I’ve been meaning to get back to making a masala chai and a Christmas tea blend, so to clear through both I combined the themes. This also contains a touch of bitter orange marmalade to fill in the spice range with a little fruit but the title seemed wordy adding it.
I’ve done Christmas tea blends before, and talked through what that’s all about quite a bit. Two years ago I did a fruit and spice blend, and last year’s version went a bit further from the basics (black tea, orange citrus, and cinnamon) to include vanilla, cacao nibs, and black cherry jam, so based on chocolate covered cherries. It was nice, just a bit removed from a typical dry tea and spice blend.
This year I didn’t put the advance thought in and prep was mostly limited to what I had around. That actually came up as both a positive and negative factor in the outcome.
-Thai organic CTC black tea
-ginger, clove, cardamom, touch of salt and black pepper
-bitter orange marmalade
-palm sugar, milk
I did have to buy the black tea for this; funny there was no CTC tea in the house. I think my wife picked up a couple of free tea bags in a hotel stay once but I went ahead and bought some loose black tea anyway.
I used all dry spices; spice-rack versions. If the spices are relatively fresh that’s fine (not on the old side, I mean, anything in jars isn’t fresh in the other sense), since spices have a pretty good life-span. Flavor dropping off is one thing but after a couple of years they really can pick up a mustiness. Ginger is typically easy to use fresh, since we cook with the root here, and it’s even easy to find back in the US, but we seemed to be out. I think the powdered ginger was the oldest of the spices and did contribute a slight mustiness. Luckily the proportion of ginger was quite low in this version, something I’ll get into more in the next section.
I would expect that black cherry would be nice for the fruit balance, or orange peel for citrus, but bitter orange marmalade was the closest thing on hand. I considered squeezing in a bit of fresh pomelo juice (Asian grapefruit), since that was on hand around, but didn’t expect it to work as well.
White chocolate was sort of a gamble. I wasn’t sure the texture would work, but then using real vanilla bean (in the past) does contribute a really thick, creamy texture to spice and tea blends, which is still ok. Adding a touch of salt gives blends balance. I’m not sure it changed much but I went with a dash of black pepper for this version, which isn’t atypical for masala chai, I just don’t like peppery chai. Palm sugar isn’t that different than a natural brown sugar; it was really just what was around.
The blend was mostly black tea. Clove was heaviest after that, with this version light on ginger. There was a good bit of chocolate, nearly as much as in a Hershey bar, but not enough to make the drink into a tea flavored hot chocolate instead of a chocolate flavored tea. I didn’t measure those, which leads into an aside I’ve been meaning to mention, and probably have already covered, about not sticking to well-determined proportions or parameters.
It comes from an approach to cooking. I taught myself to cook in my 20s, based on my mother’s cooking (which is quite good, mainly traditional foods back in Pennyslvania), and on a partial study in making dorm food in college. Part of my approach was to never, ever use recipes, except maybe for something like chocolate chip cookies–those are touchy. It was about the process as much as the outcome. Funny that just came up in talking about making tea; you can probably imagine why. People get into the ceremonial aspects of that, or see it as some sort of Zen practice, with the Japanese tea ceremony based on that sort of thinking. I could be more careful about using ideal parameters (I am an engineer too; I get it), but then it becomes about optimization, not the experience. For me winging it is part of an organic process, and experience limited natural variation is too.
So back to that blend. I mixed the ingredients and simmered for around 15 minutes. For more whole spices I’d probably go with at least 20 minutes, but that’s fine for finer processed versions. Whenever you taste such a mix without milk it seems like you’ve completely ruined it, but adding the milk swings it all into a reasonable balance. It’s probably more typical to simmer along with the milk, and it’s my impression that the milk does actually cook a little, changing the flavor, but this time I didn’t.
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You have an interesting take on preparations. My daughter is one that likes to proceed organically, without actual measurements. I struggle with being about to duplicate something that comes out wonderfully if I haven’t measured. It’s different each time which causes me to be reluctant to try it again. It’s fine for a 1 off but that’s about it as I’m typically disappointed by my repeat efforts. My goal is to become more flexible with this and work toward being more Zen in the future.
Love your creativity in using what’s around.
I don’t think either general approach is right or wrong. You’ve flagged one of the two main problems with preparing things on the fly, that they’re not repeatable, and of course the other is inconsistency, that results may be better than you expect or instead not as good. It seems like it might relate to either embracing the outcome as a main factor or the experience of preparation, since standardizing things would give uniformly positive results, and perhaps better results in general, but would limit your own input to the process, it would be a different kind of activity. Last year I spent a couple of weeks tracking down cacao nibs for that blend version (they’re not as commonly available here) but this year I did just go with what was around.
I did try to make this tea a second time, to make adjustments to improve it, and it didn’t turn out as well. I swapped out the ginger for adding more clove, and doubled the amount of bitter orange marmalade. Taken alone those changes would have been fine, but I also went a little heavy on the dash of salt, which pulled it slightly towards a savory tone. A little salt is important because it makes a flavor profile make sense, which you can sort of taste in some nice vanilla ice cream once you get dialed into separating flavors, but the ideal range is narrow. I wasn’t all that disappointed; it’s just part of the experience.