Tuesday, September 11, 2012

From-scratch Masala Chai

Edit: Hey, readers!  You can now buy jars of my masala chai spice blends on Etsy! Click the "Hippy Elf Chick Etsy Shop" tab below the banner to see what's in stock!

Yesterday something wonderful happened.  The morning after I posted my love letter to fall, Mother Nature was feeling generous, and we suddenly went from 80s day and night to highs in the low 70s and nights and mornings in the 50s!  It is glorious.  And I am so ready for my first hot cup of masala chai.  (I've been drinking it all year, naturally, but chilled!)

how cool are star anise? nature makes the best stuff!
 



I have spent many years in pursuit of a great loose-leaf masala chai, always finding them wanting in some area.  Premade chai blends usually have a strong cinnamon kick, which is definitely nice, but lack a good balance of flavors.  There are a lot of spices in a good masala chai and I want to taste them all!  Occasionally I'd hit on one that was really gingery or really clovey, but they all seemed very one-note.

I've been buying insane quantities of loose tea for 10 years now, and I still haven't been able to uncover the distributors' secrets, though not for lack of trying.  I'm pretty sure there's some kind of infusion process that gets that strong one-note flavor to come out with a regular steeping.  When it comes to using the bare ingredients, it takes a little more time and love to coax the flavors out, but the result will make your house smell like Christmas and your tastebuds do a happy dance.  I gave out jars of this blend for the holidays last year and have had friends clamoring for refills ever since.  Believe me, you want to try this.

No matter how well-stocked your kitchen, this recipe will begin with a shopping list.  And at that, probably an online shopping list.  If you have a good Indian grocery in your area you might be able to pick up bags of many of these whole spices at a steal, but for items like pink peppercorns you will probably have to go to a gourmet store, and overpay for a small quantity.

Basically, here's where you should go:


Bulk organic herbs, spices and essential oils. Sin


Now, full disclosure: I'm a Mountain Rose affiliate and clicking this banner or the one in the right column and then buying something supports Hippy Elf Chick.  I know I don't begrudge bloggers and starving artists making a buck or two, but when I see ads all up in my content it makes me go >:[ .  Let me tell you how that is totally not what I'm doing!  All the ads on my page are for things I hand-picked because I personally find them not only awesome, but relevant enough that I would want to link to them anyway.  The Amazon box at the bottom of the screen is not selected by category or spyware on your computer, I picked out every item on there cause I personally have it/read it/use it and love it, and it's in the scope of stuff I'll be rambling about on this blog.

And speaking of love, I LOVE Mountain Rose Herbs.  They are my corporate soulmate.  If you can even call them a corporation which you probably can't.  I want to live on the West coast just so I can work there and be surrounded by happy hippy vibes and herbs.  I would, and in fact have many times, promote them for free to anyone who will listen.  They have everything a hippy in the kitchen could want, and it's all organic, mostly fair-trade, and if you buy in bulk, usually a better price than you can get anywhere.  And if you want to love them more, just read this page.  They are a force for good in the world.  They're preserving the environment, taking a stand against corporate greed, and passing on the important and quickly dwindling tradition of herbalism through classes for kids and grownups (WHY DON'T I LIVE ON THE WEST COAST!)  They are awesome in every way and if you didn't notice, I'm a massive fangirl.  Oh, and their tea! You guys, THEIR TEA! It is so good! Their English Breakfast and Assam cannot be beaten in quality or price by anything I have ever tried and believe me, I have tried a LOT.  Drink them.  You will be happy.

Actually, that brings us to item #1 on our shopping list.



Basic ingredients:

1. A good loose leaf black tea.  You cannot beat Mountain Rose's Assam for this, or your personal favorite Assam brand.
2. Cinnamon chips.  (I mean cinnamon sticks broken up, not the kind you put in cookies!) I've used both cassia and true cinnamon for this.  Cassia is more fragrant, true cinnamon is more sweet.  True cinnamon would be traditional but they both work well.  Sometimes when I'm using one I'll throw a stick of the other in the pot for good measure, but to give you a sense of perspective, I keep the overflow from my spice cabinet and spice racks in a giant steel bucket that's supposed to be for chilling drinks at parties, and that bucket is also overflowing.  I got cinnamon sticks to spare.
3. Dried ginger root pieces
4. Whole cloves
5. Whole green cardamom pods
6. Whole pink peppercorns
7. Whole star anise pods

Optional ingredients:

slice vanilla lengthwise first to let out all the beany goodness
8. Fresh ginger root.  I HIGHLY recommend this. You can combine ingredients 2-7 above in a jar and have the mix ready any time, but there is a special spicy bite you can't get from dry ingredients and fresh ginger delivers it.  Plus, ginger is really good for you so why not eat (drink) more?  You can take a chunk of peeled ginger root and grate it, blend it, or just chop it in a few pieces and throw it in the pot with your other spices.  Or, if you're a genius like my mother in law, you can grate or blend your ginger ahead of time, freeze it in an ice cube tray, and keep a baggy of ginger cubes in the freezer ready to go at any time.  That's what I'm using in the pictures (lovingly made by the MIL!)
9. Vanilla bean. For me this is not optional, cause I mean, why wouldn't you! But this is one ingredient where I will steer you away from MRH, because vanilla bean is prohibitively expensive most everywhere, and it's such a wonderful thing, no one should be missing out on it in their culinary lives.  Enter JR Mushrooms & Specialties.  I don't know how they do it, but they sell a great vanilla bean at a feasible price!  You can chop these up ahead of time with your dry spice mix.  Vanilla bean flavor will spread into whatever you keep it in!

Variations:

10. Dehydrated orange slices. I have half a bag of these left that I bought from Mountain Rose last year, but they don't seem to be listed on the site anymore. You can always make your own with a dehydrator or in the oven.  They look really pretty in the mix if you're presenting a jar as a gift!
11. Dried galangal root chips.  A relative of ginger with a pungent bite, it's an interesting addition or replacement for dry ginger.
12. Dried peppermint.  Another genius idea from my Indian in-laws!  Hot spice and cool mint are surprisingly delicious together.
13. Toasted almond, hazelnut, macadamia nut or pecan pieces.  Got the idea from blends in the tea shop where I used to work.  Sometimes you feel like a nut...
[UPDATE!] I was just discussing a caffeine-free option with a friend and realized I didn't mention alternate teas!  You can always switch it up from a black tea - rooibos is a great caffeine-free herbal option, high in antioxidants and low in price.  And if you're feeling spendy, matcha chai is delicious.  I have mixed feelings about other varieties of green and white teas with milk, but you can always experiment!

You will also need:

Milk (I use 1%)
Honey (or sugar, or agave, or whatever.)  Don't try to do this unsweetened.  Milky and sugary is the traditional preparation for masala chai for a reason!  With milk and sugar you have a warm, creamy happy party in your mouth.  Without, you have a lot of very bitter spices burning your throat.  You've been warned!

Equipment:

A pot and pitcher - I use a 2.4 liter pot and it makes me enough for a 2 L pitcher.
A tea strainer
Optional - large tea sachet or cheesecloth bag and a big teapot

OK. I know. A lot of info.  I promise, it's not as complicated as it seems.  Let's assume the shopping is done and we're ready to make some tea!

put cinnamon and ginger chips down first, the other ingredients are bulkier
My spice blend for masala chai is another thing I always do by the witch's brew method, and frankly you should too.  It's hard to go wrong.  If you want to make a single batch instead of keeping a premixed blend, you can use a generous spoonful of each spice, then an extra spoon of cinnamon and dry ginger for good measure, a cut up vanilla bean if that's what you're into, plus whatever extras you want.  If you want to mix a jar of spices, go by the same rough estimate- more cinnamon and ginger than the other stuff.  If you pour the ingredients in one at a time, you'll get a bunch of pretty layers.  Of course you need to shake it up to use it.  But if it looks similar to the picture, you're good to go.


Oh and I want to stress this - DON'T MIX IN THE TEA!  Save your tea for last, or you will boil the heck out of it and it will be gross.

A note when it comes to the fresh ginger: if you're going to drink it hot, know your tolerance.  One big ginger cube for a pot of chai that you're going to chill is usually no problem, but it does have more burn when you're drinking it hot. If it's too spicy, you can always add more milk.


Shown here: the Indian brewing method, everything loose, partying all over the pot. It's not the neatest solution. One of my best friends boils them in a big tea sachet, and you could also use a reusable drawstring cheesecloth bag.

So you've got all your goodies in the pot.  Fill it up with water, cover and set on high heat until it comes to a boil.  Remove the lid and continue to boil until an inch or two of water has boiled off.  By now your house smells awesome.  The longer you boil, the spicier it gets.

Turn the heat down to low, and add milk til the pot is full again.  If your spices are free floating, you'll probably have to scrape some off the sides and bottom of the pot.  Heat for a few minutes until it's steaming, stirring occasionally, and make sure you keep an eye on it, especially if you're using an electric stovetop!  Milk boils over in the blink of an eye.










Now you're ready for the tea.  First, turn off the heat.  I get one of those big Asian soup spoons and add 2 or 3 scoops.  Witch's brew! If you came prepared and boiled your spices in a sachet, and you have a teapot with a built in strainer large enough to accommodate all the liquid, you can scoop your tea into the teapot, pour your masala liquid over it, steep for 3-4 minutes, then pour into your pitcher.  Another alternative prep if you're using a sachet for your spices is instead of adding the milk to the pot, just add it in the pitcher after brewing your tea so you don't get your teapot all milky- although I think there's something to letting the spices heat in the milk for a few minutes. If you're doing it the way I am, add your tea straight to the pot, stir so it's not all floating on top and cover for 3-4 minutes.


Then pour through a strainer into your pitcher.  Now all that's left is to sweeten to taste and serve!  I use a pitcher with a tight-sealing lid so I can keep it fresh in the fridge all week.

The shortcut prep for this is to mix your desired amount of spices into the tea, boil water in a kettle and steep as you would any other cup of tea.  I have some friends who prefer this method.  It yields a fragrant cup, but too mellow for my tastes, none of the warm spicy feeling you get from the long version.

And don't forget what a beautiful gift these jars of spices make!  The pink peppercorns, green cardamom pods and star-shaped anise, not to mention the wonderful smell, make it a perfect little package of the holidays.   I gave these out last year with a small cinnamon stick tied in a raffia bow around the neck of the jar, or with a whole star anise pod glued to the center of the bow.

Also, if you think buying and mixing all those ingredients sounds like a lot of work, I was mulling over the possibility of selling some such jars on Etsy this year.  If you would be interested, leave a comment!

And if you have any variations on recipe or preparation for your masala chai, please share those too!

Enjoy!



6 comments:

  1. Yes, I will support our dream business venture together and order more tea from you! XP I'll talk to you, maybe we can put up my Peppy Tea as well.
    -Kitt

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    1. I think I posted my reply as a new comment before. oops?

      Good idea! If you want you can do a Hippy Druid Chick guest post on it!

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  2. As a huge chai junkie, I would totally order from you. That assam tea was straight up amazing on its own too.
    --Ruth

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    1. Yay! It totally is! I haven't decided if it makes sense for me to sell jars of the tea as well as the spices, since people can just go buy it on Mountain Rose, I'm not altering it in any way, and I'll have to mark it up for the jar, shipping, and so I'm not totally giving it away - but I guess I'll see if there's a demand from people who want to get it all in one place!

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  3. This is the best chai I've ever had. I, too, am a chai junkie and often sample several blends, only to become unsatisfied. So I purchased some from Christie and decided to give it a go. It's worth it! Even all the work!

    I boiled mine in a small pot since I'm the only one who drinks it in my house. I started with about three tea spoons of the mix (I shook up the jar!) in about 3-4 cups of water. After it boiled for about a half hour, I strained and steeped the tea (not the Black Assam from Mountain Rose, but a chai blend I had purchased). Added the milk, honey, sugar, AND (get this) a splash of flavored coffee creamer. THE BOMB!!!

    It looks like I've barely made a dent in my chai blend, too, so I'm assuming this jar will last me for a few brews.

    Just imagine sipping this warm blend on the cold January nights to come. Yep, it's that good. Good thing Christie sells this on Etsy so everyone can experience it!

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    1. Thanks so much Michcella!!! I'm glad you like it!! :D

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