One of the few redeeming features of colder weather is the excuse to spend the evenings and weekends hidden somewhere under a blanket, lost in a book and with a constantly replenished hot drink in hand. My usual drink of choice is vanilla rooibos tea but I’ve also always been a fan of hot chocolate. I used to go for the classic packet of Swiss Miss, dehydrated mini marshmallows and all, but have favored the Aztec style “drinking chocolate” in the more recent years, those teeny cups of almost entirely melted chocolate with a tad bit of milk to thin it out and sugar and spices to sweeten and flavor it. However, the one drink that I’ve always loved the idea of but never really liked once I was drinking it is chai tea. It seems so perfect in concept; you can’t go wrong with warm frothy milk infused with a mild black tea and warm spices. Yet, the store-bought chai tea bags are always so tannic and the spices totally overwhelm the delicacy of the tea. There are also those cardboard cartons of chai tea concentrate but they are so loaded with sugar I feel like I’m drinking syrup. I am aware that I could have easily looked up a recipe and made it myself, but with so many disappointing experiences with chai tea, I guess I never really felt inspired to pursue it.
Recently, however, my mom and I went to brunch and got one of the best yet simple desserts I think I’ve ever tried. It had an apricot vanilla panna cotta with white chocolate shortbread crumbles, a bruleed apricot (yes it did have a crispy sugar crust on it) and a quenelle of 5-spice ice cream on the side. One spoonful containing a little bit of each of the 4 components together was nearly magical but each separate component by itself was quite good as well. I was especially intrigued but the 5-spice ice cream. It was delicious, yet I’ve always found 5-spice to have a little bit too much anise flavor for my taste. This reflection of course then led to the idea that maybe I should make my own spice ice cream but a little more geared to my own preferences, which then led to the light bulb moment of, “Hey! I should make chai tea ice cream.” Maybe I never had much luck with the drink but things could be different when translated into frozen form, right?
So, when temperatures soared to a very unseasonable 90 degrees this past weekend and the last thing that I had on my mind was burrowing under the covers with a warm cup of tea, my ice cream plan seemed just like the right idea. I used the basic ice cream base from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home and played around with it to get the chai tea flavor right. The flavor that resulted is just how I’ve always dreamed that chai tea would be like but of course in cold solid format. The stand out flavor is the tea itself. It imparts very delicate rosy floral notes and an even stronger caramel, honey-like flavor. After the taste of tea comes the sweetness of the cream itself and finally, standing in the background, the flavor of the spices. The cinnamon and clove are warming, the peppercorn and anise add a slight savoriness to offset the sweetness, and, my favorite, the cardamom, adds a smoky floral essence. The texture is lovely too; it’s more so like gelato in its dense creaminess that becomes almost custardy when it begins to melt, despite not having in eggs in it. Though I wont be giving up on my rooibos anytime soon, I think that my success in the chai flavor department has convinced me that I’m finally ready to give hot chai tea a try again, totally made from scratch this time…at least once it actually starts to feel like autumn around here. Anyone have any recipe suggestions?
Chai Tea Ice Cream
makes about 1 quart
adapted from Jenis's Splendid Ice Creams at Home
2 cups whole milk
1 Tbs + 1 tsp cornstarch
1½ oz. softened cream cheese
1/8 tsp sea salt
1¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cups white granulated sugar
2 Tbs light corn syrup
¼ cup English breakfast tea leaves
2 cinnamon sticks
10 black peppercorns
10 whole cloves
2 cardamom pods, crushed open to expose the seeds
¼ tsp 5-spice powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
Mix 2 Tbs of your milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to form a slurry. In a large glass bowl, whisk the cream cheese with the salt until smooth. Set these aside.
Combine the remaining milk, heavy cream, sugar, and corn syrup in medium sized saucepan. Heat on medium, while stirring, until steam starts to rise from the milk and it is warm to touch. Add the cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom pods, and 5-spice powder. Cover with a lid and set aside to infuse for 45 minutes.
Once you are ready to continue, fill a large bowl with ice water and set aside. Remove the lid to your saucepan and set it on medium high heat. Bring to a boil. Once boiling let it continue to rapidly boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the tea, cover and set aside to steep for 10 minutes. Strain the mixture using a fine sieve to remove the tea and spice from the milk. Return the milk mixture to the saucepan and bring back to a boil. Once boiling, whisk in the cornstarch slurry and boil for 1 more minute.
Carefully whisk the hot milk into the bowl with the cream cheese and whisk until smooth. Stir in the vanilla extract. Pour the mixture into a gallon zip-lock bag, and place the sealed bag into the bowl of ice water. Let chill in the water for 30 minutes, replenishing ice if needed.
Once chilled, snip a corner of the bag and pour the ice cream base into your ice cream maker, churning according the manufacturer’s instructions. Once frozen, pack in a freezer safe container and freeze for at least 4 hours before eating.