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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Juicing for Amateurs

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Let’s talk about juicing. But before you do that thing where you’re like, “Juicing? Not for me, no thanks,” just put that away and let’s talk. Juicing is a little earthy-crunchy, sure, but it’s also delicious and really absurdly good for you. You can pack the nutrients from some real powerhouse fruits and veggies into a glass and suck it down on the way to work/school/wherever you’re going, which is pretty cool! I hear you out there with your juice concerns, but stick with me. We’re gonna talk about three different juices that I think serve three different purposes. Also, basic info: all three are best served over ice and with a straw.

DSC_0365The first juice we’re making is Beet-Carrot-Apple-Orange-Lemon. That’s one small beet, three carrots, one green apple, one peeled orange, and one meyer lemon, cut in half. This juice is rich, velvety, and really great for breakfast. It’ll keep you full until lunch, no problem. It will also make you feel really, really good. I know that sounds like juicing mumbo-jumbo-hocus-pocus, but I’m for real. It’s easier to concentrate with this juice under your belt.

There are also a lot of substitutes available here. I usually add ginger to this one (just an inch of raw, un-peeled ginger), but I didn’t have any on hand today. You could add grapefruit, other kinds of apples, or even some spinach or kale to sneak in some other veggies. Also, herbs are good for juicing, and I say mint might be nice addition to this juice.

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We should stop here and talk about beet people. You either are a beet person or you’re totally not a beet person. If you are a beet person, you get it. Beets are wonderful. They’re earthy and sweet. They’re velvety and the most lovely color you’ve ever seen. I am a beet person. If you are also a beet person, you need to know about juicing beets. It’s a beet in a whole new way. A beet in a glass! Really, though, you should make this happen in your lives, beet people. (As for you non-beeters, I don’t know what to tell you.)

DSC_0368Up next, Kale-Cucumber-Apple-Lime-Parsley-Celery. This juice is a classic green juice. Vegetable-heavy with apple for sweetness, and parsley and lime to impart some flavor to otherwise water-heavy veggies like celery and cucumber. I like to drink this one after lunch during my three o’clock slump. It’s hydrating with a little extra kick of green-goodness.

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The substitutions here are endless. For the greens: spinach, mixed greens, arugula, swiss chard, romaine. Consider also cilantro, fennel, or even ginger. The parsley in this juice is really nice, but if cilantro is a big thing for you, it’s perfect here, too.

DSC_0372Last one: Apple-Blueberry-Blackberry-Lime. This one is just for fun. It’s delicious mixed with seltzer water and served over ice. Due to the blackberries, this juice is a little thicker than the others, and obviously sweeter. It’s a good treat after dinner, or maybe while you cook dinner. It’s best in smaller doses (lots of sugar) and can also be made with plenty of other fruits.

DSC_0399Strawberries? Pears? Really any fruit-heavy juice is good for this kind of juice. Also, don’t try to juice a banana. It’s not a thing. I mean, have you ever seen banana juice? Take a hint. It’ll just make a gommy mess in your juicer.

Okay, last thing. Juicers are really expensive. I’m currently using my mom’s, but I totally wouldn’t be able to buy one for myself. I’d try to borrow one or find a gently used one for cheaper before you took the big leap. It’s good to know what you like before you commit. Play around with lots of different things–even things you don’t think will be good together. I’ve made plenty of mistakes–the other day I tried some grapefruit/kale concoction that was truly revolting. You’ll get the hang of how to balance fruits and vegetables, and then you’ll be unstoppable!