I come from a cultural background where coffee–specifically Turkish coffee–is a way of life. There are many rituals around how coffee is made (over the stove in a little brass pot called a džezva) and imbibed (with neighbors and friends, usually on a weekend morning but sometimes during the week at a midday break). Couples get up extra early to partake in a cup together, before heading off to work and their daily chores. There is no question; coffee is sacred. Now tea? Tea, on the other hand, is for sick people. If you are ever offered coffee but request tea, you will invariably be asked if you are coming down with a fever.
For most of my life I shared this mentality. Except for the odd spot of chamomile when I had the flu, tea rarely passed my lips. I began drinking drip coffee when I was fourteen and graduated to espresso when I lived in Italy. I drank cappuccino and cafe lattes on a daily basis way before Starbucks began making serious inroads. I drank that Turkish coffee whenever I visited Serbia, even though I didn’t like it all that much. What I enjoyed was turning the cup upside down on my saucer when I was done and having my companion read my fortune in the coffee grounds, which always sat on the bottom like sediment.
Now I know some people who wax poetic about tea. I have a friend who will drive across the city for his favorite blends. Who has a special corner on his desk at work reserved for his tea leaves and the various accouterments of tea-making. Periodically he will implore me to take a whiff of some new discovery. As I dip my nose into the foil bag and inhale the scent of vanilla rooibos or a Mayan chocolate truffle infusion, I will concede to one thing; tea, like coffee, smells better than it tastes. With one exception–chai. The spiced milk tea from the Indian subcontinent.
In many languages, including my own second language, chai is the word for regular tea; however, in North America, chai refers to masala chai, tea that is brewed with a variety of aromatic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Often, the water is heated with 1/4 to 1/2 parts whole milk, which gives the chai richness. Chai also tends to be sweet, with a fair amount of sugar added to bring out the flavors of the spices. Since I have always adored these warm spices, I have become a big fan of chai.
Many coffeehouses serve chai made from commercial liquid concentrates. Supermarkets also carry teabags of chai blends, which need to be steeped longer than regular tea yet still lack the strength of traditionally brewed chai. You can also find chai spice blends alongside the herbs and spices, a powdered version which can be added to black tea for that masala chai flavor. Be aware, however, that purists decry this as not really chai. If you are interested in making an authentic chai, look here.
These cookies are inspired by that deep, rich chai taste. They’re a snap to make from ingredients one usually has one hand. Just the thing to have with your next cup of chai.
Chai-Spiced Almond Cookies
Adapted from Epicurious/Bon Appetit January 2006
Makes about 22 cookies
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cup powdered sugar, divided
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup toasted coarsely ground almonds
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Beat butter, 1/3 cup sugar, extracts, spices and salt in a medium bowl. Beat in flour, then stir in almonds.
2) Using hands, roll dough into tablespoon-size balls. Press down top slightly and place on a large baking sheet, spacing apart.
3) Bake until pale golden, 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven. Be sure not to overbake.
4) Cool cookies on the sheet for five minutes. Place remaining sugar in a large bowl. Gently coat each cookie in sugar and cool further on a wire rack. Cool completely, then roll again in sugar before serving.