Sure you can take a pre-blended chai off the shelf, steep it in some ice cream base, churn it and... Bob’s your uncle... chai ice cream. But where is the fun in that? Let’s make our own chai blend. And let’s be true to the drink— a sweetened, spiced black tea with milk.
First, the spice blend. In Tony Hill’s Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices he offers two chai blends. I took these as my foundation and added some other stuff I thought would be tasty like fenugreek and nutmeg. Fenugreek is a main ingredient in curry so that seemed perfectly natural. It also has nutty butterscotch and maple notes when toasted and ground, which is an even more perfect fit. Fenugreek is in fact used in artificial maple flavoring. Nutmeg is my favorite spice, so I had to throw that in too.
Now, we turn to the medium. Since I wanted to be true to the drink, a custard was out. There are two styles of non-custard ice cream: Philadelphia-style and sherbet. You ask, what’s the difference? Philadelphia-style ice cream is all that ice cream is but without eggs, and sherbet is a sorbet with dairy. Sherbet seemed to work best since the drink is tea with cream and sherbet is flavored syrup with dairy. So I developed this dessert to be a sherbet and called it such on the menu. Evidently, “sherbet” is not so marketable a word. “Sherbet” seems to flash people back to camp and little cups of frozen orange eaten with mini tongue depressors. So I swallowed my need to call a spade a spade and let the servers call it “chai ice cream”... and it sold.
Chai Sherbet Ice Cream
makes about three pints of ice cream
2 tsp cardamom seeds removed from the pods
1 tsp fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
3-inch stick true cinnamon, flaked apart
6 whole cloves
8 oz water
8 oz sugar
2 oz honey
A strip of orange zest
1 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
3 cups half-and-half
5 bags of black tea, or 5 heaping teaspoons of loose black tea
In a dry pan, toast the cardamom, fenugreek, fennel, peppercorns, cinnamon and cloves until fragrant. Transfer to a spice grinder and pulse a couple of times times (note that when you open the grinder, there will be some smoke). Dump the ground spices into a small saucepan and add the water, sugar, honey, orange zest, ginger and nutmeg. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and set aside.
In another saucepan, bring the half-and-half to a scald. Remove from heat and add the tea. Cover and steep for 3-5 minutes. Remove the tea bags, or strain out the tea leaves and discard them. Combine the tea-infused cream with the spiced syrup and chill this mixture overnight (do not strain out the spices yet). The next day, strain out the spices and churn the mix in an ice cream maker. Scoop the churned ice cream into a container and freeze for several hours before serving.
Do try to find true cinnamon for this one. Once you have tried true cinnamon, you will not go back. Why is true cinnamon more true than other cinnamon? True cinnamon (also called Ceylon cinnamon) is a softer bark, will flake apart easily and is more complexly flavored and spicier than the thicker (and cheaper to produce) Cassia cinnamon sticks that are more common. You can certainly pay for the true cinnamon in the spice aisle and specialty shops, but if you check out the latin food aisle you will find it for half the price (and the quality is just as good).