly admits that she has never before…. Is she ready for this? It is so very adult; does she finally take the step?

 Is she ready to let go of her innocence, her childhood? She is, after all, still so very young.

 And finally, ever so reluctantly, she says yes. Close your eyes and think of London.

 Steaming hot, oh so sweet with just an edge of bitter that gives it an air of something oh so sinful she wants to cry. And sigh with pleasure. Passionate, burning, new scents, heady and harsh yet so very fragrant, swirl up and around and swallow her up in a dizzying spell. She loses her head as her body flushes with warmth.

 And she takes that fateful step into adulthood.

 Once it is done, the self-satisfied glow washes over her. The excitement of having made that momentous decision, taken the plunge, no turning back. There can only be one first time and she will never forget it.

 Her first cup of coffee. The Devil’s Brew.

 Holy Hog, Fat Jack’s, Jim Bob’s, Fat Boy’s, it could have been any one, had one of any number of names. It was just another barbecue joint in another Southern university town, open 24/7, serving big platters of ribs and burgers, fries and cole slaw. But we would go there late at night. Or in the wee hours of the morning, after a theater production or a party. We would go there for saucer-sized Southern biscuits, white and fluffy, hot from the oven. Slathered with salted butter that would melt upon contact. Or plates of hash browns, crispy on the outside, tender and delicate on the inside. At 3, maybe 4 o’clock in the morning. Sultry, steaming Florida mornings.

 And mugs of coffee. Thick, heavy, white ceramic mugs found in any decent barbecue or breakfast joint worth its name. And cheap stainless steel spoons, dented and marked with time. And we would order coffee all around and the waitress, dressed in pink or white, one of those real Southern waitress uniforms, frilled apron tied tightly around the waist, crepe-soled sensible shoes and hair caught back in a bun, would place a silver coffee pot right on the table, understanding our thirst. We would fill our mugs and refill them, over and over again, all night long.

 And we would laugh and sing as we poured mug after mug of coffee, add a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, tip in a few of those little creamers, piling the tiny white containers into a mound on a thick white ceramic plate amid the crumbs and dregs of a midnight breakfast.

 I had my very first cup of coffee in that Florida barbecue joint. Wooden beamed ceilings, wooden tables and wooden benches, like dining at a State Fair. Bright, bright overhead lights, unforgiving in the early morning hours, but sure to wake up even the drowsiest, even the drunkest of the party. Memories of the milky, sugary sweet coffee that my mother always drank filled my head and I added two packets and how much milk? No, I did not like that first mug or even the second, no one does and don’t believe a soul who convinces you otherwise. I, like so many clever students before me, sipped, sipped, sipped, ordered a second cup and a third and slowly, over time, soldiered on until I couldn’t go a day without.

 How many trips to that diner, that barbecue joint did it take until I had fallen in love with coffee? Did it take weeks or months to develop an inclination, nay, an overwhelming appetite for the dark, bitter brew? And in no time at all, drinking pot after pot of strong, aromatic coffee in some all-night diner became a ritual.

 A secret vice, stolen moments, the giddy covert activities of a schoolgirl usually so well behaved and never, ever naughty. The second my mother’s back was turned, up I would steal to the table’s edge, silently, invisible to her ever-watchful eye and snatch mouthfuls, long pulls on a straw or sips grabbed by stealth while ice cubes pressed up against my hungry, eager lips, threatening to clatter against the glass, tumble out and give me away. There was something so alluring about those tall, silken iced coffees my mother would concoct. How I detested the bitter taste of her morning coffee, yet how I loved the creamy, sugary sweetness of these summer afternoon libations she prepared only for herself: a splash of coffee, rich with milk, ever so sweet like coffee ice cream or candies popped in your mouth surreptitiously, frosty with ice cubes rattling so elegantly against the glass. She protected those summer treats like a mama bear protecting her young against scavengers and outside intruders, so I was reduced to snatching gulps each time she stepped away, leaving that bewitching glass of heaven unattended. Try as I might, no matter how small I made myself, hanging around nonchalantly, inconspicuous in a corner of the kitchen, waiting, she always knew what I was up to and the warning came out sharp and businesslike… “Stay away from my iced coffee!

 There was a little bar at the corner, across the street from the indoor market, bright and sparkling clean, white on white. Tiny formica-topped tables scattered around the tiny space, a bench along one wall and a tall counter at the back, a mere four steps inside the glass door. It was the gathering place for the market’s vendors and artisans, minutes snatched here and there as the morning crowd lulled, just enough time for a coffee and a peruse through the newspaper.

 Any morning, one could find the handsome olive guy – with his dashing, old-time movie star looks. One leg elegantly crossed over the other, tiny demitasse in front of him, paper opened on his knee, oblivious to the world. Or the fruit guys or maybe the butchers, brawny and rambunctious, chattering loudly over rounds of caffĂ© stretto, dark espressos with a kick. Once a week, my girlfriend and I would meet there after our morning shopping, bags heavy with artichokes, tomatoes, fresh tortellini, bread and taleggio; we would sidle up to the counter and order a cappuccino each. While the coffee dripped slowly into two cups and while the milk frothed and foamed, we would select a filled brioche, an Italian croissant, from the small, enclosed glass case at the end of the counter, choosing between orange marmalade, pastry cream or chocolate, then take our cup and our plate to a corner table where we would gossip, giggle and ogle the players.

 For the coffee lover, the coffee passionate, a silken, luxurious panna cotta, a chilled, sweet version of your favorite libation. Panna Cotta is the most Italian of desserts, and easier to make than one thinks. This coffee version is sophisticated and oh-so adult, my preferred way to get take my afternoon or evening addiction, the ending to a perfect meal. Top it with this smooth Bittersweet Mocha Sauce for a surprising marriage of flavors and sensations. Definitely a treat to keep all to oneself. Or shared with a loved one.

JAMIE’S COFFEE PANNA COTTA  with Bittersweet Mocha Sauce

Coffee Panna Cotta

1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
1 tablespoon (8 g) unflavored powdered gelatin
3 cups (750 ml) whipping cream (whole fat heavy cream)
1/3 cup (80 ml) honey
1 tablespoon (15 gm) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsps instant espresso powder or more to taste

Prepare 6 to 8 ramekins or individual bowls or demitasse cups. If you want to be able to turn the Panna Cotta out of the bowl or ramekin and unmold on a dessert plate, run the bowl under cold running water, pour and shake the water out but do not dry.

Pour the milk into a medium-sized saucepan and sprinkle the gelatin over the milk. Whisk quickly and lightly just so the gelatin is dampened and then allow to sit and soften for 5 minutes. Place the saucepan over medium heat and, whisking gently, allow the milk to heat until it is hot but not boiling, 5 more minutes. The yellow shiny splotches of gelatin floating on the surface will disappear when the gelatin is completely melted/dissolved.

Add the cream, honey, sugar, pinch of salt and 2 teaspoons instant espresso powder to the hot milk and continue to heat, stirring, until the honey, sugar and espresso have dissolved. Taste and add more espresso powder if you desire a stronger coffee flavor.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool for several minutes. Whisk to combine well before pouring into the glasses, bowls, cups or ramekins. I always find it much easier to pour the liquid into a glass or Pyrex measuring cup with a spout and pour from that instead of directly from the saucepan.

Cover each bowl or ramekin with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least 6 hours or, ideally, overnight, until firmly set.

A half hour or so before serving, prepare the Bittersweet Mocha Sauce. Once the Sauce has been made and chilled, serve the Panna Cotta, each drizzled with the Sauce.

Bittersweet Mocha Sauce

2 ounces (60 g) bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or more to taste
¾ cup (200 ml) heavy whipping cream
2 tsps instant espresso powder
1 Tbs to ¼ cup (50 g) granulated sugar to taste

Coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a small saucepan with the heavy cream, the espresso powder and 1 tablespoon sugar. Heat very gently over medium-low heat, whisking or stirring, until the chocolate, sugar and espresso have all melted and dissolved. Taste, adding sugar until desired sweetness. Remove from the heat, allow to cool for a few minutes, stir again and pour into a glass measuring cup, bowl or jar and refrigerate until just cool enough to serve over the chilled Panna Cotta.


  1. LOVE it, Jamie! Superb writing and heavenly paired with photography!

  2. Another beautiful post! I am in love with your gorgeous writing and delightful photography.

    That panna cotta looks devilishly good! A refined dessert.



  3. I didn't realize you had lived in the US, Ilva. What a wonderful post. I too grew up with those thick heave ceramic mugs from the diners and at home as well in the early days...great memories. Oh yes and a lovely coffee pannacotta to boot. Ciao bella.

  4. I have many of the same coffee memories - especially the iced coffee guarded by my mother! :-) I love the sound of this dessert - can't wait to try it!

  5. I am in love with your photography and your writing. I have nominated you for The Versatile Blog Award, created by fellow bloggers. Please check out the link and accept the award you deserve...


  6. You both rock at what you do. LOVED the styling, loved the writing and that panna cota is making me drool! I am a sucker for coffee flavor.

  7. you guys are creating magic together. SO in love with the writing and photos.

  8. This made me smile so big. :-) Such gorgeous photos that make me want to sit and stare at them for ages. And your cheeky writing, Jamie, I love it. :-)

  9. Awesome, loved the writing and the photos were gorgeous too!

  10. This panna cotta is so inviting. I really like the texture of a well made one. Being a big coffee fan I might need to recreate this recipe. ; o ) Coffee was part of my life during the time I lived in Brazil as my mom always had a fresh pot going, but I only started drinking it in my late twenties when I already lived in Europe. It then became an obsession.

  11. Ilva, Engaging writing and awesome pictures!
    Loving it!

  12. My first cup was doctored with way too much sugar and milk...I must have been in my teens, at a chilly campsite in Yellowstone, needing some warmth with my indulging mom...and sisters. It took me a few more years to indulge again. Now that panna cotta would have been a hit with the first bite.

    Your words and photos are top notch as always....

  13. Oh I just love the story and even better, love the recipe for Coffee Panna Cotta and the Mocha Sauce. I feel like running into the kitchen now and making it. Bookmarked this. I love how you write, so beautiful. Thanks for sharing, Jamie!

  14. Very great read and love the pictures, even the ones of just the beans, Ilva!