Sunday, December 25, 2022

Free Espresso Machine! (Again!)

If you are willing to wait long enough, eventually you will find whatever it is you are looking for, for free.  Might have to wait a long time for a free Ferrari, though.

NOTE: To all who sent Christmas greetings, thank you and here's to hoping 2023 is the year the world goes back to normal. 

Mark and I were talking about the mid-century meals we used to have as kids - as well as what our parents served.  Maybe the gays just like these kitchy 1960's things, or maybe it is just boomers in general pine for the "good old days."  We remember the days, pre-microwave, where the Swanson TV Dinner was king.  Oddly enough, Tucker Carlson is heir to that fortune - a self-made man!

We were in an "antique" shop and saw (and bought) a 1965 copy of the Campbell's Soup Cookbook.  It was replete with recipes (mostly for casseroles or meatloafs) which all started with "open one can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup."  Or maybe tomato soup.  That's how you cooked back then, in an era before frozen pre-made treats or food delivery (which simply did not exist, other than pizza delivery on college campuses).

My parents thought themselves sophisticates - and perhaps they were, for their time.  I recall one day they brought home a ceramic bottle of Lancer's Rose, which they served with "Wispride" port wine cheese spread, that came in a crock, on Ritz crackers.   We didn't have cable TV in those days, or food shows - other than "The French Chef" with Julia Child, on snowy UHF.  Maybe you might get "The Galloping Gourmet" as well.  It wasn't like today, with all these celebrity chefs and cooking contests and people calling themselves "foodies" because they have a preference of Coke over Pepsi.

But I digress.

One of the other fads of that era was fondue.  People were fascinated by Danish modern furniture or anything vaguely Swedish or Nordic.  Busty blonde Swedish girls were considered the epitome of beauty.  Maybe it was part of the ski culture of the era, I don't know.  But fondue was a fad for quite a while, and Mark and I were reminiscing about the fondue pots of old - usually in harvest gold, avocado green, or sunburst orange.

As if on cue, a lady at the Parcheesi club (where Mark is now President, alas) told Mark she was cleaning out her closet and had a fondue pot she was getting rid of.  Did he want it?  Is the Pope Argentinian?  Of course we would take it - Christmas Fondue this year!  Yee-Haw!

Sunburst orange, in the original 1970's box, sans instructions, but with a set of four fondue forks (also in the original, cheese-stained box).   Such a deal!  It was like traveling back through time.

And to sweeten the deal, she thew in a Robert Krupps (yes, that is his name) Model 963 Espresso maker - the second one we have gotten for free over the years.  The first was a scratch-and-dent returned model that Mark got while at Williams Sonoma.  Apparently Karen bought it and didn't like it, so she returned it, despite the instructions clearly stating that it should not be returned to the store, but instead shipped back to Robert Krupps North American Headquarters, in New Jersey.

You know why they want you to do that, right?  If you return it to the store, it is a charge-back to the supplier.  They sell 1,000 espresso makers and if 50 of them are returned to the store, well, that means they only sold 950 machines, and the retailer will charge-back the wholesale cost to the manufacturer.  The retailer then disposes of the "broken" machines (giving them to employees, like Mark) as the manufacturer doesn't really want them back as the hassle of trying to sell "factory seconds" or "open box" returned items just isn't worth it.

These things retail for over $100, so we've gotten a couple of hundred dollars worth of free espresso makers over the years.  Of course, the best and cheapest espresso maker is the Bialetti type stove-top maker, which is just fine for most of us, who make espresso once in a while when our Cuban friends are visiting.  (Generic versions are just as good, too). The fancy machines are just counter-hogs and not worth the expense.   Tellingly, the very first machine we got - back in 1998 or so - we sold at a garage sale for $20, after using it maybe a half-dozen times.  We valued the counter space more.

But free is free, so I cleaned up the old espresso maker and rediscovered why I hate these things.  Well, hate is a harsh word that should be reserved for Nazis and Republicans - just kidding!  But the machine is a PITA to clean and sort of complicated to use.   I noted before that in an ordinary coffee maker, you heat water to the boiling point (about 212 DEGF or 100C) and pass it through ground coffee beans, either in a basket with a filter, or some other contraption, where the aromatic oils are extracted and make the brew.  It is served at about 180 DEGF and no, McDonald's didn't discover some secret way of making coffee hotter - they served, and serve today, their coffee at the same damn temperature as Starbucks or your coffee maker at home.  Sorry - but that's the truth.   Too bad about that lady, but your crotch is not a cupholder, particularly for hot beverages.

But espresso is made under pressure, and under pressure, it is possible to get boiling water hotter that 212 DEGF, just as your Insti-pot or pressure cooker can cook at a higher temperature because it operates under pressure.  I think this extracts more of the oils from the coffee beans, making for a stronger cup of coffee - particularly when the coffee is ground so finely as it is used in an espresso machine.

As a bonus feature, this machine has a wand for frothing your milk.  And this is where it gets tricky.  You can either put a "plug" in the coffee maker part and let the "boiler" make steam (it will bypass the lid as a safety - you can really burn yourself good with these machines if you are not careful!).  You can then use the steam to froth your milk with the attached wand.   But by then, your espresso is cold, so the resulting latte is kind of luke-warm.

The other technique is to froth your milk while the machine is making espresso and this is where it gets really, really tricky.  You have to put extra water in the tank, which if left to its own devices, will overflow the 4-cup beaker.  So just as the water starts to boil, you have to bleed off just enough steam to froth your milk, while still keeping enough pressure to make espresso, while not using too much of the water - or too little!

Obviously the baristas at Starbucks don't have these issues - their machines no doubt have an endless supply of steam available, which is why those fancy brass-and-copper jobs that take up an entire bar, have all those knobs and dials and gauges.  The home version is never the same.  Sure, you can up your game for a few hundred (or thousand) dollars more, but what's the point?  Are you going to keep up a head of steam at all times on the odd chance you'll want a cappuchino?

It is akin to the home fryer or "fry daddy" which was briefly popular in the 1990's as well.  I recall Mark brought one of those home from scratch-and-dent as well.  The problem was, the "basket" was so small as to not be able to hold even a half-sized serving of fries.  So if you wanted to make french fries at home (always a healthy choice!) you would have to fry one handful or less at a time, and end up with lukewarm soggy fries as a result.  It just wasn't the same as at a restaurant.

Worse yet, when you were done, you had to decide what to do with a half-gallon of rapidly congealing and soiled oil.  Do you keep it for next time, to go rancid in the garage?  Or do you dump it out, making a mess of your trashcan and alienating the garbage man forever?    You realize quickly why fried foods are a restaurant thing - they have huge fryers and a service that comes once a week to vacuum up all the nasty used oil.

Even frying on the stove is problematic - oil everywhere and a grease fire waiting to happen.   And it is hard to get things to fry evenly in a frying pan.  Like I said - not a healthy choice.  Save that shit for special occasions when you are at a restaurant with friends.

Mark has had good luck with slicing potatoes very thin and then putting them on a cookie sheet with raised edges (usually with parchment paper underneath the potato slices) and lightly spraying them with oil.  Also a good way to make bacon.  It just means the splatter is confined to the oven, which ends up being my job to clean, for some reason.

I digress, yet again.

It is not just me - a number of others have noted that single-use appliances are usually a waste of money.  They occupy a lot of counter space and as such, then get shunted off into a cabinet or worse, the attic or basement (or garage).  Once out of sight, they are out of mind and rarely used, which is why they are often sold for cheap at garage sales, or in our case, given to us free (on more than one occasion!).

The exception to the rule is the single-use appliance you use every day.  If you make coffee every morning - or tea - then a coffee maker or tea kettle might be a good idea.  On the other hand, many folks make these things on the stove top.  They are, also, very inexpensive appliances, if you avoid getting fancy.  If you eat waffles every day, then I guess a waffle-maker is a good idea for you.  But if you want a "deal" on one, look to a garage sale or thrift shop - people toss those things on a regular basis.  And all it takes is a little cleaning to make them good as new (and even a new one will get crusty after a few uses).

Speaking of which, I helped a friend of mine unpack and set up their third Keurig machine they have owned in less than a decade.  The first machine - a real monster of a thing - got clogged somehow and sucked coffee grounds back into the "needle" and clogged it.   I think the pump was shot.  I am not sure what happened to unit #2, but they are now on #3 which at least has a smaller footprint than the older models.  These things cost hundreds each, so they have thrown a lot of money at coffee makers.  The Braun we found on the streets of Charleston lasted nearly a decade.  The $9 Walmart machine is working just fine after a few years.  You don't have to spend a lot of money on appliances, and often, the more you spend, the more disappointed you'll be.

So, what will happen to the espresso maker and the electric fondue pot?  I'll bet we use them both for a while, then they will get packed into a cabinet in the pantry, along with the panini maker, and eventually be passed on to some other deserving soul, either by gift or by garage sale or through the local thrift store.

I mean, it makes good espresso.  And it tastes even better when the machine is free and my credit card balance is zero.