Think twice before you pour what’s left of this morning’s pot down the drain.

By Darcy Lenz
June 26, 2020
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Photo: Alison Miksch; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Sarah Elizabeth Cleveland

When I look at certain recipes, articles, and interviews with chefs, I can see how it’d be really easy to get the impression that you need all sorts of speciality ingredients in order to bake truly delicious things. This is patently false. 

Sure, there are times when it might be worth splurging on a higher quality ingredient, but a $12 bar of artisanal baker’s chocolate, coarsely chopped just so, is not the determining factor in whether or not your chocolate chip cookies will taste good. (Target brand chocolate chips are actually pretty phenomenal, FYI.) 

Full disclosure, I did not go to culinary school. But I think the key to great baking—and by “great,” I mean the kind of delightful food people are taken by surprise with at the first bite—is the ability to see exceptional potential in the ordinary. To see magic in the mundane! Some folks might call it resourcefulness, or imagination. Whatever you call it, anyone like myself, who found their way to baking without access to pastry chef-approved ingredients (or name-brand ingredients, for that matter) will likely agree, the most incredible creations usually come from using what you happen to already have in your kitchen. Which will generally look a bit different from each house to the next. However, I’m willing to bet a lot of us have one thing in common sitting on the kitchen counter right now:A vessel containing the cold dregs of this morning’s coffee. 

Most days, I too just pour it down the drain. But that cold, leftover coffee has so much potential, especially when it comes to your baking projects. Here’s a few ways to make magic with it. 

Boost Your Brownies 

Had to get this out of the way first because, well, this isn’t exactly a new trick. However, if you’ve never tried it, you really ought to. Coffee brings out the richest, most chocolatey notes of chocolate, so putting the two together tastes like perfect synergy. I especially like this flavor enhancing move to add a little more depth to boxed brownies; simply replace the water called for in the instructions with your leftover brewed coffee. Of course, if you wanted to, you could certainly do the same with your favorite homemade brownie recipe. Just keep it to a couple of tablespoons—you don’t want to thin out the batter too much. And for even more coffee power, add a tablespoon or so of fresh coffee grounds. (Coffee grounds are also a fun addition to cookie dough, just ask Christina Tosi… no one can resist a Compost Cookie.)

Build a Better Breakfast Bake 

Have you ever met someone who dislikes French toast casserole? I have not. That’s because it’s essentially bread pudding for breakfast and how does one not get behind such a brave and brilliant endeavor? So, what I want you to do is, next time you’re moving to make an overnight French toast bake or bread pudding (especially a chocolate bread pudding), you add some leftover brewed coffee to the custard mixture you’re going to soak the stale bread in. 

Whip It, Whip It Real Good

So often, our baked creations are only fully brought to life by a creamy finishing touch—the frosting between the layers, the whipped cream on top, the glaze drizzled over… the icing on the cake, if you will. And the good news is, incorporating leftover coffee can bring so much personality to all of these things. Most any basic buttercream or cream cheese frosting recipe will be completely compatible with a coffee addition. The key is to add the brew slowly (in place of the milk or other liquid called for) to make sure you achieve the consistency you want. Same goes for basic glazes, so spooning a coffee-infused drizzle over pound cake or coffee cake (naturally) is definitely something you should pencil in on your calendar. Or add a touch of coffee as you're mixing up a batch of fresh whipped cream for a chocolate cream pie or even pineapple upside down cake. (Trust me pineapple and coffee are an unexpectedly delicious combo; and if you don’t trust me that’s fine, just try this nonalcoholic cocktail recipe and see.)

Caffeinate Your Cake Batter

You know what goes really well with the coffee imbued frostings we were talking about above? A chocolate cake made with coffee to enhance its chocolatey goodness, that’s what. Chocolate is the obvious choice, but a spice cake, red velvet cake, or even plain vanilla cake could benefit from a subtle coffee flavor note. Like I mentioned with the brownies, this is a great trick to drop on a boxed cake mix

Cheesecake, Too!

I could’ve lumped cheesecake in with cake above, but I think it’s important that we all acknowledge that cheesecake isn’t actually cake. All the same, mix leftover coffee into your (chocolate) cheesecake filling, it’s a good thing to do. 

Bake Mightier Muffins

When do we typically eat muffins? In the morning. And when do we usually start drinking coffee? You got it. Mixing a touch of joe into your breakfast bread is clearly the right move. As with the other baked goods mentioned here, you’ll just need to replace a portion of the liquid called for in the recipe with your chilled coffee. My vote would be starting with these Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Muffins or perhaps a Cinnamon Roll Muffin

Make a Soak-Worthy Syrup

One of the best tips I’ve picked up for making exceptionally flavored, exceptionally moist cakes is brushing them with a flavored simple syrup. In fact, I rarely assemble a layer cake without first brushing the warm layers with a complementary flavored syrup. This also works well with dense bundt cakes; just poke the cake all over the surface with a skewer and generously spoon the syrup over. To make a seriously delicious syrup using your leftover coffee, combine equal parts coffee and granulated sugar in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and allow the syrup to simmer 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow your coffee syrup to cool slightly before brushing onto your cake. 

Now that the cold coffee has been used up, let’s bounce back to what I was saying about pricey ingredients and great baking for just a sec. I don’t want to imply that writers, recipe developers, and chefs who suggest using higher-end ingredients are intentionally being uppity or inaccessible. Keep in mind that writers, recipe developers, and chefs of all backgrounds go to work each day to serve people they don’t actually know. And we all like to put our best foot forward and break out the “good stuff” when we’re serving guests, right? Heck, sometimes, you even want to show your company something they may not have tried before but that you just know they’ll love. So, it’s kind of like that. But just remember, fancy ingredients don’t make the cake—you do.