Last week, we brought together some of Blue Bottle’s most practiced palates in order to discuss the challenges—and joys—of pairing food with coffee. We focused our efforts on one coffee in particular, the Rwanda Rulindo Bushoki, a perennial favorite of ours that comes from an historic washing station and lands in our cafes and webshop this week.
Our goal to find a dessert that would enhance the coffee seemed simple enough, but the quiet complexity of Bushoki required a careful hand, and our table of taste-testers, which included our Green Coffee Team, the heads of our Culinary Department, and a veteran Coffee and Retail Trainer, knew from experience the intricacies of such a pursuit.
How to Pair a Coffee with Food
Culling three desserts from infinite possibilities required familiarity with the Rwanda Rulindo Bushoki. We sipped it in the morning, tasting it alongside simple breakfasts of toasts with a rotating cast of marmalades and jams, and sampled it alongside test cakes in the afternoon.
We quickly discovered that a dessert too sweet, acidic, or overpowering would quash the pleasure of the herbaceous and delicate Bushoki. Understated desserts seemed the ticket, and we chose a trio that played with different fats and varying levels and kinds of sweetness, aromatics, and citrus notes.
Two Cakes, Two Cookies, One Beautiful Pour Over
The first dessert, an olive oil chiffon cake with citrus zest and orange flower water, was buttery and subtly sweet; the zest from an orange and a Meyer lemon were just whispers in the background. The second dessert, though similar in appearance, possessed an entirely different texture and flavor. An almond cake from the European tradition, where whipped eggs act as the leavening agent, highlighted the citrus zest and the few drops of almond oil to a much more noticeable degree.
The last dessert was the simplest: A walnut-butter cookie sweetened with brown sugar (instead of white) had two variations: one with vanilla extract, the other with orange flower water and sea salt.
A Matter of Taste
When our cups were full coffee and our plates peppered with slices of cake, lightly sweetened whipped cream (with a touch of apricot jam folded in), and cookies, we began to sip, taste, and think. Occasionally, we muttered observations: “Does anyone else get a Fruit Loop-like flavor?” Or, “The astringency of the walnuts gives a depth to the coffee that I like.”
We meandered from sensory observations to the philosophical, asking the open-ended ("What do we hope for in a pairing?”), the practical (“Do you even drink your coffee with food?”), and the epistemological (“Do you taste the coffee, or the food, first?”).
Collectively, we agreed that essential to a successful food pairing is that the coffee have room to express itself, whether that’s through a food that aligns with the coffee’s characteristics, or one that surprisingly (and harmoniously) juxtaposes it, like two side-by-side blocks of complementary colors.
We also admitted, by and large, that most of us drink our morning coffee before or after breakfast, but when we indulge in a second afternoon cup, we often spring for an accompanying treat.
The Impressionable Nature of Coffee
From our venerable Culinary Department, David Hurt and Hourie Sahakian both acknowledged how subtle shifts in a baked good—from which fat is used to the texture of the crumb—influence our perception of a coffee.
Our Green Coffee Buyer, Charlie Habegger, described coffees from Rwanda as challenging to pair with food, “because they're some of the least straightforward coffees."
We all associated eating dessert and drinking coffee with traveling, when we have the time and inclination to amble into cafes off of cobblestone streets. Sampling cakes and cookies alongside a special single origin, in the company of friends, had the uncanny ability to transport us to that remote and enviable frame of mind.
The Pleasures of a Simple Cookie
Though we concluded that all of the desserts (including the whipped cream) successfully brought out different elements of the coffee, it was the humble walnut-butter cookie that emerged as the favorite. The orange flower water was nearly imperceptible, but the fat and slight bitterness of the walnuts created an interplay with the Bushoki that allowed its inherent sweet-savory balance to shine intact. Flakes of sea salt provided an element of surprise, which, in Charlie's words, “act as a dividing line between the flavor of the pastry and the flavor of the coffee.”
Mallory Roth, Program Manager on the Training team, described how moments after the bite of cookie, and the subsequent sip of coffee, the salt emerged like a staccato note—entirely itself, but part of a larger composition.
Celebrating a Coffee by Finding Its Match
As to the nature of how we pair food with coffee, we all agreed that the order does, indeed, make a difference. David Hurt, Culinary Operations Manager, stressed that to accurately assess the match, we should mix it up: Sip the coffee, taste the sweet. Reverse.
We hope that you try the Rwanda Rulindo Bushoki because it, like all of our coffees from Burundi and Rwanda, coaxes out the sweet and unexpected from the Bourbon cultivar. If you do, may we recommend that you make this cookie, too?
Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
- 1/2 cup (4 oz / 115 g) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3/4 cup (4 oz /115 g ) light brown sugar, packed
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp orange flower water
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/4 cups (6.2 oz / 175 g) flour
- 1 cup (3.5 oz / 100 g) finely chopped walnuts
- 3/4 cup (3 oz / 85 g) powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp flaky sea salt (Maldon or Fleur de Sel)
- zest of half an orange
1. Use an electric beater to cream together the butter and brown sugar until smooth and light. Beat in the egg and then add the orange flower water and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir in the flour. Add the walnuts and mix until fully incorporated.
2. Shape the dough into a log 1 to 2 inches wide and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least an hour, though overnight will yield a firmer dough that's easier to slice.
3. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350℉. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Place the powdered sugar in a wide, shallow bowl. Slice the dough into rounds about 1/3-inch thick. Drop each round into the powdered sugar, turning it over, so that both sides are covered. Remove from the bowl and shake off excess sugar. Place on the cookie sheet. Repeat, spacing the cookies at least an inch apart.
4. Add a few slivers of orange zest to the center of each cookie, along with a few flakes of sea salt.
5. Bake for 8 to 11 minutes, or until the tops are a light brown and the bottoms of the cookies are a darker golden hue. Remove from the oven. Let cool for 10 minutes on the pan and then remove to cool completely on a rack.
6. Enjoy with the Rwanda Rulindo Bushoki, or any other coffee you have on hand.
7. If you have any leftover, store in an airtight container.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies
Looking for a blend to try? A favorite amongst baristas, Beta Blend is available only in our webshop.