Chai Ice Cream

There are many things that have confused me about chai over the years. How did the simple word for tea in India (and much of the world) come to denote this Christmasy spice-infused drink? Isn’t it then redundant to say “chai tea”? Does it always need to be sweet (I never sweeten my teas)? What are the spices in it and is there a rigid formula of them? Should the “C” be capitalized? Why did the New York coffee shop I worked at between college semesters always purchase it pre-brewed in cartons (couldn’t we be trusted to brew it like the rest of the loose-leaf blends?)? Why is it so damn special?

That’s a lot of confusion for not a whole lot of years that the beverage has been under my radar. According to this brief history, it wasn’t until the 1980s that non-Indian restaurants and coffee shops in the West began serving chai, spurred by an interest in yoga, and Eastern cultures in general — and in my personal observation, I don’t think the word or drink fazed me until the late nineties. By then, the teabag companies had swarmed in on the trend. Celestial Seasonings now makes six different varieties of chai teabags.

That the now-popular drink has quickly transformed the Hindi word for tea into a household and coffeehouse term I see as a microcosm of a bigger, and more enduring effort from US tea marketing campaigns to exploit tea’s Eastern origins. [I went on a little rant a year ago about Celestial Seasonings’ Mandarin Orange Spice girl and the box’s corny prose. But I think the company’s recent product redesign has toned down this angle — less of the fire-breathing dragons, Confucius-like sages, and names for tea blends that sounded suggestive of altered states of mind do we see.] Probably the most puzzling part of the case of chai then, to me, is that it tastes wholly American, just like the spices you might put in a pumpkin pie.

To address my first order of confusion above, it made much sense when I discovered that a popular black tea blended with warm spices called Masala chai (or Masala “tea”) had gradually been shortened to just “chai.” Often served with milk, hot and sweetened, it’s as popular in Bombay as coffee is in New York. Naturally, it tastes a bit different there from the chai lattes you’ll find in the States, according to a friend of mine who lived in India for some time. Which brings me to my next, unsolved question — it seems there is no rigid formula for the spice blend. Across the Western world, people are routing for the additions of everything from fresh ginger to bay leaves in chai recipes. The popular Starbucks brand Tazo includes vanilla and rooibus in their chai blends. And my coffee shop was not alone; according to Wikipedia, most shops make chai from brand-name liquid concentrates instead of brewing their own tea fresh, for reasons of convenience that I still don’t, not by a long shot, understand. (Isn’t that a huge expense not to mention enormous waste of packaging for something you could figure out how to blend and brew on site?) Getting to the grammar-related questions last, it is redundant to say “chai tea,” though this term is ubiquitous; and I don’t know — sometimes the “C” is given proper noun cred, sometimes it isn’t.

clockwise from bottom left: nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, green cardamom, cloves, allspice, black pepper

If you can take in all that backstory, confusion and frustration over this type of tea (which I hope wasn’t too much of a bore), then you can probably read into it that I was determined to make something out of the stuff. Yes, I have enjoyed a cup of warm, sweet chai every once in a blue moon, but I was never so taken by it to figure out just how to make it myself at home. That is, until I came up with the idea of making an ice cream flavor with it, at home. It just seemed the right flavors for fall. Plus, all my friends adore chai, and I aim to please.

The first order of business was deciphering that magic blend. I’ll allow that anything might be allowed in chai spices around here, but I needed to read up on recipes to find ideas. Once I’d gathered that most recipes for the tea called for at least cinnamon, cardamom pods, whole black pepper and cloves, I amassed these basics (thanks for the cardamom, Winnie) and picked and chose the accoutrements. I had star anise lying around, so why not? I also had whole allspice, and whole nutmeg. Good enough.

Darjeeling tea seemed appropriately Indian for the black tea I steeped in the milk and cream mixture, along with a teaball of the above spices. When it was all said and done, steeped and sweetened, cooked to custard, churned to ice cream, set frozen, and scooped into a bowl, it tasted more or less like the creamy coffeehouse iced chai latte. In one confoundingly delicious little ball.

Chai Ice Cream
(makes about 1 quart)

2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
5 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
2 black tea bags (Darjeeling, English Breakfast or any without a strong or distinct flavor)
1 cinnamon stick
6-8 green cardamom pods
6-8 black peppercorns
4-6 whole allspice
4-6 cloves
1 star anise
1/4 piece of a whole nutmeg (or just use a whole one if you don’t have partially-grated pieces handy)

In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugars and spices until fluffy and the lighter in color. Set aside.

Combine the milk, cream and spices in a medium saucepan (using a teaball for the spices for easier removal later on). Drop in the tea bags, and bring mixture just to a boil, then reduce heat to very low. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 25 minutes. (Do not let boil.)

While beating the egg yolk mixture, pour in a small spoonful of the hot milk mixture and continue to beat. Repeat process with a larger spoonful, while beating, then repeat again, and again. (This will temper the eggs, so that they don’t cook lumpy.) Next, scoop all the egg yolk mixture into the hot milk mixture. Return heat to medium-low. Cook about 8-10 minutes longer, stirring frequently with a spatula to scrape all corners of the bottom of the pot. Do not let boil. The custard should be just thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, but have no lumps.

Let custard cool completely, then remove the teabags and all the spices with a slotted spoon. Transfer to an airtight container and completely chill in the refrigerator at least 2 hours. Follow your machine’s instructions for churning length. Add the chopped nuts in the last minute of the churning process. Transfer ice cream to an airtight container and freeze for 2 hours to “ripen.”

Cost Calculator
(for 1 quart of ice cream)

2 cups plus 1 tablespoon milk (at $4.50/half gallon): $0.75
1 cup heavy cream: $1.29
5 egg yolks (at $3/dozen): $0.63
2/3 cup sugar: $0.25
2 black teabags: $0.40
assorted spices: $0.50

Total: $3.82

Health Factor

Eight brownie points: It’s just straight-up, good old-fashioned ice cream, folks. Rich and fatty, eggy and creamy, and with relatively little else in the way (compared to most of my ice cream flavors).

Green Factor

Four maple leaves: The inconvenient truth about dry spices is that they’re mostly imported. Almost all black peppercorns are harvested in Indonesia before appearing on every American household table, restaurant kitchen, and about 99% of recipe ingredient lists. So it’s this weird hush-hush zone when it comes to eating locally. The handful of spices used in this recipe really are that exotic, literally and figuratively. Aside from that and the white sugar, the cream, milk and eggs are do-good Greenmarket buys.


24 Responses

  1. Chrysanthe

    Where can you find cardamom pods? My friend is looking for some for a drink recipe.

  2. Erin C

    There’s a great book that gives a little background to chai and its innovation during British occupation of India. It’s called Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. There’s also a great chapter on Chicken Tikka Masala, if you’re ever interested…

  3. Just Serving Ice Cream

    I love chai tea and have been considering making chai ice cream! You did it…and it sounds soo good!!!

  4. Florence

    Hi Cathy! It was, again, great to meet you at the pig roast on Friday. I just had to ask – what kind of ice cream maker do you use? I’ve been thinking about getting one but can’t seem to muster up the will to pay for a pricey model. Any suggestions?


  5. Erin Edwards

    I have a recipe for an herbal chai, acquired from a class on preparing teas and other infusions as medicine. This chai is easy to make, and you might find that slightly more than the above the ingredients are harvested locally and/or sustainably. Still depends on your source of course.

    Herbal Chai:
    Equal parts cardamom pods, licorice root, dried ginger root, cinnamon bark, fennel seeds plus 1/8 part cloves and black pepper.
    Boil 1 T. of herbs in 16oz. water for 10 minutes. Strain out herbs, then add soy milk and honey to taste. Return to a boil briefly. Enjoy.

    credit: National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, OR

  6. m.hussein.thew

    The first time I had real chai, made by an Indian neighbor, I was blown away by how good it was. Pity there’s no public tasting of your ice cream version.

    And isn’t “cardamom” just a word to say over and over again?

  7. cathy

    Thanks everyone for the thoughts, recipes and suggestions!
    Chrysanthe: Have you been to Sahadi’s on Atlantic Ave? Spice mecca!
    Florence: Nice to meet you, too! I can’t emphasize how great a $50 investment the Cuisinart ICE-20 is. The difference here between mega-powerful, more expensive models is that you have to freeze the bowl overnight before using it, which is no problem for me.

  8. ambitious

    Hello Cathy!

    Is it possible to make this without an ice cream maker?

  9. Anthony Owen

    Surely ‘proper’ chai (as drunk in India) gets its taste not so much from the ingredients, but from the way it is prepared. From much study, it is ALWAYS prepared by putting the loose tea, spices and sugar (no, chai CANNOT be prepared without sugar, that’s like having a curry without spices) into the milk and water mixture and boiling the whole lot up together, then keeping it on a rolling boil for a minute or two before serving (if it doesn’t start forming a skin, it’s not real ‘chai).

    And that is VERY different from how one prepares any other tea (I’m English, I know about these things), where boiling water is poured over the tea ALONE and it is allowed to steep (with NO further heating) for some minutes before mixing with milk, sugar etc.

    Any ordinary black tea, if prepared in a ‘chai’ way, with some spices (whatever you have sitting around, cinnamon, nutmeg etc – that’s what they do in India, there is no set ‘recipe) will taste more like real ‘chai’, than any ‘chai mix’ will taste if you don’t boil it together with the milk and water (IMHO, of course).

    And, BTW, cows’ milk is often too ‘neutral’. sheep, goat or water buffalo milk is more strongly flavoured and stands more of a chance against the flavours of the tea and spices.

    Ah, memories of Indian railway stations at 3:00 in the morning, chai which has been stewing for hours served out of big urns carried on the back into clay cups (drink quick before they disintegrate and the chai ends up on the ground.)

  10. Liz

    I prefer my chai hot. Not a big fan of it cold.

    Love your site!


  11. Sarah

    I’ve been wanting to try a chai ice cream–looks like I won’t have to make up a recipe for it now!

  12. Shaarangapanaye

    A SUPPORTED BY THE DEVELOPER TOOLS? It was interesting. You seem very knowledgeable in ypour field.

  13. Daniel

    Great quality stuff.

  14. Manisha

    Thank you for this post! Yes, the term “chai tea” is redundant. Chai = tea. So use one or the other. And, in general, tea leaves are added to boiling water and boiled until they release all those tannins. That’s what Indians seek in chai, along with caffeine.

    It is made differently from home to home, based on individual preferences. I grew up drinking brewed tea instead of boiled tea because my father preferred the former. It was only when my sister married into a very traditional orthodox Rajasthani family that I learned how to make ‘kadak’ (strong) masala chai. Milk was never boiled with the water. It was water first, tea leaves next and then the milk. My husband’s family does water+milk first and then tea leaves when that mixture boils. 🙂

    Teas like Darjeeling tea are generally not boiled with/in water. These are brewed – the leaf is allowed to unfurl and expand. Boiling it is pretty much akin to killing the taste and aroma of these teas.

    Chai can be and is made without sugar. There are enough diabetics in India who still like a strong cup of chai and have no access to sugar substitutes, or simply shun them. My husband and I prefer tea, whether brewed or boiled, without sugar. It’s still chai. Because chai=tea. That’s it. It’s a noun, plain and simple.

    It’s funny how chai is romanticized in the West and how there are all these theories of what makes it chai and how it is not chai if things are not done one way or another. It’s just a cup of tea for us. 😀

  15. Herbal Junky

    I want to know more, thanks

  16. Mariko

    I tried making this last night. It tasted great! It was just like chai from a cafe. Thank you!

  17. Hisey

    Bless you very much for your helping hand.

  18. […] ice cream. Previous holiday seasons have been responsible for creating some of my favorites, like chai, orange spice, cranberry, peppermint, chocolate and five-star anise, and curry-carrot-coconut ice […]

  19. Arthur

    I have seen a chai roast chicken, too.

    Chai is a spiced tea with milk. Here in the SE USA we usually just add sugar but honey and spices are good too!

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