Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Masala chai pumpkin pie, really cooking with tea

I made a masala chai rice pudding not so long ago, but didn't actually add tea, only the related spice blend.  That worked out really well, just drawing on the spicing mix, but I couldn't help but wonder how it would've turned out with tea as a flavor element.  I'd written here about how to make pumpkin pie from scratch, awhile back, so it was just a matter of putting it all together in another desert, with tea as an ingredient this time.

To back up a little, we ran across a wholesale vegetable vendor in Phisanulok on a trip in Thailand, and bought what must be at least 20 pounds of Thai pumpkin, a half dozen of them.  That cost around $2, kind of crazy.  Vegetables cost less here but buying them out in the country at good rates for those areas is something else.  I could make a lot of pies.

The American pumpkin pie spicing, used for pies and coffee drinks, is pretty close to masala chai spicing anyway.  Per my understanding that would include cinnamon, ginger, clove, and nutmeg, with masala chai swapping out nutmeg for cardamom, and potentially adding star anise and black pepper, which I'll skip.  A touch of salt also works well in masala chai, which of course would've been part of the pie anyway.  So it's onto details, how I went about it.

How would one add tea to a pie?  There are a few options, which start from the assumption I didn't plan to actually mix the tea in as an ingredient (eating a good bit of tea alone would probably be hard on your stomach, but mixed with food would probably be fine).  The most obvious fix would be to add it to milk, to simmer that with tea added prior to using it to make the custard base (pumpkin pie is just pumpkin, sugar, milk (or cream or condensed milk), eggs, and spicing).  A less obvious solution would be to add black tea to the water used when roasting the pumpkin, which I did decide to try.

I added a lot of black tea; nearly a third of a cup of it, split between a CTC  Assam I had around and a Thai black tea I just bought.  I'm not sure how much difference it makes but I like the idea of splitting the tea input between an astringent, malty, rough-edged CTC tea and a smoother, milder, fruit or woody-tone tea.  I might've added some of a Taiwanese black to this instead if I'd not ran across that Thai tea, but it's a waste to use tea that's really good, and the version I've not tried yet that I have a good bit of is probably well over that threshold.  That orthodox tea takes up a lot of space for a limited amount of tea but the CTC version doesn't, and partly as a result the input of the latter really could be a bit much.

roasting pumpkin in tea--different

I added some spicing to the tea and water mix used to roast the pumpkin, some clove, thin sliced ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon.  It wasn't intended as the final spicing blend but it made sense to start the spice infusion process too since roasting would take about an hour.  There are different ways one could give the pie the ginger kick, with using fresh ground ginger or even juiced ginger standing out.  I have dried ginger powder in a spice rack but I'll go with all fresh ginger since we keep it around and cook with it anyway.  The effect of fresh ground ginger versus dried is quite a bit different though; there's definitely more risk of the pie turning out too spicy, so one would have to be careful about the amount used.

While setting up the roasting mix it occurred to me that I'd have a version of masala chai as leftover pumpkin broth after the roasting step.  That would be different than typical masala chai because it would have a strong pumpkin flavor.  How strong, you might wonder.  Since I've roasted pumpkin before I'd already have experienced that:  quite intense.  It works well to make a pumpkin soup base, or it's nice just to drink, if one is into such things (I am; I usually just drink it).

I'll review that masala chai version first, then get back to the details about the pie.  I might mention first about tasting the darkened, roasted pumpkin, that tea and spice blend input seemed a little strong.  That's normal; masala chai tastes awful without the sugar and milk because the flavors balance just isn't designed for drinking it that way.  Unless you're dealing with a light version that is intended to be drank alone, but it would have to be very light though, still back in the range of flavored teas.  A more typical masala chai mix is strong, and needs those counters to balance the intensity.  That's not a bad thing; the recipe design accounts for that as an input, focusing on the final effect.

Review of the by-product, masala chai with pumpkin stock

I saved the infused spiced tea and liquid blend, a by-product of the roasting step, refrigerated overnight.  The initial water I measured as 3 1/2 cups, and between evaporation and the pumpkin absorbing a lot there was about two large cups of tea worth left.  One part I heated, simmering it on the stove, and drank a second cup cold, to try it both ways.  Upon first taste it was a bit too vegetal, in part related to Thai pumpkin being a little closer to a squash than the jack-o-lantern style version (what Westerners call squash; they're all part of the same vegetable group, they're squash).  A bit more sugar and a few drops of vanilla helped offset that, along with just switching expectations.

The tea wasn't designed to be a final version, so the flavor profile had eased up quite a bit on spicing as I typically prepare masala chai.  Ginger in particular was quite subdued.  But it worked.  The pumpkin gave it an interesting complexity, not bad at all once I expected it to be there.  Beyond that it was just a mild masala chai blend.  I would expect some people to hate it and others to prefer it to versions without pumpkin depending on personal preference.  It definitely added some complexity, although it didn't taste mostly like pumpkin with all the tea and spicing in it.

masala chai stock photo, from an earlier post about that

It was interesting experiencing it cold and hot, as two versions.  The cold presentation helped the pumpkin input largely drop out, so I suppose preference for one of those two styles would depend on that factor.  I liked both; they were just different.  Pumpkin really was just another layer in the flavor, it just stood out a lot when initially tasting it because it's an atypical layer.  The balance of the spices was fine, I'd just prefer even more clove and ginger.

I was wondering if tea balance would work, since around a third of a cup of tea is a lot, surely enough to make at least a half dozen cups of tea, probably more like a dozen, now absorbed into a lot of pumpkin and remaining in three cups of liquid tea.  It was strong but fine.  At a guess that pumpkin absorbed a good bit more than half the tea flavor (and caffeine? who knows).  It seems kind of obvious but I didn't want to under-shoot related to tea flavor addition, to be concluding that the experiment would be interesting to re-try with more tea so that the tea taste was actually present.  It's bold to add so much tea to a recipe but I think that was in the right range.

There's one more choice to be made related to that since I have a third small cup of the strong tea left, half a cup really, which I could add back into the pie or leave out.  Either way would have worked, but in the end I did mix it in.  Water is not a typical ingredient in a pumpkin pie but I have some cooking cream at home, so it's easy to offset the addition by going with the cream instead of milk or half and half, as I usually do.  As I recall the old traditional version my Mom made when I was a child used condensed milk, but I stopped considering that type of ingredient more than 20 years ago, early in my cooking self-training.

To me cooking is about tasting, about projecting ahead where a flavor balance is going to go, then making adjustments.  Another part is about texture.  Using interim tasting as input really doesn't work so well in making a masala chai, if you don't add the milk as you cook it (which is the typical way to prepare it, to cook the milk with the tea), because milk and sugar change the flavor so much it's hard to factor that in.

Towards the end of making this pie it really turned into a struggle.  It's easy to run into trouble with crust temperature, since the butter or margarine needs to be at just the right degree of softness to form correctly, and that became a glitch.  It's hot here (I live in Bangkok, and it's the hot season now), even hotter in a kitchen while cooking, and once it started to soften too much I put it in the refrigerator, then the rest took too long and I overcooled it.

I had been using ground cloves in the past but tried grinding whole cloves this time instead, and our food processor isn't as suited to that as a spice grinder would be.  I grated fresh ginger for this pie, but it was difficult dialing in that spicing level along with the clove.  A glitch or two is easy to work through but when a few aspects don't click the venture can turn into a slog.  I was trying to rush this cooking process by the time it was over, already working it into a busy day, and that's just not really how experimental cooking works.  We'll see if that affects results or not.

The final results

the pie; crazy, but it's square

Sometimes these experimental food ventures work out well, as that masala chai spice rice pudding did, and often not nearly that well, or sometimes better on a second try.  On first taste this didn't click in the same way.  The clove and ginger were both a little strong, and I didn't get the salt level right to balance flavors.  That's just about not paying attention, since you can't easily tell how spicing will integrate but salt level is an easier call, even if it's quite subtle in this type of dish.

It wasn't immediately obvious if the tea played much of a flavor role or not, due to the spicing.  It all came across as a little too strong, not falling into balance, and I think the tea might have just helped push it further in that direction.  Backing off the more intense spices might have helped it play a nice supporting role, but I erred in the other direction instead.

It made me think through the differences in masala chai (the drink), and cooking rice pudding and pumpkin pie.  Masala chai needs to be intense, that's part of the whole point, and the sugar and milk provide compensation for some relatively high spice levels.  In retrospect I went quite light on the ginger and clove in that rice pudding, even backing off the cinnamon, allowing the cardamom to play a larger role, but I switched all that around in this case.  All of those rely on striking the right balance, which is especially important in pumpkin pie.  Layering pumpkin with intense spices requires the right touch or the pumpkin itself can nearly drop out as a flavor base that ties it all together.

With a rice pudding the neutral rice flavor automatically falls way into the background; there can be no substantial "rice" flavor, although it is in there.  With that dish you can potentially lose the "custard" flavor, the creamy fullness egg cooked into milk provides, which is already not going to stand out in a desert based on pumpkin instead.

Anyway, tasted on it's own it turned out ok, just a little intense, without striking that exceptional balance.  There wasn't much "pumpkin" aspect coming across.  That general spiciness also offset noticing the input of the tea, which probably just ramped up flavor intensity, complexity, and busy-ness, which it really didn't need.  I can't help but wonder if using so much CTC tea wasn't also a problem, if that edgy, biting, malt tone didn't combine with the edge of ginger and clove to dial up the flavor volume a little too loud.  Could it work better than plain pumpkin pie, if adjusted correctly?  Maybe.  One more factor comes into play.

The whip cream input, sort of

the kind of people that eat whip cream from the can

The adjustment period is not over once you finish the dish, although at first it may seem so.  I made the pie to go with whipped cream (you sort of design it for a certain level of that for balance).  We had a can of instant whipped cream in the refrigerator, with only a little already used to go with jello, so adding extra whipped cream would be an easy counter to the spiciness.  It's not just a fix because the spicing level was designed to include that, in the same way you would make two completely different masala chai versions if you planned to add milk and sugar or not.

Unbeknownst to me my two kitchen assistants ate part of it and expended all the propellant--nitrous oxide--by ineffectively eating it directly from the can.  This was in spite of clear instructions related to how making that mistake would be possible.  I told them to not eat it from the can, at all, and if they did to just tip it up while doing so, holding the can nozzle side down.  So much for me being consistent.  It was that kind of cooking venture anyway, a bit up and down.

I tried the pie with vanilla ice cream the second time, not ideal but it would serve the same purpose.  It was much better; quite good even.  It was amazing how it shifted the intensity down to enable the spicing to become reasonable, although still just a little heavy on clove.  I might've been able to detect tea as an input but it seemed to layer in to just add complexity and earthiness to the pie.  It's hard to say if that actually improved it.  Pumpkin taste definitely did get crowded out.

If I tried it with rice pudding again instead, and used better tea, and all but omitted clove and ginger, used them sparingly as mild support, that may work even better.  But I'm not sure I could really tell what role black tea played even if I got the balance right, or it might not taste like black tea at all especially if I did get it right.  That's an odd thought, isn't it, that the only way to balance the flavor properly might be to not taste it at all.

The reason that better tea in general is so effective in beverage form is that it's standing alone, or at least my tea almost always is.  Only blended versions aren't.  Most teas can be intense but only in a subtle way; the intensity and complexity comes from a tea drinker becoming accustomed to that range, to calibrating their sense of taste.

Masala chai really is an anomaly, and it's quite odd that bergamot in Earl Grey works as well as it does, or jasmine in a nice black tea.  Jasmine green tea or osmanthus oolongs are typically great examples of why those other two are exceptions.  Both can be fine until you become accustomed to plain teas, and then the lack of subtlety becomes hard to take.  Or maybe that's just my experience.  Jasmine green tea was a gateway tea for me but I have no idea when I last tried one.

It might be better to just make the pie without tea and have a nice tea on the side.  That seems an odd place to leave it, so I'll consider what someone else tried related to this.  Google had more to say about the masala chai rice pudding I made, which I'd not looked up when making that.

Thai fruit; no connection

Versus from a recipe

I'm not recommending that you do this, to completely hand your cooking experiment over to some internet reference source, but it wouldn't hurt to check one before starting out (like this article and recipe; Google's first pick for the terms I entered).  Of course I didn't; I read all this after making this pie.  This citation about author preference shows where it's going to go:

I prefer a pumpkin pie that is subtle in its spice and sugar; with a creamy and tender filling, against a crust that has both flake and crunch.  

I usually serve pumpkin pie with some whipped cream that's folded through with just enough maple syrup to take off its edge, but If in the mood for true gilding, I’ll serve it with a Black Tea Caramel... heady with Darjeeling and cardamom, it completes the whole masala chai thing the pie has started. 

I must admit I'm a bit flexible about the crust texture part but that is how ideal spicing usually goes for pumpkin pie.  Spicing supports the effect but stays in the background.  Related to texture, it's funny how I do like to cook, and experiment with flavors, but in a sense I really do have a "crocodile's tongue," as my wife says (a Thai expression).  I could spend a whole day making something I feel like eating, prepared just in the way I imagine it, or I could just eat grilled cheese sandwiches for a week.  And when I make pies frequently the crust does turn out flaky but it doesn't matter so much to me if it doesn't.

Here is her recipe related to spices (although adding that sauce mentioned changes things; that sweetness and spicing essentially becomes part of the equation):

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon ground clove
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

That would be subtle.  I don't measure ingredients when I cook but I went stronger on spicing, with the actual black tea input adding a substantial layer beyond that.

Let's consider the caramel sauce spicing too (omitting reference to cream and butter):

1 tablespoon loose leaf black tea, Darjeeling is best
4 green cardamom pods, cracked
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon whisky
Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt such as Maldon

So way, way less tea than I put in this pie, nearly by a factor of ten.  I can't imagine how this caramel could be "heady with Darjeeling" from adding enough tea to make a couple of cups worth.  Darjeeling is a good call, probably a second flush or autumn harvest version, maybe second flush instead to not waste the other.  Or a Lipton tea bag might work almost as well for mixing in a tablespoon of tea with all the rest.  Using a single vanilla bean might seem sparse but I've went on before about how much flavor those can impart, even adding a creamy texture based on adding only a limited amount.

I suppose it's appropriate that my first experience with really cooking with tea wasn't a resounding success.  It sort of worked, and maybe I'll get back to it.

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