La Espuma – A Cafe Cubano Trick

La EspumaCoffee is important in almost every culture – and not just the consumption of it but the ritual behind the preparation. Since meeting my husband nearly 10 years ago, I have become a huge fan of Cuban coffee for just that reason. In his family, it’s consumed at all hours of the day – it’s offered the second you walk through the door, no matter the occasion.  I have been presented with Cafe Cubano, a rich espresso sweetened with a not-so-insignificant amount of sugar,  in the most interesting of places: a nail salon, an advertising agency, a hair salon, a funeral home, a fish market, a theater. And in every spot, it’s served the same way:  piping hot, super sweet, and out of little thimble sized plastic receptacles so that one small serving can be split amongst friends and family, coworkers and clients– whoever needs a quick jolt.


cafeteraBut the mark of a good cup of Cafe Cubano is La Espuma, the caramel-colored foam that settles at the top of the espresso.  In Italian, it’s referred to as “crema,” and is the mark of proper grind, brewing and proportions when using a fancy espresso machine.  But if you’re like me, or most of my Cuban friends and family, you stick with your trusty stovetop espresso maker, La Cafetera.  And while versions of this are sold at fancy kitchen stores for upwards of $25, you can snag a trusty generic version at places like Navarro, a Cuban-owned drugstore chain in South Florida, for around $5.


My good friend Jorge (and the amazing designer responsible for this site) was over for a barbecue this past summer and asked if I knew how to make Cuban coffee the right way.  Naturally I assured him I did, but when I saw the disappointment on his face upon presenting him with the dark brown, espuma-less drudge I created, I realized I had been doing it wrong all along.  I just assumed you needed a proper espresso machine to get that caramel perfection, but Jorge assured it it could be done with a spoon, a measuring cup, and sugar.


The next time he came over, he took the coffee-making reigns.  I wasn’t offended.  I had let him down last time!  So he gave me a lesson in la espuma, and let me tell you, it’s a workout but worth it.  Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Load your stove-top espresso maker with finely (and freshly) ground beans and water, and turn on your burner.
  2. In a pyrex measuring cup, put your desired amount of sugar (remember that cuban coffee is supposed to be sweet).  I usually use three heaping teaspoons for two servings, and that’s considered not quite sweet enough!
  3. Once the first few drops of espresso start to come out of the top, add those drops to the pyrex.  It should NOT be enough to saturate the sugar.  The goal is to make a thick, whipped paste, so a few drops of coffee goes a long way.
  4. Put the cafetera back on the burner and while the rest of the espresso brews, whip that sugar with a spoon!  Use all your strength, really grind the sugar and create a paste. Press the spoon against the sides of the pyrex to break up the sugar. It will become a little frothy and a rich caramel color.  When the espresso on the stove is done, pour it into your pyrex, stir, and watch La Espuma take over!
  5. Serve the cafe cubano in espresso cups and serve immediately!


Thanks, Jorge, for teaching me a lesson that has become part of my new coffee ritual.  I will always enjoy La Espuma, and I have new-found forearm muscles to prove it!