Friday, June 04, 2010

Cooking with Tea

By Jess Hodges

Like so much else in this world tea seems to go in and out of fashion faster than I can keep up with but there is one trend that even I have noticed. It seems you're as likely to see tea on the menu of a restaurant these days as you are in a café and as often used in cookery shows as it is drunk on soap operas, while characters frantically try to resolve the latest pregnancy/murder/sex change, stealing fortifying sips between whip lash inducing plot developments. With this new context comes plenty of wild experimentation but also a new repertoire of staples, whether it be green tea sorbet or tea smoked trout a whole new dimension of tea appreciation has opened up.

As loathe as I am to set fire to my precious leaves it may be that smoking is a great way to use up those heart breaking packets which slip somehow unnoticed to the back of the cupboard and lose their powers of infusion. A smoker is a surprisingly easy thing to make out of an airing rack and an old biscuit tin. A steamer would do the job perfectly if you lined the bottom with foil so as not to ruin it. It's definitely an outdoor job though so stock up on those disposable barbecues while the sun shines if you aren't lucky enough to have a permanent one. Clouds of indoor tea smoke must be considered antisocial, whatever your stance on nicotine. Tea smoked fish seems to be the most common recipe but I have come across, venison and beef being treated this way. I don't know how well the subtleties of different varieties of tea are imparted but this could be one of those exciting discoveries with endless scope for tweaking and experimentation. Smoking with just tea or with a combination of leaves and wood chips or maybe with the addition of herbs, perhaps one day I'll have a cupboard full of smoking blends to accompany my drinking ones!

One of the most simple ways to translate the magical brew into a food must be ice cream. When made using a custard base it's a simple matter of infusing the milk before hand, making it easy to control the end result with some degree of precision. Here is a good blueprint recipe to try, of course if you have an ice cream maker everything becomes much simpler but I think this is still well worth the effort if you don't.

  • Gently heat 500ml of cream or milk to boiling with 2 heaped tablespoons (or to taste) of the tea of your choice.
  • Once infused to the desired flavour strain and return to the boil.
  • Beat 5 large egg yolks and 100g caster sugar in a bowl until pale.
  • Slowly pour in the milk while continuing to beat to form a custard.
  • Return mixture to the saucepan and heat until thickened.
  • Transfer to a bowl and stand in cold water until cool.
  • Place custard in the freezer, taking it out and beating every hour or so to break up ice crystals and produce a smooth ice cream.

For the pure kitsch joy of it scoops of ice cream should be served in a cup and saucer with tea spoon and wafer resting on the side.

For me the pinnacle of cooking with tea has to be found in baking, a natural extension of the sublime marriage of tea and cake. My favourite tea to bake with is Earl Grey, strong enough to give a good flavour, subtle and complex enough to be pleasing and robust enough to withstand the cooking process. A wonderful recipe for cookies can be found here, but I'd recommend a slice of cake made to the recipe below accompanied of course by a cup of tea.

  • Preheat the oven to 160 °C.
  • Heat 125ml of milk with 2 or 3 heaped tablespoons of Earl Grey until infused, strain and cool.
  • Cream 110g of unsalted butter with 225g of caster sugar.
  • Slowly combine 2 large beaten eggs with the butter mixture.
  • Add 250g of self raising flour in small amounts, alternating with the addition of the cooled milk until everything is combined.
  • Pour the mixture into a lined cake tin and bake for about approximately 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
  • Leave to cool if you can, eat and enjoy!