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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Coffee Vanilla Cardamom Crème Brûlée

DSC_0633I have a question for the world: Is there any use for a brûlée torch other than brûlée-ing? I hear that you can use the broiler and get the same effect, but that’s just not true. I did use the broiler this time, and it’s pretty close, but I’ll admit that the crust didn’t get evenly crisp like I wanted it to. Armed with a brûlée torch, this dessert might change your life. It’s like a sugar cookie dipped in a cup of creamy coffee. Crème brûlée might be the easiest dessert to make that will definitely impress whoever you’re serving. It’s delicious in its simplicity, and I will be the first to tell you that a plain crème brûlée made with fresh ingredients is very hard to beat. But this coffee vanilla cardamom version is something else entirely–it’s like the exotic cousin of plain crème brûlée. It’s different, but absolutely worth a try. Continue reading

Pear Vanilla Jam

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I’ve been pretty heavy on the pears this winter, haven’t I? First, I made a Vanilla Pear Aigre-Doux, then the Swiss Chard Pear Gruyere Tart, and now a Pear Vanilla Jam. I’m not going to promise that I’m done with pears, but I’ll try to lay off in the next few weeks. In my defense, I had a half-eaten box of Harry and David pears dropped in my lap by a coworker’s family last week, so I felt like making jam was really my only option.

harry and davidI had never really considered making jam out of pears before, but I read a little about it and decided that you’d really need another flavor, like vanilla or cardamom, something to take control. Pears are such a delicate flavor; a jam with just pears would sort of be taken over by the necessary lemon juice. For this jam, I think it’s necessary to spring for real vanilla beans rather than using vanilla extract. With the beans, you get that great speckly look, and the taste is just vanilla, without the sharp alcohol taste of an extract.

pears and vanillaThis jam is tasty on toast with butter. It does get overwhelmed easily as it’s not too sweet and the flavors are pretty subtle, so I don’t know if it would even hold up against peanut butter. Best enjoyed solo, I think. This recipe comes from Food In Jars, a canning blog that I love. It’s no nonsense, to the point recipes are easy to follow, and the ingredients are rarely too fussy to find at any grocery store at a reasonable price. You can type in almost any fruit and find a starting point to make your own jam. I only adapted this one slightly, using a little less sugar than the recipe calls for and adding some lemon juice.

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Here’s the recipe (adapted slightly from Food In Jars):
yields about 5.5 half-pints

4 pears, thin-skinned, diced–no need to peel
2.5 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon
2 vanilla beans, scraped
1 pack liquid pectin

6 half-pint jars, lids, and bands

Start by setting a boiling-water canner to boil with your jars inside. In a small saucepan, simmer your lids and bands.

In a large, heavy bottomed pot, bring the diced pears, sugar, vanilla bean scrapings and hulls, and sugar to a boil. Boil hard for about 5 minutes, or until the pears are soft enough to smoosh with the back of a wooden spoon. Reduce the heat and use a potato masher or pastry cutter to mush up the fruit a little more. Then add the pectin, stir it in well, and bring the jam back up to a boil, stirring periodically. Test the jam for gelling after 8-10 minutes of boiling. To test, place a spoonful of jam on a plate, then place it in the freezer for a few minutes. Take it out and tilt the plate. If the jam is still runny, keep boiling and test again later. If it looks like jam, you’re done!

Ladle the jam into hot jars, leaving about a quarter inch of headspace. You should fill 5 jars and the 6th about halfway. For the half filled one, put a lid on it and put in the refrigerator to eat first. For the rest of the jars, wipe the rims, place the lids on top, gently screw on the bands, and process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes.

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