I've had a love-hate relationship with Starbucks since the time I discovered the chain. At first, I was absolutely enamored by the lifestyle coffee concept and loved it to bits for years after, through college (especially through college, where on a sleep deprived, late for class sort of morning, I'd rather use my precious ten minutes - those precious ten before it gets too obnoxious to waltz into class - to wait for a quick espresso at the Starbucks on 34th and Walnut than strangle my empty colgate for those evasive residual dots of toothpaste)...and maybe I even loved it through my first few months at work in New York. I loved that you could customize your tall extra hot bone dry skim cappuccino with sugar-free vanilla to the nth degree, and that someone behind the counter would actually parrot out your order like it were a plain Joe glass of coke. I've yet to find another cafe that's so adept at customizing coffee drinks...and espresso bastardization was, and still is, the name of the game if you want to make fancy Italian drinks accessible to the new age, fusion-fancying Americanized customer.
I loved Starbucks until those first few months of New York. New York has a ton of Starbucks, sometime one right across from the other, which leaves a LOT of room for error. There are some pretty shabby Starbucks in the city, and overall, a high degree of inconsistent quality that I was never exposed to as a college student in Philadelphia. And so the appropriately finnicky and fickle customer in me ventured out to find a more deserving set of baristas to spend my $3.40 on each morning.
And venturing out was all too easy in New York. I couldn't help but inhale the essence of non-chain, little corner cafes with tons of character and devoutly brewed espresso. Like Joe's that conducted espresso brewing and latte art classes, or Everyman Espresso (thanks for the intro Bhuvan!), that refused to lower their puritanical standards and customize my cappuccino. These were places that would turn up their noses to Starbuck's famed caramel macchiato - that 'upside down' latte concoction (heaps of milk first, then espresso) with caramel flavoring dribbled in...and a total imposter when compared to the true macchiato (a shot of espresso first, with an austere spooning of milk or milk foam up top. Interestingly, in my wiki quest for the real macchiato definition, I ran into a another article that actually legitimized the imposter version by giving it a name, a definition and a wiki page all to itself...confusingly called, latte macchiato.).
My love for Starbucks reached its last dying drops when I finally made the switch to my own personal espresso machine, where I could grind and tamp personally selected, medium roasted espresso beans from the Puerto Rican Importing House Co. on St. Marks, and froth milk to my preferred milk-to-foam ratio in an icy cold pitcher that was placed in the freezer for a few minutes before brewing. My roommate couldn't fathom why I'd put my sleep-drived soul through an espresso-making exercise at some ungodly hour of the morning before work. But every sip that followed made this delicate caffeine dance at the start of my day totally worth it.
All said and done, I must admit that now and again, Starbucks does something creative that tugs me back like a lost sentimental puppy into it stores. Like its dense banana chocolate chip coffee cake, or its (artery clogging, nevertheless delicious) glazed apple fritters, or its signature salted caramel hot chocolate that I often suggest to chocoholic friends (rated #10 of 15 Worst, aka unhealthiest, Desserts by Women's Health, as mourned by one of my closest foodie soulmates Sourabh, when he'd discovered the article after indulging in three consecutive days of salted caramel breakfast à la Starbucks on our foodie escapade in Chicago)...or one of my favorites ever, its pumpkin cream cheese muffins that were released into the market right about the time I was staffed on a consulting project in Houston. I distinctly remember rushing to grab a muffin before work kicked off in the morning, in those tranquil few moments before every manager and client on my project would collaboratively plot to inundate my inbox. Picture perfect muffins they were, with the wonderful wintery taste of pumpkin encasing a thick inner cream cheese blob that would ooze out with the laziness of a morning when you'd been snowed in, and couldn't help but take a day off from work (such snowed-in-and-work-is-shut mornings are nothing but myths. They didn't exist during my many years in the US, and now never will back here in Dubai.)
Finding a copycat recipe of those muffins was super easy, with many, many bloggers out there who'd dissected, reengineered and photographed the hell out of this popular muffin. And many more blog visitors who had stopped by to comment, and had ooo-ed and aaa-ed and visually drooled over the reegineered recipes. So this time, rather than try to tinker with the recipe or do some weird fusion of three or four recipes as I normally do, I just stuck with one that seemed to have floated around and been regurgitated through different blogs (and which itself, was a variation of another online recipe). The blog I speak of is Annie's Eats, a deliciously designed website with the pumpkin cream cheese muffin recipe receiving a grand total of 174 comments (at the time of my writing this post) since October 8, 2010. So this recipe had to be the one.
The two things worth mentioning about my attempt at making these muffins was:
(a) I took the 'no shortcuts' route for this recipe...the spices needed for pumpkin pie spice (which is sadly not available in my neighborhood Spinneys) were ground and mixed together in exacting proportions, and fresh pumpkin was pureed to a smooth pulp minutes before being added to the mix (primarily because the Spinney's canned pumpkin pie filling looked suspect)
(b) I delegated all of the arduous grinding and pureeing to one of my sweetest and most awesome friends in Dubai, who patiently endured my orders for this, that and the other (thank you lady, you know who you are!)
We - patiently awesome friend and I - also took the executive decision of adding powdered walnuts to decorate our muffins (sprinkled right before the final few minutes of baking), after realizing that removing the kernels of my store-bought pumpkin seeds was a thanklessly impossible task.
(Blogger's note: I dropped by Starbucks after work this evening, just to purchase one of their drinks so that I could photograph it for this post. The barista conned me into buying a deathly sweet toffee nut latte that cost me an extra Dhs. 6 over my preferred AED 14 cappuccino. I also used the opportunity to do a quick visual survey of the pastry display, which featured a range of wax-like desserts and clinically wrapped sandwiches that seemed exponentially less appetizing than the range they keep in the US.)
(Blogger's note, part 2: The ENOC petrol station on Al Khail in Al Quoz makes a commendably powerful morning cappuccino for just AED 12.)