I've left some scope unfinished related to Christmas tea blends, getting a standard version to work out without adjusting it with milk and sugar. Note that reading a Taste the Tea post reviewing lots of types of teas helped trigger this, although I did make a version last year, and was already planning another go. By standard version I mean a variation of black tea, cinnamon, orange (peel, most likely), and clove (although it could include others). Since that's the basic set, and since I varied that by including more fruit last year (black cherry and nectarine), I went with just those for a second attempt this year (after the more chocolate covered cherry version--a bit atypical).
two small oranges worth of peel
Related to the orange part, essentially any oranges would do. There would be strengths and weaknesses related to how essential oils taste in different versions, different breeds and preparations, but not being aware of that I was more likely to go with the first oranges I ran across. A street vendor truck driving by the house was selling Chinese / Mandarin oranges this past weekend, so that was it.
Prepping those turned out to be a bit tricky because the skins were too thin for stripping off an outer layer, and I was working with two of them my daughter had already peeled and eaten. It worked better to strip off the white pith instead (which would add a bitterness the blend doesn't need), shaving it away with a peeler. The easiest fix would be to grate the zest off a whole fresh orange, never using a drying step, but the cooking related work is a fun part for me. It took a bit over half an hour to dry those in a 90 degree toaster oven.
the dried version
I also added a bit of ground cinnamon and ground clove, spice-jar versions. In the past I've fresh-ground cinnamon from a stick but I took the easy path this time. For black tea I used only Hatvala Wild Boar black tea from Vietnam, which I'm getting low on. It's perfect for the blend, in terms of profile, a soft tea compared to CTC Ceylon and such, with some natural fruit flavor and a bit of earthiness. If anything it's too good a tea to be using in this way, but it's not like I was committing 50 grams to a blend, I just made enough for one infusion cycle, this time. I usually mix whatever CTC commercial loose tea I have around with another type but I wanted to see how it would work without that astringency input.
a commercial version (photo credit Taste the Tea site)
Tasting notes / review:
Straight to it then. The blend worked! One trick is getting clove to be there but not overpower the other elements, and that's how it balanced out. The orange element was nice, strong enough to definitely show up, but also balanced. It tasted nothing like bergamot (the orange oil used in Earl Grey), not even like more typical "Western" orange types, a good bit like the Mandarin orange fruit does. I went light on the cinnamon and it could've improved by ramping that up, but at the same time it was nice that stayed well in the background. It was subtle enough to drink plain after a three minute infusion time (or so; I didn't put it on a timer).
The downside: the taste balance wasn't quite right related to the limited sweetness. The beautiful part of normal plain teas is that it all really does automatically balance, and absolutely doesn't need sugar or milk (a matter of taste preference, of course). The clove wasn't spicy, that wasn't a problem, but the different inputs didn't mesh and balance as they should. I added a bit of sugar--not much, a small teaspoon--and it absolutely did work.
post-infusion; a bit of a mess
With just that little bit more sweetness the orange really jumped to the front, and went from a background citrus mixed in to tasting a lot like those oranges actually do, sweet and rich. They are the same as the ones people buy in cans sold as "Mandarin oranges" in the US, here going by the name Chinese oranges, and neither is probably an accurate formal name. But what's in a name.
next to longkong for scale
I want to emphasize how easy this was to make. At the easiest someone could grate the zest off an orange, straight into the mix, and shake in a couple of dashes of those spices straight off the spice rack. It might only take a minute. It's my impression that drying the rind changes the flavor a little, but then everything changes the flavor a little. The temperature and humidity level in the room probably shifts your sense of taste a little.
Or the opposite approach could work, ramping up the level of effort a little. This would work better using fresh ground cloves and cinnamon, and including a bit more fruit would work well, as in that version last year, it would just add lots to prep time. I can't really see adding jam to this, as I had in the recent chocolate covered cherry blend version, but it's conceivable the same blend could be made from orange marmalade. A friend just mentioned in an online discussion his family would do that; add a bit of marmalade to their tea when they felt like it. I don't think the same interesting orange oil aspect would carry over, though. Adding some of those cacao nibs used in that other blend might have worked; I'd have to check.
Of course I'm mostly talking to people that like to cook, for whom that range of demand is a positive thing, but the one-minute version really is worth a try. Plain tea purists probably shouldn't even be reading this; it could be considered tea-enthusiast blasphemy. If I was in some sort of club I might get black-listed, or blocked from a pu'er group just for mentioning this there.
I really don't drink blends much, or ever get around to adding sugar to a tea, outside of something like masala chai, but it's nice to mix things up. I'm just getting over a cold, not ideal for tea tasting, and somehow this works really well for that, a good match for the most subtle level of perception of my palate not working out. Drying peels from two small oranges looks like plenty for three batches of tea so I will get back to experimenting more with what I made. Maybe I'll ramp up the spice in the next version, adding a little nutmeg and cardamom to see how that works out.