When I was in high school, I worked at a coffee shop part-time for three years. The money I made went toward only three things: a trip to Ireland, a trip to France, and case after case of chai tea concentrate. I mixed half a cup of milk with half a cup of the sweetened tea and drank it scalding hot every night until I left for college, at which point I (somewhat ironically) finally learned to like more than the smell of coffee.
Nowadays I find most prepackaged chai mixes either cloyingly sweet or overly peppery and prefer to prepare my own. I have tried variations using loose leaves and tea bags; plain black tea and “chai”-flavored tea; milk, water, and various proportions thereof. I have added whole spices and ground; sweetened with honey, sugar, brown sugar, and maple syrup; and tried recipes calling for minced ginger, whole cloves, black peppercorns, freshly ground nutmeg, and cinnamon sticks. The one I’ve settled on is by far the simplest and, I think, the most delicate, comforting, and crowd-pleasing of any of them.
If I’m preparing only a cup for myself, I fill a mug half full with whole milk and top it off with water, then heat it slowly along with one bag of plain black tea in a small, covered pot until it steams and tiny bubbles begin to foam around the inside edges of the pan. (Disclaimer: I prefer to drink my beverages so hot that I burn the back of my throat if I don’t swallow them in a particular manner. I do not know why this is so, and I often–usuallly when I’ve burnt myself, again–wish this particular quirk would go the way of my predilection for chai concentrate. No such luck yet.) Whole milk tastes creamiest and makes for a thicker, more satisfying chai than low-fat milk. The tea you use should be strong and sturdy: I like the honey-kissed taste of Irish breakfast or Assam, but you should feel free to experiment. Don’t neglect to cover the pot or you’ll end up with a slimy film on top of your milk that you’ll have to skim off with a fork.
When the tea is steaming, take it off the heat and add a tablespoon or so of sugar. Sprinkle in ground cardamom to your heart’s content (this is the spice that lends this tea its tantalizing aroma), remove the tea bag, sqeezing out the last bit of tea by wrapping the string around the bag and pulling it tight, and stir. This recipe can easily be multiplied for ever-increasing groups of people: half milk, half water, one tea bag per 1-2 people, plus one tablespoon of sugar per cup and enough cardamom to perfume the kitchen (about 1/8 teaspoon per cup).
I no longer drink a cup every night, but a mug of sweet, steaming chai is still my go-to drink at home on a rainy February evening like this one, or with ginger snaps or cinnamon toast on a snowy day.