We probably have coffee shops to thank for the widespread consumption of chai. You can get it at almost any café from Birmingham to Boston, but the vast majority of chai is completely forgettable and tongue-shrivelingly saccharine.
It's a shame that chai has been relegated to the "coffee alternative" category, when really, it is a completely delicious drink in its own right. At its best, it is spicy and lightly sweet, the perfect blend of warming spices that can clear your head on a foggy, cool morning.
As with so many things, the secret to the best chai is to make it at home. Of course, the obvious reason for this is to know exactly what went into your steaming cup of tea. But beyond the question of ingredients is the affordability and ease of walking into your own kitchen and brewing up a cup of some of the best chai you can get anywhere. After several trials using different spice blends, I came up with results far better than any coffee shop chai I'd ever had.
Once ground, a spice's nuances begin to dwindle, so we prefer to grind our own. Whole spices can also be a great deal cheaper than ground spices, especially if you shop at ethnic food stores.
Most spices can simply be ground as they are. For cinnamon sticks, however, wrap them in a kitchen towel and splinter them with the blunt side of a heavy kitchen knife. This will make them a lot easier to grind. For nutmeg, use a nutmeg grater.
All you need to turn whole spices into a powder is a good spice or coffee grinder. It's a small initial investment (if you don't have one knocking around in your cabinets already), but it will give you the ability to grind spices as needed, which will in turn make all your cooking more flavorful.
Choose a strong, simple black tea — preferably Assam or Ceylon — without added flavorings. For those interested in a no-fuss brew, any cheap, black tea (loose leaf or in bags) will do. For the tea aficionados among you, feel free to use your favorite black tea. Just remember that you want something with enough flavor to stand up to all those spices. The two-year-old bags of Luzianne in the back of your pantry aren't going to cut it this time.
Other uses for chai masala
Don't limit your homemade chai masala to tea. Combine it with sugar and roll snickerdoodle dough in it for a spicier version of the classic cookie. Use it to flavor quickbreads, scones and other baked goods. Add it to an ice cream base. You can even rub it, with salt, on chicken or ribs before roasting.
Makes about 3/4 cup
For the Chai Masala
1/4 cup ground black pepper (about 1/3 cup peppercorns)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon (about four 5-inch cinnamon sticks)
2 tablespoons ground cardamom (about 1/4 cup whole green cardamom pods)
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves (about 18 cloves)
1 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg (about 1 whole nutmeg)
1/2 teaspoon ground dried orange peel, optional
Grind each spice individually in a spice or coffee grinder. Be sure to grind them as finely as possible to avoid chunks of whole spices in your tea. Sift each spice with a fine-mesh sifter and return any large pieces of spices to the grinder to powder them further. Combine the ground spices in a bowl and store in an airtight jar or container.
For the Chai
1/2 teaspoon chai masala, above
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup milk of your choice (coconut milk is especially nice)
2 teaspoons black tea, such as Ceylon or Assam
Sweetener, to taste
Bring the water, milk, chai masala, and tea to a slow simmer. Cover and remove from the heat. Allow to steep for five minutes. Strain carefully into a cup and sweeten to taste.
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