My years (and years and years) of barista experience give me an edge when it comes to making lattes and mochas at home. There was a time I wouldn't go near anything other than a cup of coffee--did you know a 16-ounce cup of coffee has twice as much caffeine as a 16-ounce latte? True story. But after a trip to Seattle for a wedding and the most delicious soy caramel latte ever, my love of lattes began to grow. I still have regular coffee in the morning, but I truly look forward to my afternoon latte/mocha treats.
So, here's what I'd do if I were you:
1. Go to wholelattelove.com and start looking around. Check out their buying guide. If you've got an upscale kitchen store nearby, hit them up and let them tell you about the machines they have on their shelves. A little homework will go a long way here.
2. Keep in mind that you do not have to spend a ton of money. We got ours (Krups XP4030) on sale at Macy's for about $150. It's not the greatest machine in the whole wide world, but it's 16 months old and it's still running like a champ (knock on wood). I will say, though, that I rarely, if ever, steam milk. I actually prefer my lattes kind of lukewarm, so I just add cold milk to my espresso and I'm good to go. Point is: Don't spend a fortune. It's not necessary. Unless you're getting an Ascaso and, if you are, I'd appreciate it if you would go ahead and get me one, too.
3. Don't get a Nespresso. Don't get anything that requires a "pod". You're robbing yourself of both quality and the experience of actually making coffee. Get a machine that uses fresh ground beans and get a good grinder to go with it. You'll save yourself a ton of money in the long run and have the freedom to use whatever coffee you darn well please, rather than being a slave to the pod people. You'll also be able guarantee your coffee is fresh and, as always, reduce the amount of waste you create by not having to pop open (and throw away) one of those infernal little pods every time you want a treat.
4. Once you've decided what to get and you've got it and you're staring at it with starry eyes and you want to use it, but you're not exactly sure what to do, head to your local independent coffee shop and, when they aren't super busy, ask if one of their baristas could just quickly walk you through the process. It's not tough, but there is definitely some rather unappreciated art and skill involved.
5. Get some fancy syrups. I found a Pumpkin Spice syrup that is going to save me so much money this winter. It's also going to keep me from having to put pants on and leave the house when I feel the urge to Pumpkin up. Fabulous!
Here's a little video to inspire you. And if you get bored, go to youtube and look up "latte art". Mind-boggling! (also mind-boggling: the spell-check thinks "youtube" is a word. When did that happen?) So, yeah...the video: How to Make a Latte
Update (10/15/09): So, after I posted this last night, I started wondering how well our machine would steam. I tried it this afternoon and it turns out that for all the great work it does making the espresso shots, it totally FAILS when it comes to steaming. Major failure. Like, "Christmas is coming and I think I might know what I want" fail. If you know for certain you aren't going to steam milk, the Krups XP4030 is the machine for you. If you think you might want to steam your milk even once...keep looking. And let me know if you find a machine that steams well!
That is all.