When winter is just around the corner in my part of the world (southern California) and our meager amount of rain has begun to fall, my tastes turn to chai. But not just any chain coffeehouse chai, a pale imitation of the real thing. I want bold flavors and the notes of a good tea’s personality on par with the blend of spices in the drink. And then there is the question of which dairy to use. Is it full-fat milk or cream? And as for the sweetener, will it be sugar, honey, Lyle’s Golden syrup, or none of the above? I like to combine sweetness with dairy but putting in a dollop of caramel: Decadence on the tongue and easy to achieve. Here’s how.

In a heavy saucepan, begin the process by browning about an inch of sugar over medium heat. Continue cooking until you note the first signs of the sugar melting and starting to brown. Don’t stir the mixture but simply allow it to continue browning, occasionally moving around the unmelted portions into the melted ones with the use of a wooden spoon. Continue to cook again over medium heat until the mixture is completely melted, and you have achieved a uniformly browned but not burnt molten liquid (and I mean molten—be ever vigilant and don’t get burned!). Remove the pot from the burner, turn the burner off and add a nice few glugs of heavy cream (about 1 to 1-1/2 cups in all) which will make the mixture bubble up furiously—again be careful. Let the bubbling subside and then stir gently to smooth out the mixture. Let cool completely and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. This will keep for weeks but I doubt it will hang around your kitchen…you will be tempted to heat a bit up to top a scoop of vanilla ice cream or to pour over a piece of pound cake or as a dip for simple shortbread cookies. This amount will yield approximately 1 pint. But I digress.

Going back to the chai (which will be enriched by this glorious blend of sweet and creamy), I like to use a strong malty Assam tea as the base. For two servings, bring to boil 12 ounces of water, 2 cinnamon sticks, one 4-inch piece of fresh ginger root peeled and cut into ½ inch coins and mashed with a heavy knife or meat pounder, 4 each whole cloves, whole cardamom pods, whole allspice berries, and a few peppercorns. Boil this for a few minutes. Turn off and allow to infuse for a half hour (plan ahead). Now pour this liquid through a sieve, discarding the spices. (Note: You can make this in advance and keep it refrigerated; it will last a couple of days—then continue with the next step when ready to complete and serve.)  Return the now-infused liquid to a pot. Add 3 grams of tea leaves (volume measure will vary depending on the size of the leaves) and bring to just under a boil. Remove from the heat and decant after 3 or 4 minutes, tasting during the infusion to be sure you get it right; the brewing time depends on the tea and your taste. When satisfied that you have reached the perfect brew, discard the tea leaves. Pour into heated cups or mugs, stir in a dollop of the caramel (from above) to sweeten to taste and sit by the fire with a good book, or a nice cat purring in your lap, or both. Inhale the lovely aroma and enjoy this ambrosial treat while it’s still hot.

Photo “Chai Tea” is copyright under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License to the photographer Ben Cumming and is being posted unaltered (source)

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