In the late fall, all I want to do is curl up with a mug of steaming chai: the aromatic beverage we Westerners have adopted from the Indian drink masala chai, which means, literally, “mixed-spiced tea.” Chai’s subtle sweetness and rich flavors seem to perk up November’s steel-colored days, and its familiar notes transport me right back to where I first discovered this happy drink: a tiny coffee shop in the mountains of Colorado.
In this little coffee shop, at the base of Aspen Mountain, apathetic baristas hurry your drink order to get back to their ski-mountain gossip. Once when I stopped in for a beverage, in a moment of rushed spontaneity, I decided to order a hot chai. Stepping outside into the crisp, clear day, I took my first sip. The golden foliage on the trees suddenly stood out from the bluebird sky even more than before, and I felt like I was in exactly the right place.
To this day, whether served warm or cold, chai always has that centering power on me. Unfortunately, the packaged chai concentrates sold in grocery stores get to be really expensive, and it’s a bummer when coffee shop chai is too sweet.
Luckily, great-tasting chai is easy and fun to make. Making it from scratch has a definite “wow” factor, with the added benefit of making your house smell like Thanksgiving baked goods. Traditional masala chai recipies around the world can vary according to taste and local custom, making this treat infinitely customizable—a great excuse to get creative in the kitchen. One of the best parts of making chai is finding the spice aisle at your local grocer and picking out some of the most aromatic ones there, including some you may have never tried. Cardamom is certainly no wallflower—you’ll smell that one from the next aisle over—and the gorgeous, licorice-scented star anise pods beg to be admired.
In the recipe below, feel free to swap the sugar and honey for your favorite sweeteners, and use to taste.
Homemade Chai Concentrate
Adapted from A Wooden Nest
Makes 2 quarts
8 cups water
½ cup brown sugar
¼ cup honey
3 sticks cinnamon
2 inches of ginger root, peeled & chopped
15 whole cardamom pods, smashed
2 whole star anise pods
20 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon fresh black pepper
1 teaspoon nutmeg
20 teaspoons black tea or 20 teabags
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon vanilla
Place the water in a stock pot and bring to boil. Add desired sweetener and mix to combine. Turn down the heat to medium. Using a tea diffuser or a clip to secure the tea bags, add the tea and all remaining ingredients to the pot and heat for two minutes. Stir constantly. Remove from heat and let the mixture steep for one hour. Strain into storage containers and enjoy with milk or your favorite non-dairy “milk.” Keeps for one week in the refrigerator.