Most of the year, I take my tea straight – no sugar, no honey, no lemon, no milk, nothing but good leaves, good water, and proper extraction to bring out the best in the tea. But when fall’s nip is in the air (even Southern California feels different at this time of year), my tea regimen changes. At present, I’m hot in pursuit of this season’s next big idea in dairy-enriched, sweetened, and bracingly spicy chai. There’s nothing wrong with the black tea-based versions of this comforting drink, but green teas – with their grassy and even sometimes pleasantly astringent character – seem just ripe for a bit of sweetening and softening around the edges. When amped up with a hefty dose of whole spices and a bit of sweetening – preferably freshly made caramel (see recipe below), which wraps sweetener and dairy all in one lusciously suave package – green tea chai is a welcome habit when days are getting shorter.
Like clockwork, when the fig tree is losing its leaves and has been stripped clean of its last ripe fruit by the fig lovers around me and the glow on the heart-shaped persimmons on the tree down the street signal that they are almost ready for picking, I crave warm, aromatic spices, such as cardamom, fresh ginger, and cinnamon in my tea.
If time is short and ambition is in short supply, a scant drizzle of agave syrup or a flowery honey stands in for the sweet part of the caramel and 2% milk is an almost virtuous substitute for the cream in the caramel.
But frankly, the pathway to beverage bliss is simple. For each serving, use 2 grams of good quality green tea leaves of your choice (I like the beautiful deep green teas of Japan). Heat 6 ounces of water to 180-190 degrees F. Add well-sourced whole spices (4 cardamom pods, 3 coins of fresh ginger root, and 2 three-inch long cinnamon sticks) and continue to simmer until the liquid is highly aromatic. Feel free to alter the kinds and amounts of spices as you wish. Other spices to consider include black peppercorns, whole cloves, and allspice. Allow to stand for about 5 minutes. Sieve out the spices and then add the tea leaves, allowing for about 2 to 3 minutes of infusion time, depending on which green tea you are using. You may need to reheat the brew slightly if it seems too cool to your taste. Decant into a heated mug, add a generous spoonful of the freshly made caramel, and stir to dissolve. This is one drink that lessens the sting of summer’s end a bit. And there’s always winter when this spiced caramel-enhanced tea habit gets even more serious around the fireplace.
Freshly made caramel
Yield: Approximately one quart of caramel (Note: This keeps well in the refrigerator and when you tire of it in your tea, you may wish to enrich your morning coffee or evening ice cream sundae with it.)
2-1/3 cups (approximately 1 lb.) of granulated sugar
1 cup (8 ounces) water
2 cups (16 ounces) heavy cream
Pinch of salt
In a heavy 2- to 3-quart saucepan, bring sugar and water to a boil. Without stirring (swirl the pan carefully to ensure that the mixture browns evenly), cook over medium heat until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Do not allow the mixture to turn too dark or it will be bitter tasting. Remove from the heat and set aside. Then, place the heavy cream into a 2-quart heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Stand back a bit and carefully add the heated cream to the caramel (it will bubble up and sputter, so be careful). Stir with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula until the mixture is well blended. Stir in a pinch of salt and allow to cool. When cool, place the caramel into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate.