coffee, tea, or chai?

coffee cup (vintage Heath Ceramics Rim mug, thrifted, with vintage Chemex)

I seem to go through phases in the colder darker months where I drink nothing but tea—herbal, green, and white—or even plain hot water, while at other times I'd rather warm myself with cup after cup (six-ounce cups, mind you) of coffee. At the moment I'm in a coffee phase, seeking the comfort of this simple morning ritual, the beany aroma of the grinds, the swirl of cream. Plus, having coffee almost feels like a meal in itself. As someone who can't skip breakfast, I can easily postpone eating if I have coffee first, though too much coffee on an empty stomach can nauseate me. Lately, I've been trying natural decaf and do like that it doesn't make me feel all hopped up. But I'll probably be returning to regular coffee, wary of whole foods that people start messing with. And perhaps caffeine itself works as a natural brake, like, Hey, dummy, don't drink so much of this stuff!

Growing up Mormon, I long believed that coffee was some kind of evil, but after I gave all that up, for many years I still hated the taste every time I tried it, no matter how much sugar was spooned in. Then my black-coffee-drinking ex suggested I try it with milk and no sugar. How could that possibly work? Coffee was so bitter already I thought he must be crazy. But he was right—there's something about the addition of dairy and specifically dairy fat—that makes coffee drinkable for me, even desirable. (But please keep the watery nut and soy milks away, as well as the artificial creamers. For me, it's cow's milk or nothing.) I realize everyone has a coffee preference and that purists and connoisseurs go for black, but this is mine: nothing darker than medium-roast with lots of room for milk or half-and-half—but no sugar. (Just pretend I'm a French child.)

To avoid sleep problems, like most people, I try to limit coffee to mornings and drink tea and water the rest of the day. Coffee and tea each have their own health benefits. There's no need to choose one over the the other, to be a "coffee person" or a "tea person"—a person can drink both. But as spring days lengthen, my preference for coffee wanes (as does the craving for dark chocolate) and I tend to drink more tea, while in summer, mostly just water.

Oddly enough, the one tea I've never liked plain is black, but I do love a good chai. While rearranging some of my kitchen drawers the other weekend, I remembered I had a small stash of chai mix a friend had given me, and on a rainy homebody afternoon this past weekend, chai seemed just the thing. The spices and tea were ground finer than the batches I make myself, but that's what a fine strainer is for, right?

simmering chai in thrifted vintage Le Creuset pan

I prefer to make chai from my own base, rather than buying premade. This isn't an authentically Indian process, but I secretly like my own version better than chai had at Indian restaurants. (I don't recall having had chai when I was in India, which seems strange now, but maybe it was because we were over there steaming in our skins during the August monsoons.)

With a good organic black tea as the base and dried spices in proportions recommended here, I usually mix up whole cardamon, cinnamon bark, fennel, black peppercorns, whole cloves, ginger, nutmeg, orange peel, and snipped vanilla bean (all bought in bulk). Sealed well, dry chai mix will keep for ages.

Then whenever I want a cup of chai, I'll spoon out a heaping tablespoon of chai mix per cup of water, simmering the tea at a low boil for around twenty minutes. Next I'll strain out the liquid, pour some into a mug (two-thirds full), add a good glug of creamy milk (the other third), and zap it in the microwave to reheat, stirring in a spoonful of honey while hot. (I'm not a purist.) For me, honey, instead of sugar, makes all the difference.

cup of chai

And an extra bonus from chai making is that the house will smell like potpourri or hours of baking—so little effort for a warm, homemade treat.

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