When my husband realized how much I was spending, stopping for a breakfast latte at the local coffeehouse on the way to work, he bought me this for Christmas three years ago. I'm fairly certain it paid for itself in the first two months.
The idea is that you load the coffee into the basket, fill the lower chamber with water, and screw the top on, just as you would with any stovetop moka pot; but this one uses a valve to trap the steam produced by the coffeemaking process, then releases it to steam the milk. The coffee then releases into the milk, mixing with it as it foams. So the latte (or cappuccino--see below for more on this) is pre-mixed, rather than having the frothed milk ready to pour on top of the espresso shot. Eventually, with some tweaks, I was able to make a latte that was nearly as good as my local coffeehouse's (OK, the roast on their beans is better!), and certainly better than Starbucks'.
The first few times I used this were an unqualified disaster. Once I conditioned the seals a bit, the leaking slowed down (I still got little leaks around the gasket for a while--which made a good sizzle on my gas stove, but weren't enough to cause major problems--but as the metal threads ground down a bit that went away entirely), but the coffee was still abysmal. I wanted to use the local coffeehouse's beans, but no matter what level I set the burr grinder to, it either clogged or the coffee came out thin and watery. And the milk was cold, and didn't froth at all when the valve popped.
But after some trial and error, and a fair amount of fiddling, I figured out a process that works for me. I can now get a perfect latte ready as I'm getting ready to walk out the door, in about ten minutes total (and during 5 of those, i'm getting my shoes on and finding my keys!).
First, you need the right coffee. I finally realized that the Illy Caffé Espresso Grind works perfectly, every time, with no guessing. I get it cheaper from my local import stores (World Market or Rodmans, in our area), and at the rate I use it, it stays fresh enough in its tin. You might be able to buy a can of Illy and then try to match the grind setting, but I never got around to that. Seems to me the Italians have this whole moka pot thing figured out, and I'm happy to defer to them.
Second, you need to work out your ideal milk. I've discovered that different types of milk froth differently. Some brands, I can get a good froth from the skim with no problem; others, even the whole milk won't froth. So if you like a frothy cappuccino, try a few different brands until you find one that works for you. For some reason, organic brands often froth higher for me. (And you might want to fill the milk chamber to just below the line to avoid overflow, if you're using a really frothy brand of milk). On weekdays, I put mine in a travel mug, so I usually prefer a lower-froth, latte-like drink that allows me to squeeze a bit more milk into the chamber--since the froth disappears in the cup, anyway.
The amount of milk and coffee it brews is definitely measured in the European idea of a "cup" of coffee; the literature says it makes two cups of cappuccino, but the whole amount fits into my 16oz travel mug, with a bit of room to spare for the froth. It also fits fine into my weekend coffee mugs, although I do use a little less milk if I know it will be foamy.
Next, work out your stove setting. I have a Kenmore gas range, and I use a setting just between 7 and 8 on my regular (non-power, non-simmer) burner. This will take some practice, for sure. Too low, and it takes forever; too hot, and the milk will scald. But medium-high is a good place to start.
***Also, you MUST understand that the coffee isn't done just because the valve pops and the milk froths; you need to allow the milk to heat a bit further.*** This is the main reason people complain about this pot--they say the milk isn't hot enough! I like to heat it to about 140F, because my travel mug keeps it perfectly hot for quite some time, and I want it to be drinkable right away. It's entirely up to you, but just be sure not to scald it. I use a probe-type digital thermometer, to eliminate guesswork.
Finally, proper cleaning is essential. I finally arrived at a fairly good way to do it, and it's not too complicated. Of course, you only use soap on the inside of the milk chamber or the outside of the pot, using just hot water on the parts that only the coffee touches. This builds up a coating of coffee oils, resulting in better flavor and protection from corrosion. (My flavor got much better after the first few months, even though I was using the same coffee every day.) However, you do need to use soap on the parts that the milk touches, to prevent sour milk and bacteria.
Once my coffee is poured, I take off the milk valve and run water through it right away, and then drop the whole pot in the sink, adding a little water to the milk chamber so it can soak while I'm at work. Then when I get home, it's pretty easy to clean. (If you want to make another pot right away, you can run cold water over the whole pot to cool it down. But do take the valve off to release the pressure before you try to unscrew the halves.) When I get home, I take it apart and rinse the lower parts with hot water, then wash the inside of the milk chamber with a soapy sponge. I also keep a toothbrush handy, and give the milk frothing valve and the release valve on the side of the pot (and on its inner side, inside the pot, too) a good swipe to keep them from getting clogged. It also helps clean the ridges on the center post, if they seem like they're getting too crusty.
It's not exactly super-easy to clean on a daily basis, but it's got to be better than the maintenance on the big pump machines! And that's it--there are never any bigger maintenance tasks that you have to remember to do.
So, here's how I brew in the AM:
1) Spread paper towel on counter next to stove, to contain mess.
2) Prep travel mug with sugar (yes, I'm a big baby!), and place on counter right next to pot.
3) Load basket with Illy Caffé (not too full, and don't tamp) and fill water reservoir using the included measuring cup. (I use a gas stove, and I found their marking for the gas range to be just right.) Screw milk chamber onto lower half, and pop valve onto the post. Take care to be sure the valve is seated properly--you'll get a feel for it, in time--and that the button is pressed down for froth (otherwise it will just be warm milk, not steamed).
(I've considered prepping these first steps the night before, but was concerned about stale coffee. You could try it, though--the seal on the pot might keep it fresh enough?)
4) Fill upper chamber with milk, using mark as a guideline (see above for notes on milk frothing--again, if you're using super-frothy milk, go just below the line to leave room, if you're using non-frothy milk, you could go a hair or two above).
5) Insert the probe of a digital kitchen thermometer into the milk chamber, running the cable over the edge of the pot to the display unit on the counter. I have the alarm set to go off at 140 degrees. (I used to have one that gave an alert when the temperature was 5 degrees away from the set temp, which was nice because it gave me time to get over to the pot before it got too far over 140. Now I just set it a few degrees lower if I'm going to another room.)
6) Set the stove knob to between 7 and 8, and walk away.
7) When the alarm sounds (about five minutes later), shut off alarm and stove. Remove thermometer and wipe milk off on the paper towel from the counter, then pour latte into travel mug. Put lid on.
8) Take pot over to sink; remove milk valve and run water through it to avoid internal crusting of the dried milk. Run a bit of water into the milk chamber for ease of cleaning later. (There's still a bit of pressure built up, even after taking the valve off, so I fill it below the top of the post in the middle. This prevents the pot from sucking milky water back down into the lower chamber, which should remain a coffee-only zone.)
9) Fold up paper towel to contain any spilled grounds, and toss in trash.
10) Shake travel mug over sink to test seal and mix in sugar.
11) Grab keys and computer bag, and run for the car.
After three years, I am starting to experience more days where something doesn't go right (maybe one or two a month, as opposed to about four over the whole previous year), but I'm not sure if I just need to replace the milk frothing valve again, or whether better cleaning of the pressure valve on the pot itself is necessary as time goes on and more coffee gets crusted in the pot.
But the pot itself has held up extremely well, as have the gasket and filter plate (replaced three times in three years, once because the gasket got nicked with a knife in the sink) and the filter basket (replaced once in three years, I think). The plastic milk valve is the key to the whole operation, and needs to be replaced a bit more frequently (I think this is my fifth or sixth, but two of those were because our housekeeper kept running them through the garbage disposal).
But given a three-latte-a-week habit, this baby has more than paid for itself over the last three years. I've had no complaints, once I figured out a process that worked for me, and I hardly even think about it any more. The key is finding the right coffee grind and the proper milk for your tastes, and allowing the milk to continue to heat after frothing stops. Proper cleaning will ensure that your coffee only gets better over time.
If I were drinking lattes or cappuccinos at home every day, in a nice mug so I could appreciate the lovely brown crema as it mixes with the perfectly-steamed milk, I'd consider something fancier. But for a single serving for the road--like you'd get at Starbucks, only cheaper and quicker and tastier--it's perfect.