Outside of South Florida, it’s difficult to find many American cafes that will make cafe con Leche.
Fortunately, the classic Spanish and Cuban coffee drink is easy to make at home, with a little know-how and the right components.
The savory-sweet drink is subtly different to a café au lait or even a latte, providing a unique experience that every coffee lover should try at least once.
Read on to learn more about cafe con leche and how to make your own at home.
What Is Cafe Con Leche?
The phrase “cafe con leche” translates to “coffee with milk,” but the drink itself is a little more complicated than that.
The beverage has a complex history beginning with its origins in Spain and developing into a range of permutations.
While you can order a cafe con leche in any Spanish-speaking country, the drink you’ll get will vary slightly from one place to another.
It’s important to note that the café con leche isn’t the same thing as a cappuccino or an Italian latte.
It’s a unique preparation, popular in Spain and in Spanish-speaking countries, usually featuring whole milk in a specific proportion to the amount of espresso.
While it’s coffee with milk, the way those two elements come together is the specific hallmark of the coffee beverage, and it’s what so many love.
There are two major centers for the cafe con leche: Spain and Cuba.
Related Read: Coffee In Spain
While the espresso drink is popular across nearly every former Spanish colony, these two countries have cornered the market on the two most popular recipes.
The Spanish version of cafe con leche features two ingredients: brewed espresso and steamed milk.
Some baristas and home coffee makers will also add a pinch of salt, but it’s not an official part of the basic recipe.
It’s commonly served at breakfast, and while it’s traditionally served hot, many Spanish cafes have begun offering cold options as well–especially in summer.
But even as Spanish conquistadors and colonists brought their language around the world, they also brought one of their favorite drinks–and it changed.
Beyond just being coffee and milk, the drink has become a symbol of identity for many Spanish-speaking countries.
The second-largest focal point for cafe con leche is Cuba, and the recipe we’re providing here is based on the Cuban ideal for the espresso beverage.
There are two main differences between Spanish and Cuban cafe con leche: the amount of milk used is one. Spanish cafe con leche recipes call for equal parts espresso and milk. Cuban recipes usually call for more milk.
The second major difference is a delightful concoction called espuma. The word espuma translates to “foam,” and it’s a popular feature of many Cuban coffees.
Cuban coffee lovers make a whipped, creamy foam from a mixture of sugar and a few drops of strong, hot coffee, creating a topping and ingredient that’s equal parts bitter and sweet, with a unique texture.
What You Need To Make Cafe Con Leche
You don’t need a huge number of things to make cafe con leche at home, but the ingredients and the equipment are fairly specific.
It’s possible to make cafe con leche without the specific components in our list, but it won’t be quite the same. So what do you need?
- Moka Pot
- Milk Frother
- Cafe Bustelo (a Cuban espresso brand).
- Filtered water
- Coffee mugs. You’ll want at least two: one coffee mug for your drink and one to use for making the espuma
- 1-3 tablespoons of sugar. Whatever sugar you prefer to use is fine, but we find that less refined sugars like raw sugar or demerara sugar give a richer, more complex flavor
- It is possible to get good results with an espresso machine, but the moka pot is traditional, and the flavor of a stovetop espresso pot is slightly different to machine brew.
- You can also use a whisk, or a spoon if you’re really determined, but the milk frother makes things easy. Advance note: this is not going to be used to froth the milk, but instead for the espuma step
- If you can’t find Cafe Bustelo, you can get decent results with a very dark roast coffee, ground for espresso.
- Filtered water delivers the best taste for your coffee grounds and results in a good-tasting espresso to go into your café con leche.
- Whole milk is traditional, but you can also get good results with reduced-fat and plant-based milks, with a little practice and patience.
How To Make Cafe Con Leche
Once you have all of your ingredients and equipment, you can get down to making your cafe con leche at home.
The process isn’t very complicated, but each step plays an important role in the end product. Certain steps–like making the espuma–might take some practice, but the result is well worth the trouble.
Fortunately, the prep time isn’t huge: this café con leche recipe takes at most 10 minutes.
That may seem like a long time compared to automatic brewing, but the finished product is well worth the wait. The stir and pour and careful heating of the milk all have a purpose in making the delicious beverage what it is.
Step One: Make The Moka Espresso
The first step in the café con leche process is to get your espresso going.
Prepare your moka pot to brew on medium heat with the correct amount of coffee grounds and water.
You’ll want to make sure to use the right size espresso maker for the amount of coffee you’re making; a two-serving moka pot won’t give you enough espresso to serve café con leche to four people.
Filtered water is best for this because with the concentrated flavor of the espresso, you want to make sure you don’t pick up any bad taste from the water itself.
Making espresso in a moka pot isn’t very difficult, but it can take some practice to get it just right.
Related Read: How To Use A Moka Pot
You want to use medium heat to make your moka pot espresso because you don’t want the water pressure to mount inside the espresso maker too quickly.
Using high heat can compromise the brewing process, giving you espresso that’s under- or over-extracted and tastes too weak or too bitter.
Since the espresso is one of only three ingredients in this beverage, it’s important to get it right. Set yourself up for success with a good moka pot, and make sure you’re comfortable using it
Step Two: Warm The Milk
You can use whatever method you like to warm the milk; we’ve found that milk heated in a microwave works just as well as milk heated in a saucepan on the stove. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, of course.
Microwave-heating your milk means that it’s less likely to scorch because of the way that the microwave heats things.
Since there’s no direct heat, you’re less likely to end up with the milk at the bottom of your container sticking and burning.
However, you could end up accidentally super-heating your milk in this process, and you want warm milk–not boiling hot, but just scalded milk.
On a stovetop, there is a bigger risk of burning your milk. The heat at the bottom of your saucepan is stronger than in the middle of the milk, or the sides of the pot; so if you don’t watch out for your milk carefully, it can scorch and take on burnt flavors.
On the other hand, you have a bit more direct control over how hot the milk gets.
The milk doesn’t need to be foamy, but it does need to be hot. If you’re using an espresso machine for your cafe con leche, be careful about how you make your steamed milk.
You don’t need to froth the milk as you’re heating it. Instead, just just want to keep the wand in the middle of the pitcher to ensure you get nice, hot milk.
Most of all, you want to make sure you don’t boil your hot milk, because it throws off both the flavor and the texture in your café con leche.
Whether you heat your milk on the stove, in the microwave, or with an espresso machine milk wand, make sure that it stays below the boil, and try to avoid building up too much froth
Step Three: Combine Coffee And Milk
This is where the café con leche process gets a little bit tricky, compared to the previous steps.
You want to combine the milk and coffee together, but you don’t want to throw off the balance–and you do want some espresso left over in your coffee pot for step four.
Pour about 75% of the cuban coffee you’ve prepared into the cup or coffee mug you plan on serving your café con leche in.
If you’re making more than one cafe con leche at the same time, measure out accordingly. You want about 25% of the espresso left over for your espuma, so keep that in mind as you pour.
Once you’ve portioned out the espresso, pour the milk in each cup or coffee mug you’re serving. The ideal proportion is about twice as much milk as espresso.
The goal is to have about ⅔ milk and ⅓ coffee in your cup. This isn’t like Italian lattes, or the French café au lait, but something distinctively Cuban and Spanish.
Step Four: Sugar Foam Espuma
Pour the remainder of your coffee into your reserved coffee mug, cup, or even a small bowl–whatever you want to use for making your espuma.
Add in the sugar to your taste, and then use the milk frother to dissolve the sugar and Cuban coffee together and build up a foam: the espuma that makes the cuban café con leche so distinctive.
If you don’t have a milk frother, you can also use a small whisk, or even just a spoon to get the results you want.
The goal is to first dissolve the sugar and espresso together, and then whip it into a creamy, thick foam. The result is similar to what you get in making Dalgona coffee, just with espresso instead of instant coffee.
Once your espresso and sugar mixture is nice and foamy, spoon it on top of your café con leche, and serve it up.
Step Five: Enjoy
You can either stir your espuma into your café con leche, or drink it just as it is.
Typically café con leche is a big hit at breakfast in both Cuba and Spain, and in Cuba it’s typically served with Cuban toast or Cuban bread, which is slightly sweetened and rich, often featuring a little lard in the dough.
But if you’re looking to reduce fat intake, it’s just as delicious with wheat bread or a little fruit and yogurt.