Photos and story by Julie Van Rosendaal
Not counting water, tea is the most popular beverage on the planet; it’s the focus of rich cultural traditions worldwide, and though most buy the leaves to steep and drink, it has huge potential as a culinary ingredient.
All true teas come from the same tea bush — Camellia sinensis — and are categorized as black, green, white or oolong depending on the processing method. Anything else — herbal teas and roiboos, for example — are technically not teas at all but tisanes that are steeped and drunk in the same manner.
These basic teas are then used as canvases; often scented, flavoured or blended with other ingredients — Earl Grey is created by adding oil of bergamot to black tea leaves, and jasmine is scented by layering dried tea on screens between screens of jasmine flowers to infuse the tea with its scent. Non-tea ingredients like citrus, dried fruit, flower petals and spices are frequently added to tea leaves, and “chai” blends typically contain cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, though chai translates to tea. Some tea leaves are altered during processing; lapsang souchong, for example, is smoke-dried over pinewood fire, giving it distinctive campfire smokiness.
Both the loose leaves and steeped tea have potential in the kitchen — cooled tea is acidic, making it a great base for marinades (try strong black teas such as Earl Grey, Darjeeling and smoky lapsang souchong for beef and pork, light herbals, green teas and citrus blends for chicken and seafood), in place of water when cooking rice (try citrus blends, Jasmine, lemongrass) or oatmeal (try chamomile, chai blends, soursap), or along with or in place of stock as a soup base — tea is a brilliant vegetarian or vegan option. Tea makes tasty hot and cold cocktails, and if you like to plump up raisins and other dry fruit before you add it to your baking, you can use tea instead of hot water or booze.
Dry loose tea leaves can be added to shortbread, cookie or scone dough, or used to infuse cream you intend to whip and dollop over pie (imagine a strawberry-rhubarb pie with Earl Grey-infused cream) or turn into ice cream, panna cotta, crème brulée, even rice pudding. But though you can start with dry leaves in baked goods, adding them as you might add a dry spice, waking them up in a ramekin with a splash of boiling water will soften the leaves and help them release their flavour before you add them to a recipe.
Black Tea Panna Cotta
- 3 cups half and half
- 1 tbsp loose leaf black tea, such as English breakfast, Earl Grey or Darjeeling
- 1 pkg plain gelatin
- 2 tbsp sugar
- Fresh berries or compote, for serving
- In a medium saucepan, heat the cream and tea until steaming; remove from the heat and let sit for 15 minutes to infuse the cream with the tea.
- Strain and return the cream to the pot; sprinkle the gelatin overtop and let it sit for a few minutes to soften.
- Turn on the heat, add the sugar and whisk until the sugar and gelatin are dissolved. Divide among ramekins or small dishes and refrigerate for 2-3 hours, or until set.