Developing my simple Vietnamese and iced coffee recipes

My last post was about Vietnamese iced coffee and searching for that ideal restaurant-style recipe. I bought a phin, which is a metal drip brewer, and I found some Trung Nguyen coffee in Chinatown.

My first stop was the recipe on the coffee can, which suggested a 3:25:1 water to coffee ratio. I think in the end, I ended up with roughly 4:1 or 6:1. It took roughly 10-15 minutes to drain. Then you mix in a big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk before pouring it over ice in a pint glass. Upon trying it, it’s straight gasoline. It’s not bad, it’s just way too strong, even at lower strength and over ice. It could half done with maybe half a glass of milk to further dilute the flavor.

Getting it right

My second recipe was roughly 30g of Ethiopian coffee, ground medium. I had some sitting around and decided to see if the long drain time was from the coffee brand or my approach. Since the phin holds roughly 240g of water, that’s an 8:1 ratio. After 10 minutes it made a strong but less abrasive coffee that I then poured over ice and added half and half. Given the amount of coffee and the brew time, I expected more flavor, but it was a light roast, so it’s not surprising.

My third try was 24g of Trung Nguyen coffee. Other sites have suggested a 10:1 ratio. Hario, the Japanese brand, suggests 11:1 in its Japanese iced recipe, so there’s a precedent there. It made a strong coffee, ready for sweetened condensed milk and ice.

Recipes

From this experience, I’ve developed two recipes, a modified Vietnamese coffee recipe and a standard iced coffee recipe for use with any coffee.

The Vietnamese recipe is spot-on and mostly measurement-free and the iced coffee recipe is great for a lazy day that you don’t want to do precise pour-over or use a paper filter.

Modified Vietnamese coffee recipe

  1. Wet inside of phin
  2. Add 24-30g Trung Nguyen coffee, roughly 4 even tablespoons, and place top filter
  3. Add a splash of boiling water roughly equal to the amount of coffee
  4. Wait 30 seconds then fill water to top of phin, place cover on phin
  5. Once handle on top filter is not submerged, lift it to encourage quicker draining (if you’d like)
  6. Once dripping is complete, add one big spoonful of sweetened condensed milk and stir to dissolve
  7. Pour coffee and condensed milk into a pint glass full of ice and stir to chill coffee.

Iced coffee recipe

  • Follow steps 1-5 above, using 30g of freshly ground coffee of any type.
  • If grind is correct, coffee should drain in under 10 minutes. If it doesn’t, adjust grind slightly coarser, aiming for 6-8 minutes.
  • Once dripping is complete, pour coffee over ice in a pint glass (16 oz) and add half and half or milk, stirring to chill coffee quickly.

How to make real Vietnamese coffee

To top off a refreshing plate of Vietnamese food on a hot day, we often go for a Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s the perfect sweet and cool complement for a bowl of pho, vermicelli, or a banh mi sandwich. With the temperatures hitting the 80s and 90s this week in New York City, I’ve been wondering how to replicate that particular deep, sweet, and viscous restaurant taste at home during the work week.

It’s not exactly a secret, but it requires a few inexpensive items. The three things you’ll need are:

  • A phin, which is a metal Vietnamese coffee dripper
  • The right coffee
  • Sweetened condensed milk

Here’s a short explanation of each item:

Phin (Vietnamese filter brewer)
This classic Vietnamese filter dripper includes a lid, a cup, and a kind of perforated metal tamper. I bought a Long Cam brand phin, which is made in Vietnam, at KK Discount in Chinatown (78 Mulberry Street, 9am-6pm).

The smallest, single-serving size is around 4 oz at $5, while the 9Q, which was the only larger option in stock, brews ~10 oz and was $11.

When you’re making Vietnamese coffee, go for “Made in Vietnam”

Coffee
This whole Vietnamese coffee thing started off for me when I purchased some Nguyen Coffee at Essex Market on the Lower East Side. They have great graphic design, a cool website, and are roasted in Brooklyn. Finding their product inspired me to try making my own coffee. The problem is their True Grit peaberry robusta that I bought is rough. It’s strong, vegetal-smelling, and hard on the stomach, plus it doesn’t taste like the right blend for a true Vietnamese coffee. If I had to pick again, I’d go with their Loyalty robusta/arabica blend, which promises to be smoother and more balanced.

Next I tried Trung Nguyen Premium Blend, which was recommended by many as the prototypical Vietnamese coffee. It comes pre-ground for the phin and even prints its recipe on the label. I assume that some of its distinctiveness comes from the addition of chocolate flavors to its roast. I bought it at Tan Ting Hung Supermarket (121 Bowery, 9am-6pm), $8.75 for 15 oz. They were incredibly helpful, letting me sneak in right at closing time and helping me find everything I needed.

Trung Nguyen Premium Blend

In its distinctive orange cans, Cafe Du Monde from New Orleans is also popular, though interestingly it is an American Southern-style roast with chicory and not a Vietnamese brand. It owes its popularity in this recipe to the Vietnamese community that settled in New Orleans following the Vietnam War. I’ll have to do a taste test between the two soon since these are the two most popular brands for Vietnamese coffee here in the US.

Recipe
Here is the recipe for preparing Vietnamese filter coffee, courtesy of the Trung Nguyen brand:

  1. Put 3 tbsp of coffee (about 20g) into the filter. Gently shake and lock the coffee press.
  2. Pour 20 ml boiling water (205-212 F / 90-100 C) into the filter. Wait until the coffee has fully absorbed water. Add 45 ml of boiling water into the filter.
  3. Place the cap. Wait 5-7 minutes for the coffee to drip through the grinds. Note that the coffee must drip slowly to capture the pure coffee essence. Add sugar or condensed milk to taste.
Credit for the recipe goes to this coffee can

Tip: It’s been recommended elsewhere to wet the inside bottom of the phin before adding the coffee so that the first grounds don’t fall through the perforations.

Final Thoughts
For the coffee nerds like me, the Trung Nguyen recipe above is a 1:1 bloom, total water to coffee ratio of 3.25:1, which is crazy, particularly when considering that a strong cup of specialty pour-over is a 16:1 ratio. I have seen other recipes recommend up to a 10:1 ratio for the same cup and elsewhere I’ve seen a bloom of up to 5 minutes recommended to really draw out the flavor of the cup.

I assume that the high dose of coffee is useful to compensate for putting the coffee on ice, as well as getting that true, ultra-condensed flavor. Looking forward to experimenting more to get closest to that true taste.

Shortwave spy stations, still transmitting years after the Cold War

I’ve been reading a number of John Le Carré books lately, which are mostly fictional thrillers about Cold War spies. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a particularly good one. So in that vein, I’ve been reading about ’60s spycraft, including how they used to communicate.

In the pre-internet days, these spies used shortwave radios to receive orders from “numbers stations”, which are radio repeaters transmitting coded signals over the open airwaves, only at ranges higher than AM and FM music stations. Used together with a “one-time pad”, these encoded transmissions traveled around the world on open airwaves but were unbreakable if you didn’t have the code.

I decided to see if these “number stations” were still around, as I had heard that they are still on the air. Tech seems to go obsolete these days very quickly, so I was skeptical. Short answer, they are still broadcasting!

There’s a whole subculture of people that track these stations and there’s even a schedule that shows expected repeat transmissions. They’ve given them names based on their quirks, “The Pip”, “The Airhorn”, “The Buzzer”, all of these transmit audible sounds when inactive. When they are active, a voice reads numbers or letters from the military alphabet.

They transmit in English, Spanish, Russian, and Morse code, which gives a hint at how widely they are employed. What we don’t know is if these stations are in active use or “mothballed”, though given their level of activity, they’re at least kept in a state of readiness and have been for many years. This may be due to extreme caution on the part of spy agencies: changes in frequency of transmissions or other details might inadvertently reveal operational details. In that vein, as if a carryover from a past era, several of these transmissions are still done manually by radio operators.

Moments after I checked the Priyom.org page above, a station labeled “M12”, for Morse code, began transmitting: “TTT 531 531 531 TTT”. Twenty minutes later, the same message on a different “M12” channel. Who knows what this means? There’s a good chance the answer to that lies behind the former Iron Curtain.

The Cold War lives on, on shortwave radio

After reading a few too many John Le Carre spy novels, I decided to see whether the shortwave radio spies in the Cold War used is still a “thing” and whether there’s any point to buying one. I tapped into a lively nest of hobbyists and websites documenting these international airwaves online, with no need for a separate device. In short, if you have the internet and just want to play around, there’s no reason to buy a radio.

These hobbyists’ primary tool was something called a SDR or software-defined radio. The University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands has the most famous iteration. This nifty tool is a radio that scans the airwaves and transmits constantly via a web interface. It can be used simultaneously by multiple users. It even includes a labeled waveform that shows known stations and spots of recent activity, and it can record and save audio.

I’ve spent several hours scanning the airwaves. From what I can tell, the main players are Chinese, Korean (North and South), the BBC World Service, Voice of America (VOA), and a smattering of religious channels. South Korea has a channel called “Echo of Hope”, while North Korea has “Echo of Unification” and Voice of Korea. In addition to VOA, the US government operates “Radio Free Asia” in multiple languages. Radio Taiwan International reports from Taiwan. The Chinese government reportedly jams all of the above channels from time to time . The Cuban government operates Radio Habana. Iran operates Voice of the Islamic Republic. The list goes on.

It’s like the Cold War is still being fought on the airwaves, and honestly it’s pretty boring and lo-fi. You’d be better off visiting their web presence, unless you live in a totalitarian dictatorship, in which case you’re not reading a blog in English, so I suppose a radio could be useful.
If you happen to speak Korean or Mandarin, there may be a world out there waiting to be discovered, though to be fair, both China and North Korea maintain native and English language broadcasts at different hours.

This site has a comprehensive list of stations worldwide, which you can even filter by language.

Giorgio Moroder’s “From Here to Eternity” (1977)

Giorgio Moroder is most famous these days for being “that guy from the Daft Punk song”, referring to his cameo on Random Access Memories. Prior to 2012 or so, he was known as the producer of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. He had mostly faded into obscurity unless you were into ‘80s movie soundtracks (Scarface, American Gigolo, Midnight Express) or disco music.

On the strength of his newfound Daft Punk cred and “I Feel Love”, I had my eye on picking up one of his albums. This wasn’t one of those “must haves”, but it was on my mind as I sifted through several stacks of records at Giovanni’s Room thrift shop in Philly the weekend before last.

Lucky for me, Giovanni’s Room has a policy of marking down by half any records that sit for more than six months. This one slipped under the radar and was tagged $3. Best find of the weekend.

When you listen to this album, the first thing you notice is that it sounds a lot like you know who. The vintage drum machine and vocoder sound is what our generation associates with the robot duo or Kanye’s 808s and Heartbreak, but it’s clearly borrowed from Moroder and his contemporaries and reinvented for a new generation.

The nice bit about Moroder’s sound being so imitated today is that this album listens like a lost Daft Punk album. It doesn’t sound dated at all. It’s got a cohesive house music beat that goes well in the background while you’re doing other things, but you could easily turn up the volume and get a dance party started.

Kinokuniya Books, one of our favorite places

Kinokuniya Books next to Bryant Park in Manhattan is really great. It’s full of all sorts of books, magazines, and stationery that you won’t find anywhere else, at least outside of Japan. It’s inspiring to go there because you’ll always find something new to catch your eye.

Their first floor is full of English language novels, some Japanese cookbooks in English, and some unique graphic design books and things, but I’m going to skip over all that for now, since it’s stuff that you can mostly find in the library or another bookstore.

The basement is full of really unique magazines. Compared to your usual bookstore, they have a ton of options with a guy’s aesthetic, on topics from music, to fashion, to interior design.

The basement floor has books for learning Japanese and Japanese culture. There’s also books in Japanese for learning foreign languages.

The top floor is Japanese and English language manga, graphic novels, and books on illustration. They also have a Studio Ghibli section, as well as those collectible anime figurines, if that’s your thing.

If you’re a frequent customer, they have a $20 annual membership that gives you 10% off purchases and access to periodic 20% off members only events. It includes periodic gift certificate “rebates” and in our case has already paid for itself.

“Matrix” engravings next to the label on vinyl records

When I first started buying records, I noticed that they often had hand-etched letters and numbers in the blank space between the last song and the label. At the time, not knowing anything about how records are made, I figured they were etched by hand onto each record by the company and denoted a numbered order of production, like a limited edition artist print. That would be a lot of writing! I chalked it up as another reason why new vinyl is so expensive.

When I discovered I could use Discogs.com to catalogue our records, I searched for some kind of identifying mark on the record itself and found that the etched alphanumeric string is called a matrix or run-out code. They do not count “up” with each new record produced. 

The first part of the number generally matches up with the catalogue number of the record and will also be on the label. The other information records the A/B side, the “cut” of the record stamper, and often the pressing plant or the mastering studio / engineer. Most have numbers or letters and dashes, but I even have one with a tiny flower, one that says “Porky”, and Paola has a green vinyl with a miniature signature!

The Beatles first US album label
Beatles hand-etched matrix code matching the 63-3402 code on the label
More matrix markings
Dylan’s Basement Tapes stamped matrix code
Coleman Hawkins USSR stamped matrix code

A guide to kneading dough with a food processor

Dough above 75 percent hydration are very sticky. Bread Illustrated suggests a mixer for these dough so you can stay “hands off” until the kneading of the dough hook turns it into something more manageable. If you don’t have a mixer with a dough hook, or like ours the dough hook just makes a mess, you can use a food processor!

Tips for use

Bread Illustrated suggests using the standard metal blade, since the dough hook attachment doesn’t reach to the edge of the bowl. Ice-cold water is suggested, as the movement of the blades quickly creates heat. I’ve used the metal blade, it works well, and I add ingredients at fridge instead of room temperature.

From my personal experience, the food processor is very good for a few specific situations: pizza dough works great and comes together in minutes, and low-hydration dough forms a tight ball in minutes. I have done both bread and pizza dough in quick succession because they’re so quick.

One very big drawback is that the machine quickly gets stuck with breads above 72 percent hydration and those using a tanzhong, which is a sticky flour-and-water roux for adding moistness to the final product. I made a whole wheat bread recently that was both heavier and higher in hydration. The flour soaked up more liquid than normal, so it didn’t seem sticky, but the whole weight of the dough was nearly too much for the machine. The blades struggled to keep turning.

In either of the cases above, when the machine is jammed or overworked, it clicks off and needs to sit and then be restarted. You can feel the heat coming off the side of the machine when the motor is struggling. Bread Illustrated, in fact, recommends that a food processor not be used for more structured dough because the blade can cut the gluten strands, but I’ve forged ahead anyway and it doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to the end product, the biggest issue for me has been keeping the blades from getting jammed.

Steps by step

The steps to kneading when using the food processor are something like this:

  1. Mixing. I like to mix the water into the other ingredients already in the machine’s bowl little by little, in maybe 3-4 parts and pulse the machine after each addition.
  2. Rough dough. The dough will start to come together and will be rough.
  3. Kneading. The dough should come together into a ball or two balls by pulsing the machine. Eventually the balls will start to bat around the inside of the mixer, slapping against the side. This is akin to the rough hand-kneading process. I haven’t seen the gluten being “cut” at this stage as Bread Illustrated suggested, but I might just not know what to look for.
  4. “Windowpane test”. After maybe two minutes, open the bowl (I unplug the machine to be safe). If the dough passes the “windowpane test”, which means the dough can stretch until translucent without breaking, it is ready to go.
  5. Hand kneading. Turn the dough onto the counter and knead it a few times to bring it together.

Bread Illustrated, my pick for top breadmaking cookbook

This past month I was deep in the early learning phases of making yeasted bread and I came across this great book, Bread Illustrated by America’s Test Kitchen. After looking through dozens of cookbooks, it was exactly what I was looking for.

I was struggling to understand the timing of everything: When making a bread, why wait for an hour, what am I waiting for, can I move to the next step? Bread Illustrated has step-by-step instructions with photos at each step. It includes useful tips for common issues like under-kneading or sticky dough. For a beginner, it does a great job of laying out the basic transferable concepts in breadmaking, which are often lost in other books because of their focus on individual recipes and glossy photos.

Here’s a bit of the basics that I learned from the book: The basic steps of breadmaking are mixing, kneading, first rise, shaping, second rise,  baking, and cooling. The steps are, in order:

  1. Mixing brings the ingredients together (3 minutes)
  2. Kneading develops stretchy gluten and brings the dough into a ball (10 minutes, by hand)
  3. First rise is waiting for the bread to double in size (about an hour)
  4. Shaping is when you roll or ball the dough into a shape to fit its baking pan (a few minutes)
  5. Second rise is an hour or so where the dough rises again to nearly fill its pan (about 45 minutes)
  6. Baking creates the final loaf with its crust and fluffy, risen texture (from 25-45 minutes, depending on the recipe)
  7. Cooling allows the bread to finish baking and release steam (about 3 hours)

Bread Illustrated is available online and as a NYPL ebook.

Sleeper Train Bucket List: Empire Builder to Portland and Seattle

Marvel at the majesty of the northern United States as you travel over mountain passes, through alpine valleys and past 7,000-year-old glaciers. Glide by buttes and bluffs, along mountain streams and across the Mighty Mississippi.

Amtrak.com

Amtrak’s Empire Builder traverses the US from Chicago to Seattle and Portlane, OR. One of its biggest draws is that it runs through Glacier National Park. With two stops in in Glacier, it’s one of the most popular methods of accessing this remote destination. As with all Amtrak trains west of Chicago, the Empire Builder has a domed lounge car in addition to sleeper service.

It’s on our list because neither of us have been to the Pacific Northwest, nor have we taken a sleeper car. Plus the scenery looks great. At 45+ hours total travel time, it should let us know if we like the experience enough to attempt a week on the Trans-Siberian route.

Service / Route

The route taken by the Empire Builder begins in Chicago, IL and travels for over 2,000 miles, traversing Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington / Oregon. In Spokane, in Eastern Washington, the routes of the Seattle- and Portland-bound trains diverge and each arrives separately at its destination.

Schedule / Cost / How to Book

As of February 2021, the Empire Builder offers service 3 times per week, Westbound on Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. It was a daily service prior to COVID-related service reductions and will hopefully be again in the near future.

A brief search has sleeping accommodations for the 46-hour trip starting at $527 / 18k AGR points for a single-occupancy roomette or $772 for double-occupancy. This rate includes all meals and access to the station lounge. Bedrooms, with in-suite restroom, sink, and shower, start at $2215.

Photo credit for cover image.