Well, maybe it's not essential to every kitchen, but it's definitely ensconced itself as a fixture in ours. DPaul and I acquired the taste for seriously strong espresso during our sojourns to Italy. Making our morning espresso was one of the first things we did to Italianize our life, figuring it was easier and cheaper than trying to expatriate there. To this day, each morning we enjoy two shots (three on the weekends) while watching the morning unfold over the bay and planes take off from Oakland airport. Not a bad way to get the day started.
At first, we were using a stovetop model, which gave serviceably good strong brew, but lacked the satisfying crema on top. About two years ago, we enrolled in the Illy@Home program. We get our coffee shipped to us directly at slightly less than what it costs on the shelf, about $11 a can (shipping is free). But the best part was getting one of these puppies for about $250, a major savings considering it retails at $690. It comes in a rainbow of cool colors, but ours is of course red -- just like our Le Creuset pots, our Cuisinart and our KitchenAid.
The machine comes with a few different baskets -- one for a single shot, one for a double and one for the pods. The pods, frankly, I can take or leave. I find the flavor to be a bit dull and stale, and the resulting coffee to be watery. Plus, you have no control over how strong you can make it. It's best to use the double and make two cups at a time.
For best results, first run hot water through the basket and into two espresso cups. Set the cups aside. Remove basket; discard any excess water that comes out. (We always keep an extra espresso can top for to catch drips.) Pack two even scoopfuls of fine grind dark roast coffee into the basket, tamp down firmly with the tamper, and leave the head of the tamper in the basket. Insert the basket into its gasket (the basket gasket?) and turn as tight as you can. Discard the hot water from the cups and set them under the nozzles of the basket. Pop out the bottom button for a few seconds, to get the water really screaming hot, then set it back in again. Pop out the top button to begin running steam through the grounds. Just as the first water begins to come through, tighten the basket even more. The tighter the coffee is packed, the more crema you will get. Run until cups are just over half full. The crema should be about 1/8" thick and a rich golden brown color. If you've done it just right, a teaspoon of sugar will rest atop the crema for about six seconds, then gently sink, one end first, like a sugary Titanic.
We're not yet greatly experienced in making cappucinos or lattes. Neither of us is big on the milky drinks. But the few attempts we've made have yielded at least decent macchiatos. Perhaps some day we will be able to make those pretty coffee-colored Rococo leaves on top of the foam. But for today, I'll enjoy our morning shots.