Spiced Caramel Chai

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Earlier this year, I found myself at the Raleigh airport on a Monday afternoon, standing in line about to board a plane to Nashville.  The day before, I had been on the receiving end of a phone call I never expected to get, and had been wrapped in heartache ever since. I held a Starbucks cup in my hand, breathing in the warm scent wafting out of the little hole in the plastic top. As I wiped an quiet tear from under my puffy eye, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, looking self-consciously at the people in line around me. One woman was wearing a pantsuit and furiously typing away on her blackberry, and a dad stood with his two girls who were discussing which member of One Direction was their favorite. I wondered briefly how it was possible that everyone could be going about their lives as usual when mine was so suddenly different. Just as the gate attendant called for my section to begin boarding and the line suddenly lurched forward, I considered running back through the terminal, through the airport exit and out into the humid July afternoon. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, clutching my cup in one hand and boarding pass in the other.

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I’m not even really sure why I bought the cup of coffee at the airport that day–I never drank any of it, I just held it until the flight attendant brought a garbage bag by my seat at the end of the flight. The familiar combination of hot coffee and cool milk was something I knew, a normal part of any day. On a day that was so abnormal, I think I was comforted by the familiar swirl of milk, the rush of steam while I stirred.

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I always cling to the small, familiar things when the big things are too much to handle. This Spiced Caramel Chai is definitely a departure from the normal coffee and milk, but it’s comforting all the same. The scent of toasted cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves reminds you just a little of Christmas, and when you put it together with some milk and caramelized sugar, it’s the perfect afternoon treat. When you need a moment to yourself–maybe just to regroup and assure yourself that you can tackle the big, scary stuff–a cup of this chai with strong coffee is just the ticket.

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Here’s the recipe:
(from Not Without Salt)

8 cardamom pods, gently crushed
1 cinnamon stick
8 whole black peppercorns
8 whole cloves
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1 inch piece of ginger, sliced thin
2 T loose black tea (or the contents of two teabags, cut open)*
4 cups 2% milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar

* Black tea is English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Lady Gray, or Irish Breakfast. I used Lady Grey and really like its soft flavor.

In a small skillet, toast the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, peppercorns, and cloves over medium heat for a few minutes, or until warm and fragrant.

Then, in a large, heavy-bottomed pan or pot, pour the sugar onto the bottom in an even layer. Turn the heat on medium-high and wait patiently, watching closely. The sugar will first melt, then begin to turn brown. When it is a deep amber color, and is starting to smoke, remove the pan from the heat.

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Slowly pour the milk into the pan. The caramel will definitely seize up and harden. That’s okay–it’ll melt again in a second. Stir in all of the spices, including the scraped vanilla bean pod, ginger, and loose tea.

Bring the mixture back to a simmer, stirring to be sure that the caramel has melted. When there are no sticky caramel pieces on the bottom of the pan, turn off the heat, cover, and let steep for 20-30 minutes.

Strain the mixture and store it in a jar in the refrigerator for as long as the milk is good. (I used organic, it lasts longer!)

Enjoy warmed and by itself, or with strong coffee in place of milk or cream.

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