As a low-attention-span indoor kid, I had two great loves growing up. The first was American football—the Bears specifically, even though they sucked. In fact, despite my regular-degular height and Doug-Jones-in-Hellboy physique, I figured that one day I’d become a professional football player. A punt-returning defensive back, specifically. Kids are dumb, I know.
My other great love was the sitcom Frasier. (This is where I mention that we didn’t have cable.) Thank God for Frasier. I poured most of my youthful energy into appointment watching and VCR recording football and Frasier. The 1999 Fiesta Bowl (Go Vols!) shared space with a four-episode run featuring both Amy Brenneman and Woody Harrelson.
As it happens, the guy who spent a couple of weeks burning through taco packets did not grow up to have the physique of an Olympian. And my time on the junior varsity team resulted in precious little helmet-to-helmet contact. I officially retired before my senior year of high school. But I did nicely pivot into being an over-wordy fussbudget. Eventually, I took a jazz appreciation class in college at an SEC school. Such are my two driving influences.
And man, for us fully grown anxious dinguses, Frasier hits as true now as it ever has. Seinfeld remains good, but fairly fixed in a moment. Friends is, was, and will always be a stupid trash fire. But Frasier, especially in present day, is 20-some-odd minutes of hilarious Xanax for a troubled mind. It’s just a good-ass show written by hilarious people and acted by the best ensemble of its era.
I would say I dove back into the show recently, but I’ve never really stopped having it on in the background of my life. I used to fall asleep to it before it was rudely yanked off of Netflix. What I did do was finally pull the trigger on an eBay copy of Café Nervosa: The Connoisseur’s Cookbook. And I persuaded The Takeout to let me cook through it and pull in a coffee expert friend. And also that was months ago, but 2020 was a year so whatever. Let’s cook like a Crane.
The book starts with some pretty decent repartee between the brothers Crane. And turns out it’s not just weirdly good—they brought on a supervising producer from the show to write this delightful scene. After that, well…
Let’s get this out of the way: there is no recipe for Tossed Salad & Scrambled Eggs. It was a psychiatric metaphor! Also, I’m not an eggs-in-salad guy, so it’s probably for the best.
More regrettable is the absence of much of anything you’d catch on the menu at Le Cigare Volant. And there’s a reason for that! A quick peek into the copyright page shows that it’s a product of Oxmoor House, a division of the same company that publishes Southern Living. So this Frasier cookbook was from… Birmingham, Alabama. That does explain the noticeable presence of pimentos. A haughty grin fixed itself upon my face.
The first chapter (“Man Can Live by Bread Alone”) starts with Daphne Moon-Style Muffins. Which is how you know this was totally a slap-a-name-on-a-recipe thing. The running joke for all 11 seasons is how bad a cook Daphne is. (And all Brits in general—this was a pre–Gordon Ramsay world).
But for a show that takes place largely in a Seattle coffee house in the ’90s, it’s hard to go wrong with the baked goods assembled. Various muffins (those famous Seattle… key lime muffins), biscuits (Coconut Biscuits A La Crane!), scones, biscotti, and tea breads. All very good!
It’s all pretty Reader’s Digest basic. The flour is all-purpose. The biscuits and muffins are made with (gasp!) boxed mix. A tube of biscuits is called for at one point. Nothing is weighed out, so you’re going to have to bake by volume and futz around with it until you’re happy.
I’m being fastidious and picky here. It’s why you know me to be taking my sacred duty as Frasier cookbook critic very seriously.
Finally, and most egregiously, all mentions of butter are then followed by “or margarine.” BIRMINGHAMMMMMMMM!
Title card aside, lunch actually fares a little bit better. More than dinner anyway, which functionally does not exist. And let me tell you, the absence of duck à l’orange is the cruelest cut. Yes, I have a dozen cookbooks with better recipes for that in my collection. But Frasier’s delivery of “my justly celebrated duck à l’orange” (“Decoys,” season 6, episode 16) is the kind of prissy unselfconscious eff-you energy that makes one fall in love with the show in the first place.
But the cafe—or at least the lunchtime country club buffet—does shine through the “Let’s Do Lunch” chapter. Quiche For The Fine-Boned is a solid example of the style if you swap out the canned mushrooms (shudder) for the real thing.
Chicken salad, Crab Louie, and Pita Nicoise Pour Niles are all perfectly acceptable post–Silver Palate dishes, despite almost every recipe calling for a can of this or that. It was a different time. The shiitakes on the rosemary focaccia (okay, I used some leftover focaccia from a takeout order) are legit delicious if you avoid the specter of “or margarine.” The panini/grilled cheese/melt options are A-OK. Even if the “chichi” part of the Chichi Grilled Cheese appears to be a half-cup of chopped olives. There’s also a smothered hamburger recipe, presumably included when someone remembered that Martin was on the show.
Dessert (“Just Bring Two Forks”) is fine, as long as you’re the kind of Frasier-phile who writes fan fiction in which every member of the cast has uncontrolled type 2 diabetes.
Again, the ’90s. Licensed cookbook. I know, I know. But there is a lot of evaporated milk in this book—and that comes from someone whose kitchen shelf is at least 10% Southern church cookbooks.
Chocolate Bags In A Raspberry Pool is the best they could do for one recipe title. Don’t worry, the raspberries they call for are frozen in sugar syrup. You don’t drain them.
A perfectly nice looking pears en croute gets the double whammy of caramel sundae topping and a can of sweetened condensed milk. I’m not even being a jerk here: for six pears, you get roughly a half-cup of a liqueur/canned milk/sundae caramel sauce. Each.
The hazelnut biscotti and Irish cream and coffee pound cake are both delicious. I’m a popinjay, not a monster.
Then we get to Martin’s Ice Cream & Candy Bar Concoction. Look, if you’re not going to care, Oxmoor House, then I’m not going to either.
The drinks chapter is called “Some Like it Hot.” The first recipe is… raspberry milkshakes. DAMN. IT. I’m starting to think that the editors of Southern Living’s licensed cookbook division don’t nearly care as deeply about nouvelle French cuisine and the then-emerging Pacific Northwest coffee house aesthetic as I do.
We’re thereafter treated to Martin’s Mud Slide Malts, which definitely seem like a thing he’d have made fun of one of his sons for ordering at a cop bar. Everything else tends to the ghoulishly sweet: most everything gets brown sugar’d, liquer’d, ice cream’d, toffee’d, and what have you.
To make sense of this panopticon of ’90s coffee drinks, I called in a ringer, my own Niles of the coffee arts. Herein we turn to the counsel of my friend and fellow fusspot writer Ken Hayes:
Coffee is coffee. For many people, this is true. Coffee is often regarded as merely a functional tool to survive and is put to work as one would a hammer or a random orbital sander. It allows people to function as contributing members of society and go about their days without ending up on the evening news. There have been many times where a complimentary Amtrak coffee or a clean-ish mug at a diner served an important purpose for me, but that’s not what we’re doing here today.
To anyone familiar with the broadcast masterpiece Frasier, it will come as no surprise that we are about to celebrate a few of the finer things in life. Fellow contributor and Frasier-phile John Carruthers received this collection of inspired recipes and, knowing my love for coffee, challenged me to recreate a few and share the adventure with all of you. Challenge accepted!
However, at the risk of associating the name Frasier Crane with a pretentious lecture, dispensing unwanted advice on etiquette and protocol at great length, I’ll need to first familiarize you with a few coffee ground rules. Coffee requires only two things: ground coffee beans and water. There is a virtually endless variety of directions where things can go from there.
Anyone who has overheard a fellow coffee drinker place their absurdly specific order (iced, Ristretto with five shots, two pumps of caramel, one small dollop of whipped cream with only a dusting… dusting of cinnamon, whisper “I believe in you!”, and poured, not shaken) will understand. Ultimately, when so much depends on two key ingredients, it’s important to get those right:
- Try to use good water. If your water tastes like a municipal pool after Eddie went for a swim, your coffee will taste like that too. I’m not saying you need to source your water from a blessed spring littered with crutches and braces from those who no longer need them. Maybe just run it through the pitcher filter you’ve had in your fridge since college.
- Don’t freeze your beans. They will absorb flavors from your disgusting freezer and the moisture in them will expand, causing the beans to fracture at the cellular level. Try to buy whole beans and consume them within about two weeks after the date they were roasted.
- Grind your beans as close to when you’re going to make your coffee as possible. The act of grinding will dramatically increase their surface area, and cause them to lose their flavor even more rapidly.
You have your clean water and your freshly ground fancy beans. You are ready to brew. Now what? First take that scoop you’ve been using to measure your beans and throw it directly into the garbage. A scoop measures volume and we want to measure mass. Go get your roommate’s scale that he uses for weighing his… uh, coffee. The “golden ratio” of water-to-beans is exactly 17.42, which sounds ridiculous but is true. So for every gram of coffee bean, use 17.42 milliliters of water. Depending on the way you’re preparing the coffee and your preference for strength, using between 16 and 18 will usually net you a very tasty cup. Now that we have the basics covered, let the games begin!
I initially had high hopes for Cardamom Coffee, hot brewed coffee mixed with crushed cardamom seeds and an orange thinly sliced. I’ve made something similar in the past with a bit of orange zest mixed into the grounds before brewing, based on a Lebanese technique I learned from a friend. It was delicious. A perfect treat for a cold winter morning!
For this I used the only coffee I could think of that would simultaneously be most appropriate and most insulting to Dr. Frasier Crane: Starbucks Pike’s Place Roast. As I began preparing the orange slices, I grew concerned that using the skin and pith from the orange would create a very bitter flavor, particularly because I would be bringing the mixture to a boil. Consider this part of the story to be where the frightening old man at the gas station warns the group of horny college kids not to go down that one road.
As it was simmering I could already tell I should have listened to that wacky premonition. One sip and it tasted like a prankster had poured half a bottle of orange bitters into my mug when I wasn’t looking for that split second. So, so bitter. I would absolutely give this another go, but try very thin orange peels, slices of an orange without the peel or pith, or a combination thereof.
The recipe for Harvest Coffee suggests brewing coffee with apple pie spice in… a percolator. Hand me my percolator, boy! All right, I don’t have a percolator. But I do have a glass Chemex coffee maker, so that’s what I used. It’s important to have a consistent grind size when you brew coffee using any pour-over method. That will allow the water to flow through and extract the coffee at the ideal rate.
Instead, I mixed the apple pie spice directly into the grounds, which gummed up my filter and took about twice as long to brew that much coffee. For this recipe I used the Founder’s Blend from Stumptown Coffee Roasters. So far, so good. Now, let’s make some hot milk and maple syrup!
Any recipe that has an explicit warning in it commands a fair bit of attention from me, as the consequences are usually dire. Don’t boil the milk. Got it.
As clumsily as I made this recipe, it turned out great, especially garnished with a cinnamon stick. I’m not usually a fan of flavored coffee, but who doesn’t enjoy some apple and cinnamon? Need to bring something to kick off a tailgate before the booze starts flowing? Pop this in a thermos and you will be right as rain.
There we have it. This last step into Nervosa is a mixed bag: where Frasier shines through, it shines bright. And honestly, this could have turned out much worse. That Breaking Bad cookbook I found at the thrift store didn’t even have one recipe with Sudafed in it. And the Game of Thrones cookbook just gets a little too erotic about food for my delicate tastes. Or maybe that was the novels.
Either way, if you’re looking for a brief respite between rewatches, you could do worse. I wish you good day, and good mental health.