There is, of course, no question that cooking is itself an art.
If you question this, I’d rather not hear about it–or rather, you’d rather I didn’t hear about it.
In fact, there are those who argue that some cooking–namely baking–is in fact a science. I frequently overhear conversations that go like this:
“Did you bake this?”
“Oh, no. I cook, but baking is too hard. It’s such an exact science.”
“I know what you mean. You have to follow the recipe just exactly and if it isn’t just so, things don’t turn out.”
Exchange of meaningful nods while nom-nom-nomming on store bought baked goods.
Now before I go any further, I know that I am about to sound quite the pretensions ass. Perhaps I wouldn’t make the claims I am about to make if I regularly had to bake without the benefits of gluten or eggs. But, for a moment, put up with my jackassery, because I’m making a solid point here (convincing nod).
While they nom-nom-nom, I say to myself:
Puhleeeeeeeze people. Get a grip (note that I’m saying this to myself. On the outside I’m nodding and quietly smiling while, internally, I wonder about the long-dead, GMO, processed ingredients in which I am about to partake because I believe in community that much).
I grew up making biscuits and cornbread without recipes. I worked for a couple of years in the pastry kitchen of a bakery. I baked bread for a solid year and half before producing a truly edible loaf.
I am as convinced of this next statement as my grandmother is convinced that our current president couldn’t possibly be a U.S. citizen:
Baking is no science–it’s an art.
(ducking the wildly flung, scientifically produced baked goods)
Mainly I think that the above statement is a ridiculous dichotomy based on a crucial misunderstanding of the connections between art and science, both of which I would classify as technique–thus I’ll save that debate for a 1st Friday: Techne post.
What I mean to say is: Have you kneaded any dough lately? Do you know what it feels like (through the vibrations up the wooden spoon into your hand–actually you need to know it with both hands, cause you’ll need to switch when you get tired) when warm dough goes from crumbly, to shaggy, to smooth?
Have you chewed a piece of dough slowly, letting the starches dissolve until the gummy gluten is left, letting you feel with your jaws what it’s like for these chains of protein to develop? Did you translate that feeling to your fingers and forearms as you leaned into the motion of the knead? Do you know the silkiness that oil adds? The stickiness of water? The texture of extra flour, dusty and dry until it rests its way into hydration?
I never follow a recipe while baking–though I generally read at least five in order to have a sense of what to look for in the texture, taste, and rhythm of the ingredients as they emerge into whatever culinary name has been applied to this particular combination of ground up grains and other pulverized bodies from the earth.
It’s about the feel. Allowing me to be led into my body by these dead things which will give my body life (and in some cases, I’m joined by about a bazillion living lifeforms that work with me to transform it into a swollen, sour bundle full of air).
And now the turn.
I have learned more about art from cooking than from all the lessons, classes, books, and museums I have ravenously gorged in my pursuit of creating beauty, truth, and goodness.
I have been led by spices, gluten, and heat to understand that I am always led by the thing. The beauty I create will spoil given enough light, oxygen, and the course of our planet being so damn habitable, despite our best efforts to destroy that capacity. The impermanence of my creations make them no less essential. If I do not cook well, do not listen to what the ingredients demand of me, it will still be food. It will still, more or less, allow me to survive.
If I surrender to the sensuous–in the sacredness of bodies: plant, animal, mineral, my own; I cup transcendence and immanence together like two hands on either side of a great bowl, and enter into the heartbreak of letting myself love that which will disappear.
This is my best understanding of art. This is also why love is essential in great food–that is, great food, through the love of one who listens with their body, brings to the mouth the transfigured essence of the bodies of its ingredients (food and sex, baby; art, food, and sex).
My Chai Recipe
Liquid of your choosing
I go with almost straight whole milk. If you can afford and acquire some version of organic, raw, unhomogenized, grassfed, fresh, I recommend this, as the difference will astound you. If you can’t do dairy, I recommend a nut-milk, something like almond which will complement and carry the flavors of the spices. You can also substitute in as much water as you want, depending on how thick, smooth, and sharp you like your chai–thick and smooth are on the more milk side; sharp, crisp spice flavors show up on the higher water side. The amount you use should be reflective of the size of your pot and/or the amount you and any others will drink within 4 days.
Spices of your choosing
I go with whole cinnamon sticks broken into pieces and a little grated if I’m feeling need for more cinnamon. Cardamom; whole pods are best, just the seeds work too. I like to use star anise, though anise works too and in a pinch–or if you prefer it’s less licorice flavor–fennel works too. Black pepper, cayenne, curry powder, chipotle, and ginger can all be added [a little at a time] to bring up the kick. Ginger added early offers more subtle notes, added at the end lends more spicy kick. Vanilla at the end is great for those who like a sweet and mellow chai. You can do pieces of whole bean, if you save the outer part from where you scraped the seeds out for another recipe, this is perfect to use for chai–you can use extract if you need to. In similar flavor pallet as vanilla, you can try adding toasted almonds for a round, nutty flavor. Garam Masala in small amounts adds nice complexity. I also like coriander, which adds a great aroma. Cloves and allspice, though not really traditional, lend familiar warm notes to mix and blend well with the other flavors.
Tea of your choosing
I usually go with nice black loose leaf tea (you can use a smoked black tea if you want a smoky flavor–I’ve seen some folks who swear by stirring chai on a campfire with a charred stick, saying the smoky flavor is quite favorable), if you go with black, add it in the last 15 minutes before serving as it can sometimes get too bitter with long steeping. For a caffeine free option and a different flavor I like rooibos (when using rooibos loose, you’ll need a very fine strainer–you can also put it in a linen bag or paper tea bag [tie the tea bag, don’t just fold it, as it has to stand up to stirring]). If you use rooibos I say add it at the beginning with the bolder spices to give it time to develop flavor. I confess I’ve never made it with green. I tend to find green tea too astringent for my taste (unless iced or paired with lots of honey). Truly, you could even leave the tea out and have a perfectly delicious drink.
Pick a day when you will be at home. I recommend simmering on lowest heat for at least 4 hours. If you happen to have a glass pot that you inherited from a grandma or a ceramic pot, that’s best. In lieu of either of those, go with stainless steel. The reason for this is that metals can impact the flavor of the spices. For this reason, use a wooden spoon as well–metal impacts flavor and heated plastic in food gives me the hives. Start by filling your pot with your liquid and slowly raise the heat (over medium heat) until it starts steaming, occasionally stirring. Now lower the heat, you don’t want to scald the milk. While you’re heating, add in roughly equal amounts of your favorites of the stronger spices (coriander, anise, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, allspice). Of these, pick your top 3 and add those in equal parts–start with something like a tablespoon of whole or crushed of each spice per half gallon of liquid. Adjust liberally each time you make it until you find what you like. Add any of the other stronger spices that you like at half to 1/4 the amount you used for the top 3 (I’ll say here that cloves, allspice, and coriander should be added in more cautious doses. You’ll taste the chai after about 2 hours and can add more then, but it’s nigh on impossible to take the spice out).
Once you’ve added the initial spices (and rooibos if that’s your tea), give it a good stir, make sure you’re on the lowest heat setting, and then cover it and walk away. You’ll check on it plenty as time goes on, because you’ll keep smelling it and coming back as it calls you. At about 2 hours in, start sipping spoonfuls to check the flavor and decide if you need to balance the spices (note that the chai will form a skin on top. You can either stir that in, lift it off and discard it, or if you’re strangely adventurous, you can just eat it). You can tinker with it as much or little as you want. This simmering period can last as long as you’d like for it to–again I recommend about 4 hours.
When you’re down to about an hour left on your simmer, add the gentler spices (vanilla, toasted almonds, a pinch of garam masala). At 30 minutes left, add black tea and the sweetener of your choice–I use honey, agave, or raw sugar. You could also add molasses or sorghum if you like a dark, complex brown sugar flavor, but I’d only do this for complex and spicy chais using black tea–I’d stick with golden, crisp sweeteners for mild, sweet, and subtle chais.
This is also when you add in your spicy kicks (any of the peppers, curry powder, and ginger). All of these are stronger if you crush them. The ginger gets milder the longer it’s in, where all the others get stronger the longer they are in.
Taste throughout the hours it’s simmering. Add what you feel like it needs. Listen to the ingredients. Enjoy whatever this particular chai is and is developing into. Don’t try to remember the exact measures you used. Remember what flavors you like. After you’ve made it 15 times, you’ll know just what to do to make the chai that you need for each particular time that you make it.
Simmer with the tea, sweetener, and peppery spices for a final 15-30 minutes, then serve (strained). Again, the chai will form a skin as it cools in the cup, so smaller cups and frequent refills work best.
You can store it in the fridge for 3-4 days and drink it iced or heated back up. I’d strain it before storing it, since the longer the pepper is in it the hotter it will get.
This is a perfect drink for long rainy (Seattle) days when you are inside–preferably being led by your materials to create some kind of art.