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Perfect Chai

The leaves are falling, yellow and burnt orange, into oddly balmy air. It’s not nearly as cold as “late November” suggests it should be. No scarf or hat for me – not even a real winter coat yet. Just a blazer, some low boots, and a hankering for the real chill to set in.

We spent thanksgiving in Michigan, where I was certain we’d have some seasonally appropriate weather. But folks, even Detroit was definitively mild. Aside from plenty of rain, the Michigan air barely even could be called brisk.

So yes, I’m impatient for real, honest fall. I’m sure I’ll laugh bitterly if I chance to reread this post in February, but for now, I’m ready for real fall. In the meantime, I’m cheating the seasons a bit: well ahead of the weather’s lazy schedule, I’ve busted out the tea leaves. Folks, I’m making chai.

The title of this post is a bit misleading, really. Chai recipes abound, and none is the universal favorite. Everyone makes chai a bit differently. I’ve long been a fan of Tazo. Theirs is a thick, strong chai, spicy from cloves and anise and black pepper. For many winters, I’ve been tucking my coffee grinder, beans, and filter into the throughs of my cabinet and turning to the Tazo tea leaves bags for my morning beverage.

But every once in a while, on weekend days during the colder months, I pull out my loose tea and my spices, and concoct my own chai tea. When I’m brewing from scratch, this here is my ideal recipe. It’s got plenty of cardamom, which (I think) is the only ingredient other than tea in traditional chai. But it’s also got cloves, which add an undercurrent of spice to the drink. If you’re feeling you need that extra spice punch, you could add some black pepper, too – but when I’m making it from scratch, I keep things pretty mellow.

Traditional chai is made with a majority milk. I can’t handle that much dairy every morning, so I stick to a ratio of 50% water, 50% milk. Adjust the ratio according to your own tastes.

And like I said, finding your perfect chai is a matter of trial and error. Use this as your starting point. Hey – maybe you’ll like it just as I do.

Hope you all had a wonderful thanksgiving holiday. Onward to December!

This recipe has two variations. First comes weekend chai, when Chopin is on in the background and you don’t mind dirtying a couple pots. Second is workday chai. One pot, five minutes, and it’s in the mug. -R

Perfect Chai
Serves 2

2 cups water
2 cups milk
1 1/2 tablespoons strong black tea (preferably Assam)
Seeds from two green cardamom pods
1 clove
1 tablespoon honey

Grind clove and cardamom together in spice grinder (or crush with mortar and pestle).

In a small saucepan, heat milk until steamy but not boiling. Remove from heat. Add cardamom and clove, stir to combine, and cover.

In a medium saucepan, heat water and tea until boiling. You can do this either by putting the tea leaves directly into the water, or by putting them in a floating tea infuser like this one, or this one, both of which I own and love.

Boil the tea in the water for about 1 minute, then either strain or remove tea infuser. Add infused milk and honey, stir to combine, pour into 2 mugs, and serve immediately.

Weekday chai:

In a small saucepan, combine tea, water, and ground cardamom and clove. (if using a tea infuser, do not out spices in infuser – add them directly to the water.) Bring to a boil over high heat. Cook for about 1 minute, then add milk. Continue cooking for another 1-2 minutes until the mixture is steaming hot. Strain tea or remove infuser, pour into your mug, and get thee to the office, stat.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • dena November 28, 2011,

    I love chai in the evening, when I have the luxury of sitting down with my feet up on the cushions.

  • Yum!! I love chai! Yours sound wonderful. I just made chai-spiced mixed nuts for the holidays … can’t get enough chai!

  • Amy December 9, 2011,

    I lived in Central India for a couple of years, and fell in love with chai. I know the chai wallahs usually made theirs with only cardamom to spice it, but every woman had her own version of the drink. Any housewife who took any pride in her homemaking skills, took pride in her chai! Our cook’s “secret” ingredient was a generous amount of crushed, fresh ginger, which I loved. Some women would add a cinnamon stick or a grate or two of nutmeg, some used all milk, if they could afford it, but most used half water, half milk. I never saw anyone use black peppercorns there as some American chai calls for. I like to suite my chai to my mood and the weather. Some days call for more complex spicing than others. . . Anyways thanks for the post, and reminding me to take time for the simple joy of well made chai!

    • rivka December 11, 2011,

      fresh ginger – I love that idea. Will have to experiment next time I steep chai – I bet that’s just lovely.