My father’s childhood is mostly a mystery to me. I have only heard a couple stories of his life before me and most of those are through family and friends. I have tried to recreate the exact moment when he started drinking coffee. My father’s love of coffee is so abiding that I am fairly certain it will be mentioned in his obituary (not that that will happen any time soon.) If you took a straw poll of the hundreds and hundreds of people he knows, coffee-drinking would be at the top of the list of personal traits.
There is a clear geographic distribution to coffee and tea-drinking in India. My family hails from the land of tea. (I blame heritage for my addiction to said substance.) The first time I had coffee in India I was sitting at an engagement ceremony. Breakfast in all its fried magnificence was being served. Men were running around the room dipping ladles into the stainless steel vats of piping coffee and adeptly pouring them from great height into the guest’s stainless steel cups. As a tween (though we didn’t have that word back then), I had never had coffee (again, we didn’t have Starbuck’s mochas back then either.) To call that drink coffee would be serious misrepresentation. It was basically warm, sweet, spicy milk kissed by a coffee essence. Candy more than anything else.
I always imagine that this was the sort of coffee concoction that my dad’s mother created when he requested coffee for breakfast. Without any hard-evidence, I instead base this assumption on my grandmother’s fantastic sweet tooth and ability to make anything tasty. Something in him must have inherently understood the lameness of this coffee, because apparently in college, away from home for the first time, my father started to associate himself with the coffee-plantation kids. Under their tutelage, he began to drink dark unadulterated coffee the way he continues to consume it to this day. There must have been one moment where he stood is his friend’s house and he looked over to see a black liquid steaming in a cup. One short moment, where a friend or maybe a friend’s mother asked, “will you have coffee our way or would you like sugar?” And, then with sip, something deep seated must have clicked.
This dessert takes the sweet coffee of my dad’s childhood, which had been rightly that anyway, and turns it into a sweet custard. Serve it with strong coffee and coffee glazed donuts.
Masala Coffee Custards
(makes 6-8 depending on the glasses)
In a saucepan, combine and simmer for about 2 minutes
1 cup brewed coffee
1 cup whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cinnamom stick
10 black peppercorns
2 black cardamom pods
2 green cardamom pods
2 T honey
1/3 cup (or less) jaggery (or brown sugar)
Taste. If it isn’t sickly sweet, add more jaggery
3 egg yolks (that have been tempered)
Whip with a whisk
Add 1 packet gelatin
Chill for 4 hours