http://www.flickr.com/photos/toolmantim/262739117/Purist though I am when it comes to enjoying my tea (no flavored varieties – simply single-origin true tea), lately I have been branching out and experimenting with a variety of sweeteners and dairy enrichments and enjoying these hot cuppas as things apart from my usual unadorned beverages. I like to taste the flavor of the tea and therefore have – up until now – resisted putting anything in a nice heat-retaining cup but the properly brewed liquor – the happy result of the unfurling of good-quality whole leaf and water heated to the proper temperature and extracted for the optimal length of time. 

But sometimes it’s nice to explore new vistas when the palate palls and is need of a new experience. So starting with the dairy additions, condensed milk was the first trial. Based on how well this luxurious combination of sweetness and rich cooked dairy flavor works in dark strong coffee drinks, I ventured adding a teaspoon into one of my current favorite black teas from Assam (Banaspaty estate). I don’t presume to understand the chemistry, but the miraculous transformation that happens when fat molecules bind to flavor compounds in the tea is an eye-opener. Certainly the British habit of adding milk to certain everyday black teas (although the practice is thought to have begun when more astringent green teas were the beverage du jour) is nothing new. But taking my cues from that practice, I have gone the tradition one better and added that caramelized cooked milk flavor with the use of condensed milk (full-fat versions are best, I think).

For an even more intense caramel flavor, make your own caramel by cooking granulated sugar (without stirring) over medium heat until it turns a – yes – tea color. While the sugar is cooking, put a small pot of heavy cream on to heat and keep it simmering just below the boil. When the sugar is cooked to the proper color (watch carefully since it turns from tea color to black in a matter of seconds), add the heated cream and stir (the mixture will bubble and boil up, so stir very carefully). When fully blended, allow it to stand and then store it in the refrigerator in a covered container. This will last at least a week. This caramel seems the perfect addition to Yunnan, Keemun, and other full-flavored Chinese black teas, and against convention, even some not-too-tarry Lapsang Souchongs. Try them – you may be surprised.

As for sweeteners beyond the standard granulated sugar and honey, when used sparingly, agave syrup with its intense, but somehow soft, sweetness lends depth and complexity to a favorite Darjeeling processed as a green tea.  The darker and more flavorful second-grade maple syrup works for me when combined with a few drops of heavy cream in a cup of malty Harmutty or Sessa from Assam.

For those times when you crave something sweet and your favorite scone or shortbread is not within reach, try sweetening and lightening the tea and you’ll have your beverage and something sweet and rich all within one cup.

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