Coffee, my quest for perfection

of all the substances, liquid and solid, that pass through the portals of my lips, coffee is the most sacred, i.e. the last one i willingly would relinquish. the funny thing is i'm not even affected by caffeine. i can drink a cup of coffee and go straight to sleep. so i don't consider my love of coffee an addiction but rather a passion.

it started when i was only 3 years old and went shopping with my grandmother. in those days supermarkets ground the coffee beans right at the checkout counter so even if she wasn't buying coffee that day someone was and i was guaranteed a whiff of the most delicious aroma i had every experienced. i wasn't allowed to drink coffee at that age except for a rare exception was when my mother would pour a little milk into the tiny cream pitchers used in those days to hold the top cream from unhomoginized milk. then, to my great joy, she would add a half eye- dropper full of freshly brewed coffee. bliss. i also loved watching and smelling the coffee percolating in the aluminum pot on the stove top.

i started drinking coffee when i went away to college. but it was a bit of a disappointment because after all those years of expectation, the delicious aroma i had smelled was never present fully in the flavor. the mystery was revealed one day in a food course when the professor talked about the concept of volatile oils. she explained that the coffee aromas were carried in the oils of the coffee bean and that what i was smelling was these wonderful aromas that were virtually flying away from the brewing coffee and disappearing into the air. in fact, she said that percolating coffee was the worst possible thing one could do because more and more aromas were evaporating while the coffee was passing through the grounds repeatedly extracting bitterness.

it was as if a light-bulb went off in my head. from that moment it became my goal to find a way to keep the precious aroma IN the coffee. to this effect i went through many coffee pots during my first marriage. when i discovered the melitta little porcelain drip pot i knew this would be the closest thing to perfection but my former husband told me that though he had been planning to give it to me for christmas that year, somehow he couldn't bring himself to do it because he felt it was just too "sick." o.k. i had already tried to no avail an aluminum drip pot, an electric percolator and even an electric vacuum coffee maker that sounded like 12 snoring dogs. but i wasn't willing to give up so why was he? right after the divorce i bought the melitta. and i had been right--the drip system and non-reactive porcelain was as close to perfection as i had hoped.

but the real epiphany happened many years later when i celebrated my birthday dinner with my present husband (now of 30 years--he knew better than to interfere with my quests for perfection) at one of tony may's wonderful restaurants. at the end of the dinner i ordered espresso and it was the best coffee i had ever tasted. in fact it had the very flavor of the aroma never forgotten from childhood. fortunately tony may was present that night and explained about a new coffee system he had brought back from italy called illy. he explained that the coffee was in individual capsules and therefore never exposed to air or oxygen that would cause deterioration until the very moment it was placed in the coffee maker. i didn't know at that moment that my love for this coffee would, many years later, transport me (my photo) onto the wall of the new illy galleria located at 382 west broadway in soho, nyc, and that my recipe for illy café panna cotta would have the honor of being served there during the duration of this special educational theater/café. (www.illyusa.com/galleria)

panna cotta is a custard thickened with a little gelatin rather than the usual egg. i suggested serving it in the exquisite illy espresso cup collection, garnished with a coffee bean. this 5 ingredient dessert is the soul of simplicity, easy to make, yet one of the most deliciously satisfying desserts in the world. it is like eating ice cream that isn't frozen yet holds its perfectly creamy consistency. excellence of flavor depends entirely on the quality of the coffee used to prepare it. here's the recipe in case you don't get a chance to visit the galleria, or in case you want to make it part of your own permanent collection.

serves: 6 to 9

2 1/4 cups heavy cream
7 tablespoons (3 ounces/85 grams) sugar, preferably turbinado
1/4 cup (0.75 ounces/20 grams) finely ground illy coffee
1-1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin (4.7 grams)
1-1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
garnish: chocolate coffee beans

9--2 ounce demitasse or 6 small decorative dessert or custard cups

in a 4 cup microwave-safe measure or small saucepan, stir together the cream, sugar, and coffee. sprinkle gelatin on top and allow to sit for at least 3 minutes. stir in gelatin and microwave or heat, stirring constantly, just until bubbles form around edge.

pour liquid through fine strainer or strainer lined with cheesecloth. stir in vanilla and pour into espresso cups. cover tightly and chill until set, at least 2 hours. garnish with coffee beans or chocolate coffee beans.