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Tea shows its versatility as a baking ingredient

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/24/2019 10:00:13 PM
Modified: 9/24/2019 10:00:09 PM

Coffee and carbonation are having a fling. Beer and chocolate are old news. The past few years have brought us jalapeno-studded candy bars, ice-cream flavored cereal, chicken-and-waffles potato chips and, let’s not forget, cheese coffee. Dream up a flavor combination, and it’s really only a matter of time until you can find it on a restaurant menu or grocery store shelf, if it’s not there already. In the meantime, at least half a dozen home chefs have no doubt already splashed it all over Instagram.

If you’re like me, you may have grown a bit weary of this endless culinary matchmaking. But that doesn’t mean you have to let the sensory onslaught dampen your own creative expression in the kitchen.

As the first gentle days of fall tip-toe across New England, many of us get reacquainted with our ovens and begin to crave flavors that will warm us on cold evenings. If we take a cue from the changing color palette around us, we can swirl some of these tastes together in spontaneous and satisfying ways.

For me, tea was a natural avenue for improvisation this fall, since I decided about a month ago (for reasons growing dim to me now) to cut coffee out of my regular routine. In an attempt to stoke the flames of my love affair with what feels like a more cerebral, virtuous choice than the cream-and-sugar laden espresso roast I’m pining for, I’ve been experimenting quite a bit with this ancient and enduring beverage.

Last week, that experimentation led to baking. I realize that in introducing a bit of tea to a boatload of butter and sugar, I tossed those virtues I alluded to overboard. No matter. My goal was to showcase the delicate beauty of tea in some new (to me) ways, not to redeem or reform my baked goods.

Tea can be blended into baked goods in a variety of ways, as I learned from an article on King Arthur Flour’s blog. You can brew tea and add it to your liquid ingredients, mix powdered or finely ground tea directly into your recipe or, if you’re feeling fancy, infuse your sugar or butter with tea.

Using that article as a jumping off point, I decided to dream up a couple of tea creations without help from the internet. I knew that pretty much anything I came up with — anything remotely edible, at least — already existed online, but I wanted the joy of “discovering” it myself. Never having baked with tea before, I did put my ideas into Google to see what other people had successfully concocted, but now that I know how easy it is and now that my creative juices are flowing, I’ll feel more confident introducing tea to recipes on my own. And with the tea aisle itself falling prey to the food industry’s obsession with mashups (mojito marmalade, anyone?), I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas anytime soon.

Tea-speckled snickerdoodles

I first came across tea in cookies when I visited the Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan and discovered Nellie Smith’s Earl Grey shortbread. Shortbread seems to be a favorite vehicle for showcasing tea, probably because of its neutral flavor profile. I wondered if another unassuming cookie, the snickerdoodle, a favorite around my house, would work similarly well.

To test my theory, I made a traditional snickerdoodle recipe, then added a bit of finely ground black tea to the cinnamon/sugar blend that the cookies are rolled in: about half the contents of a tea bag to ¼ cup sugar and 1½ tablespoons cinnamon. Not only did it play well with the subtle tang of a snickerdoodle, it lent some visual interest as well.

Next time around, to turn up the tea flavor, I think I’ll try infusing the butter with black tea. You can do this by melting the

butter on the stovetop, adding about 1½ teaspoons of loose tea per tablespoon of butter, heating the mixture for 5 minutes, straining out the tea, stirring and returning the butter to room temperature.

Chai carrot cupcakes andmatcha green tea frosting

I’ve got nothing against pumpkin, but when the world goes bonkers for it every fall, I feel drawn to quieter, less celebrated flavors: quieter, less celebrated flavors that I can slather with frosting. Carrot cake is a fall classic, and its rich, earthy flavor is a natural fit for a bold-tasting tea such as spiced chai. Not surprisingly, there are scores of recipes out there that mix chai into fall treats. Many of them, however, call for chai spices — typically cardamom, allspice, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and black pepper — but not the actual tea.

For my carrot cake, I used a chai spiced carrot cake recipe from bakerbynature.com, but substituted roughly equal amounts of prepared chai for the spices, mixed right into the batter. As with the tea-speckled snickerdoodles, the tea flavor was subtle in the chai carrot cupcakes, but it added a bit of warmth and depth. Next time, I think I’ll make my own chai so that I have the benefit of fresh spices, and I’ll apply it a bit more liberally.

I couldn’t resist mixing some matcha green tea powder into a portion of the frosting, mostly because I had a can from Trader Joe’s sitting around. I mixed about two teaspoons into about a half cup of the finished frosting, going mostly by eye. The tea cut the sweetness of the frosting just a bit, and its slightly earthy flavor married well with the carrot cake. However, I’m still not sure about the color. I wanted the russet color of the cupcake and pale green of the frosting to suggest the color of leaves beginning to change, but matcha creations, to me, look like menu items from Oz.

Driving to work this week, I was struck by the purple shades emerging on a few of the trees. For my next batch of carrot cupcakes, I think I’ll experiment with herbal teas in hopes of developing a purple frosting that complements the orange shade of the cake.

Whatever I come up with can’t be weirder than what’s already out there.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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