Monday, March 18, 2013

Oh Chai, My Chai!

My love for cozy hot mug drinks began with a splash of coffee in a saucer.
It was a sturdy floral saucer that looked more like a petite shallow bowl than a secure ridged base for a delicate china teacup.  This saucer was my first “coffee” mug.  Every morning after spending a night with my paternal Grandmother AB, we drank coffee with our breakfast; me with this appointed mug, Grandmama with hers.  We had a seamless ritual.  As Grandmama AB stood at the stove making our breakfast and drinking her coffee, at some point, she would look down into her mug, then look over its edge at me as she took a sip and ask the inevitable question, would you like some “coffee”?  I always said yes!  Grandmama would then mix sugar and milk together in a small pot.  I recall it being exactly that, a bit of milk with my sugar.  The mix was heated until it began to steam and boil just around the edges.  To create what became my barely tawny “saucer ‘o joe”, Grandmama AB would then add the most delicate splash of stove-top percolated coffee into my steamy sweetened milk.  Sometimes, there was hot chocolate made the same way, with a splash of coffee.  I have memories, me, maybe six years old, sitting with my Grandmama with our “coffees” and toasts, eggs, or grits, whatever.  We were Ladies, Honeys! Pinkies in the air!

My version of a childhood tea parties were breakfasts with Grandmama AB, and that sweet little concave saucer.
This memory leads me to my new favorite tea, homemade loose leaf Chai tea.

Chai (rhymes with pie) is traditionally an East Indian spiced milk tea.  Generally, Chai is made up of a combination of black tea, spices, milk, and a sweetener.
The beauty of this recipe is that it is easily multiplied, flexible, and has been taste tested, beyond!  There have been tea thermoses filled using mostly water, some milk, per the brewing instructions.  The taste is conventional and lovely. Rich and savory is the mug that was steeped using all milk, almond milk, or all any type of milk.  Comfort-ing!  Black and bold is my new favorite way to enjoy this tea; straight up, no milk, with sweetener, and a couple orange and fresh ginger slices. This tea is the cure for cold winter mornings.

If you make a batch, I’m here to confirm that two things will happen: (1) you’ll always have to keep some in your pantry for yourself, and (2) you will immediately run a list of every friend and relative you want to make this mix for.
Loose tea strainers for everyone!

By the way, packaged in mason jars, and decked out the right way, this mix makes a most excellent holiday, special occasion, or hostess gift.
Chai Tea Mix Recipe
One batch makes about 12-16 cups

Tweaked barely from The Kitchn

The Method: The Ingredients

17 green cardamom pods
3 teaspoons of mixed peppercorns (black, red, and green)
1 1/2 tablespoon fennel seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon whole cloves

2 2-inch cinnamon stick
5 tablespoons minced candied ginger
1/2 cup of loose black tea 

Preheat oven to 350°

Before we dive into the chai making process, let’s talk spices for a second.

One of the first, most life changing, and best lessons I’ve ever learned in the kitchen is to get to know, and experiment with spices. Spices are the historical bridges that connect remote countries to where you and I stand in our kitchens today.  Spices create a commonality in culture where some people see none.  They open the flood gates to curiosity and learning that can so easily be taken for granted.  You can travel the world, and have more familiarity with a place you’ve never been simply by cooking with unfamiliar spices.  Spices have health benefits, and their usage alleviate the default reaching for the salt.

It was unimaginable the way simply integrating different spices into our cooking changed the way we enjoy food, or have tea as the case may be.

Chai Tea Spices 101a.

Keep in mind, whole spices should always be kept in an air tight container in a cool, dry place.  They should be ground just before using, or else they lose their flavor quickly.  Spice grinders (electric or manual), and mortars and pestles do the job nicely.  Additionally, I find that buying spices in bulk saves the wallet, and creates a hefty pantry to create all kinds of recipe fun.

Ok, here we go.

Cardamom is a true Diva spice.  She’s not cheap, and she’s got real talent!  Intense, a little Cardamom goes a long way, and too much is simply overwhelming.  In getting to know Cardamom, she’s become one of my favorite spices. It has a three syllable name just like I do, that when you read it, you do a bit of a double take to make sure you’re reading it correctly.  Little known of Cardamom is that it is the seed of a tropical fruit in the ginger family.   With an impressive array of health benefits, Cardamom is both uniquely pungent and sweet in flavor.  Cardamom leaves a lasting impression. In this tea, I can’t seem to get enough of her. 

The original The Kitchn recipe called for red and black Peppercorns as individual ingredients.  Instead, I used a bulk mix of black, green, and red Peppercorns as one ingredient.  Peppercorns are the berries of a spikey vine plant native to India that can be used ground or whole in cooking.  Like an Old G Loan Shark, with a very high interest rate of flavor, Peppercorns are colorful and varied.  Historically, they were regarded as currency, akin to everything pertaining to luxury.  Peppercorns have a sharp bite.  Just now in thinking about Peppercorns, a vision of the character Sweet Daddy Williams from Good Times popped into my head. If you’re unfamiliar with Sweets, he shows up in this scene around 4:55.  Peppercorn I’m telling you, Peppercorn!

Coriander seeds became a pantry staple once I started working with Rick’s Picks.  Typically ground, whole Coriander seeds are a common ingredient in pickling spices.  Coriander seeds are actually the dried fruit of the coriander plant.  Aromatic, they have a nutty, warm citrus flavor.  Coriander seeds are used extensively in Indian, Middle Eastern and Asian cuisines. They also do well freshly ground in spice rubs.

For a long time, whenever I first cooked with fennel seeds, I also thought about sausage.  Fennel seeds are the seeds you find running through Italian sausage.  That flavor immediate comes to mind.  They have an aromatic aniseed earthy licorice vibe.  Candied or plain, they are often used as a natural breath freshener. There’s some trivia for you!  The actual fennel bulb is a crisp layered vegetable, like an onion with fronds that, in bloom, look like fresh dill.  Fresh fennel is great sautéed, roasted, grilled, or even eaten raw.

Whole Cloves are the dried spikey flower buds of a certain tree in the Myrtle Family. Dried and ground cloves are used in cuisines all around the world.  I seem to have these odd associations with spices. Well, there are so many of them to remember, and, a lady does what a lady has to do to remember.  Cloves, I associate with the dentist, and Novocain. I know, it is not the most romantic of associations, but cloves are aromatically quite sultry in their woodiness. However, it is true; historically cloves were used by dentists as a natural anesthetic.  Patients were encouraged to pack cloves around infected mouth areas to numb the pain.  Be advised by this visual. Whole cloves are not usually eaten, but steeped in to sauces, soups, Easter hams, or rice for flavor alone. Ground cloves, great in baking!

The more commonly used Cinnamon stick is the inner bark of several species of trees.  I enjoy using Mexican cinnamon sticks, Canelas.  They are a softer loose-bark variety than the more commonly found ‘hard-stick’ cinnamon.  You know that something good is baking when you smell the warm, spicy-sweet flavor of cinnamon in the air of your kitchen.  The same is true for its addition to this Chai.

For the tea itself, I used Kalustyan’s orange pekoe black tea, but any loose leaf black tea will do.  I love orange pekoe tea. The bold tea flavor with a hint or fruit in the background is pure yum to me.  These leaves have a bright, subtle taste with a rich amber color on steeping.  Kalustyan’s Ceylon Black Tea with Orange Pekoe is subtly refreshing in its boldness.

I hope that was helpful; it surely was to me. I know even more now about chai spices than when I started this post.


The Madness: The Assembly

Now that we’re more familiar with Chai spices, your oven should be completely preheated by now.

With a small paring knife, crack the cardamom pods in half. Be sure to cut on a flat surface. Those little suckers will shoot off in any of twenty directions if you’re not careful.  My primary goal was to cut into the cardamom pod just enough to crack its shell and release its essence. Don’t worry if the pod cracks fully. Just be sure to collect all of its good fragrant spice bits from the inside of the pod. 

I was lucky enough to find mini pie tins at one of my favorite overstock Brooklyn haunts, so I generally parcel out and roast at least eight batches of spices on one sheet pan.  You will add ½ cup of dried tea leaves for each serving of spices you roast and crush. For eight batches of spice, you will need four cups of loose tea leaves.

In your pie pan(s) add the cardamom along with the peppercorns, fennel, coriander, cloves and cinnamon.

Toast in the oven for about 5-7 minutes.  The scent of your kitchen will become intoxicating.

While your spices are toasting, mince the candied ginger, set aside.

Remove the spices from the oven, set aside and allow them to cool.

Because I knew that I would have to crush the spices, I dumped all of the spices in to a zip lock bag.  Crush spices lightly with a rolling pin or in a mortar and pestle. You may have to crumble the cinnamon stick with your hands.

In a bowl, toss the spices, candied ginger and tea together until blended. I sort of get in there with my hands. With the candied ginger acting as the binding agent, I try to fully incorporate everything so that the heavier spice bits don’t fall to the bottom of the chai mix, but rather stay integrated in with the tea leaves.

Once mixed, you’re ready to sip.  Be sure to keep the remaining tea mix in an air tight container in a cool dry cabinet.  To steep your tea, you can use either a metal tea strainer or filter tea bags.

Tea for One Brewing Instructions

Courtesy of The Kitchn

1 cup of water
1/2 cup of milk
1 tablespoon of Chai Mix placed into a tea bag, or loose tea strainer/infuser
Sugar, Honey, agave, your choice of sweetener to taste

As your water is coming to a boil, add the tablespoon of loose tea leaves to your tea bag or tea infuser.  Place it into your tea cup or mug.  Bring the water to a boil.  Add the teabag. Turn off the heat and let steep for about 5 minutes. Add the milk.  You may want to turn the flame back to reheat your chai now that the milk has been added.  Remove your tea bag or infuser, sweeten to taste.

Keeping It Real Disclosure: I found this recipe googling consumable holiday gift ideas.  From the very moment it loaded on my computer screen, I loved it.  From the moment I tasted my first cup, I was in love with it. Now, I think I’m officially a stalker! There are at least 4 variations that I’m chomping at the bits to try, including a decaf version. In tweaking the recipe from The Kitchn to my taste, I wanted the spices to stand out a bit more.  Be prepared, the entire process of making this blend is full on sensory. You are in for a wonderful surprise! The sights, smells, touch, and warmth it brings to your kitchen is addictive.  Then there is the taste.  Collectively, this chai tea just brings out the best of exhales that life has to offer.

xo, Bon Appégeechee


  1. I love this chai primer. And cardamom is indeed a diva, though one I welcome to my kitchen with wide open arms.

    I love the toasting of the spices and the addition of candied ginger...and the peppercorns and fennel - what a surprise.I have to make this soon!

    1. Thanks, Ozoz! Full Disclosure: I'm having a cup right now! Let me know how it turns out for you!

  2. I have done just about everything to fight off the Winter/Spring blues for weeks now and yesterday evening, decided to take a "stab" at this recipe you recommended. You called it a "healer" in fact, and you know what they say: "if at first you don't succeed, chai and chai again!" I absolutely LOVE this chai! The pop of spice and aromas just soothed me to a mental and emotional state of: "I can handle this". Thank you so much for this "keeper" of a recipe! I will definitely be making some mixes as gifts. I think it's a FABULOUS idea and I know so many people in my life who will absolutely love and also benefit from this!

  3. Thanks, Karen! I do love this Chai. It gives me the morning picker upper I need, in such a soothing uniform. The weather here is BEGGING for Chai!!

  4. Amazing! Chai tea is my middle name. I have got to try this. You are inspirational!

  5. Freedes, it is you that is an inspiration! I started this blog being inspired all across the web by food lovers and teachers like YOU. Honey, this Chai is the TRUTH! I love it! I ran out last week, and have been lost without it. Thankfully Spring has Sprung (or at least is trying to). Let me know what you think when you make it.