As a child, I never appreciated the joy of tea. In fact, I never really had the chance, as my grandmother would say, "Children should not be drinking tea; it is not good for them." If it had been any other beverage, I would have fought with her, but I didn't care enough about tea. I did, however, outgrow that stage. I began to experiment with different teas and learn how to flavor tea with my real passion: spices.
I recently interviewed chef Carla Hall, one of the co-hosts of The Chew, while sipping a mint tea in Washington, D.C. Her eyes lit up as she told me about her newly found passion for tea — not just drinking it, but cooking with it.
"After going to a Women Chefs & Restaurateurs tea seminar with Cynthia Gold [tea sommelier at L'Espalier in Boston], I was fascinated and hooked by how tea can be paired like wine. In the past, I had used various teas in bouquets garnis or flavor sachets in soups, rice and broths," she said. She said she realized she could use tea for baking. And baking is what Carla's company, Alchemy by Carla Hall, does terrifically well. They make sweet and savory petite cookies — "petite" as in the size of a peanut M&M.
The key to using tea in baking, she says, is to use premium teas with whole leaves and less filler.
Hall is not alone in her passion in using tea in cookies. Emeric Harney, a third-generation master tea blender in New York, says flavoring desserts with teas is gaining popularity fast. "I've seen people start to use matcha [powdered Japanese green tea] in whipped creams, spreading it between layers of crepes, making green tea mille-feuilles," he said. He advises using teas with strong inherent flavors when cooking. For flavoring cookies and desserts, he says teas such as Earl Grey and Paris (black currant, bergamot and vanilla) are great. He also suggests using matcha or powdered teas for flavoring oatmeal raisin cookies.
I talked to chefs in the Washington, D.C., area who also are cooking with tea. At Buzz Bakery in Virginia, "We serve an Earl Grey and sour cherry scone with lemon glaze that is so popular, we can't take it off the menu," said Tiffany MacIsaac, pastry chef of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group. Her favorite pairings: jasmine tea with milk chocolate and black tea with mousse.
Tea is not just being used to flavor cookies and pastries, however. Fabrice Leray, pastry chef at Washington, D.C.'s Plume at The Jefferson, pairs teas with fruits in desserts. "Pairings that work well are green tea with red fruits like cherries, raspberries and strawberries; chamomile tea with orange; and black tea with plum," he said. This year he created a matcha green tea parfait to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Japanese gift of cherry trees to the nation's capital.
So I have at last learned to fully appreciate tea — by thinking outside the cup.
Tips On Cooking And Serving With Tea
Chef Carla Hall recommends a few ways to flavor cookies with tea:
- Grind loose tea to powder and mix it with the flour. Be sure to grind the tea finely and sift out any large pieces, as these will not break down during the baking process.
- Substitute strongly brewed tea for wine or liqueur in the recipe. When brewing tea, be attentive and make it strong but do not overbrew, as this will make the dish bitter.
- Infuse tea into a wet ingredient. Loose tea or tea bags are both perfect for steeping flavor into cream and simple syrup.
To enjoy drinking a cup of tea with your cookies, Hall suggests these flavor compatibility pairings:
- Earl Grey, an astringent black tea flavored with the oil of the bergamot orange (a citrus fruit), with cranberry-orange oatmeal cookies
- Keemun, a roasted black tea with chocolate overtones (considered the Burgundy of teas), with chocolate chip cookies or chocolate crinkles
- Darjeeling, a light-bodied, musky, spicy tea, with strawberry linzer cookies
And for flavor contrast pairings, she suggests:
- Earl Grey with chocolate shortbread: Think how well orange plays against chocolate.
- Darker Oolong with ginger snaps: Smoky and nutty, Oolong offsets spice.
- Sencha with white chocolate–macadamia nut cookies: A Japanese green tea, sencha has subtle flavor that balances well with creamy textures and vanilla.