Monday, February 24, 2014

My own private Starbucks

Hello, my name is Amy, and I have a coffeehouse habit.

Now, mind you, as Starbucks (and Starbucks clones) junkies go, I'm not as bad as most. I've never been one of those people you'll see in there every single morning, waiting in line for her daily cup o' joe. No, an ordinary cup of coffee is something I can brew up perfectly well at home and be quite satisfied with it—more satisfied than I'd be at Starbucks, in fact, since mine is made with organic, Fair-Trade coffee beans. (Starbucks is pretty good about ethically sourcing its coffee, but it hasn't managed to hit the 100-percent-Fair-Trade mark yet.) And, of course, paying 20 cents rather than two dollars for my morning fix is a nice plus, too, and one that saves me over 400 bucks a year.

No, what lures me into the coffeehouses is the espresso drinks—cafe mocha in particular. I first fell in love with this stuff when a coffee shop opened up right across the street from my first apartment, and since then, in every new home I've lived in, one of the first things I've looked for in the neighborhood is the nearest place that can serve me up a hot cup of chocolate-coffee goodness (or a blended iced one in the summertime). I've tried making my own at home, using one of the many recipes you can find online, but it's never been quite the same. If you don't have an espresso machine, the best you can really do is try to brew double-strength coffee (twice the beans for the same amount of water), and it just doesn't have the same kick. It's not bad, mind you, but it's just coffee with milk and chocolate syrup in it; it doesn't achieve that mystical, alchemical mixture of chocolate and coffee, bitter and sweet, that makes the real thing so addictive.

The problem with my taste for these coffeehouse delights is twofold: one, they're caloric (270 calories for a tall Starbucks mocha), and two, they're expensive. So, over the past several years, I've kept my habit in check by limiting myself to one or two visits per month and paying for them with survey reward points (from MyPoints and other sites of that type). From time to time I've considered the idea of buying an espresso machine so that I could make my own coffeehouse treats at home, but even the cheapest model recommended at ConsumerSearch costs $85, so at my current rate of one mocha a month, it'd take about two years to pay for itself—plus it would take up an unreasonable amount of our limited cabinet space. I've often wondered, though, why it is that you should need such a bulky and expensive electrical appliance to brew espresso. Hasn't the beverage itself been around longer than the electrical appliance has? Shouldn't there be some way of making it without all this rigamarole?

Well, apparently, there is. My sister's birthday gift to me this year was this little moka pot, which brews extra-strong coffee right on the stove burner. As best I can tell, it works more like a miniature percolator than a traditional espresso machine: a little reservoir on the bottom holds water, and the ground coffee goes into a little basket that sits right on top. As it heats on the burner, steam bubbles up through the coffee grounds, carrying the essence of the coffee with it, and then recondenses in the upper chamber. The resulting brew may not be truly identical to coffeehouse espresso, but it's close enough to fool an amateur like me. And when I'm done, the little pot tucks easily into a corner of a cabinet, where it takes up less room than the plain old drip coffeemaker I almost never use anymore.

Now, you might think that to use this homemade brew to make my own lattes and mochas, I'd need a milk frother as well. Well, au contraire, mon frère ou ma soeur: thanks to a little trick I discovered at thekitchn.com, all I need is my microwave and a small jar. You just put a little milk in the jar, shake it vigorously, and microwave it for about 30 seconds, and presto: steamed milk on the bottom with a layer of foam on top. Adding this to my homemade espresso produces a latte that, to my taste buds, is indistinguishable from the real thing. Adding a couple of tablespoons of chocolate syrup to the bottom of the cup first makes a mocha that's, if not identical to Starbucks's, certainly good enough to satisfy my cravings—and with fewer calories, too.

It's much lighter on the wallet, as well. A tall mocha at Starbucks costs about $3; my homemade mocha uses about 20 cents' worth of coffee,  13 cents' worth of milk, and 16 cents' worth of chocolate syrup. (This ingredient, sadly, is not Fair Trade and organic, but we had to make do with what they had at our local grocery store. Perhaps on our next visit to Trader Joe's we'll pick up some of their organic chocolate syrup, which will bump the price up by maybe 10 cents a cup, but also make it a truly eco-friendly treat that still costs less than one-fifth as much as Starbucks's version.) And when summer rolls around, I can see how my little toy does at making a home-brewed version of Frappuccino using this recipe from the Squawfox website. I've tried it using brewed coffee, and the result was reasonably tasty, but not really a Frappuccino. But based on my results with the mocha, I think the little moka pot might be the key ingredient.

Homemade mocha made with my new toy falls into a category of goods that I've lately come to see as one of the most important components of an ecofrugal life: the cheap luxury. Articles about "frugal fatigue," which have become increasingly popular as the recession drags on, usually mention the idea of deliberately making room in your budget for small splurges so that you don't feel deprived. The idea is that if you allow yourself a $4 latte once a week, you won't get so frustrated from months of going without that you just snap and let your credit cards off the leash at the nearest outlet mall. But of course, the bigger that "just for fun" line in your budget is, the more it will slow down your progress toward your goals—so finding cheap luxuries, like a coffeehouse mocha you can enjoy at home, is the best way to fend off feelings of deprivation while keeping your budget on track.

So I've decided to start a new "cheap luxuries" series on the blog. I'm hoping to write at least one new post a month that features a frugal indulgence I've discovered, or discovered a new way to enjoy. Look for them when frugal fatigue starts to get you down—and please feel free to share your own ideas for them in the comments.
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