31 December 2008

The Best Cookie of My Life

It really was.

And it was so unassuming, almost lost amid an army of neon macaroons, fluffy pastel marshmallows, lime mousse cakes, buche de noels and chocolate-dipped candy canes (festooned with impossibly small gingerbread-men sprinkles, of course) at the Taj Boston's (15 Arlington St.) annual Christmas brunch buffet.

But this almond thumbprint cookie, filled with raspberry jam, is what put the other sweets to shame.

It was everything a dry, crumbly, packaged Pepperidge Farm cookie dreams of being: tender, moist and sweetly flavored from the almond, with a burst of bright berry sunshine in the middle. One bite, and it made me gasp.

(The four plates of savory food beforehand might have had something to do with feeling unable to breathe, but it was just all so good- sushi, seaweed-sesame noodles, aged goat cheese, sauteed salmon, mashed potatoes, roasted carrots and baby beets, pumpkin-cheese tortellini, the best mattar paneer ever to pass my lips- how could I resist?)

I'm a seasoned buffet glutton, but it was actually verging on painful to cram in any dessert at all. I did need something to go with the tea I ordered, however, since I had already made short work of the almond thumbprint cookie.

So I loaded up a few more small plates, brought them back to the table and started food styling for the photos while I waited for the tea to arrive.

"Don't you dare talk trash on your blog about this tea, just because it's bagged," my sister whispered to me as the waiter arrived and started pouring it from a tall silver pitcher.

I assured her I wouldn't. And I really won't, because as I explained, where- and with whom- you have a cup of tea is what makes it pleasurable (or not). The strong, black English breakfast blend that we sipped from the ivory china cups was surprisingly well brewed, but even more important, it was capping off the best meal of the year, enjoyed alongside those I love most dearly.

It was a welcome reminder of what, in the end, is all that matters.

May your 2009 be filled with tea in good company. And cookies.

29 December 2008

Cardamom, Take Me Away

I've been reading a few books lately that take place in Kashmir, and descriptions of a local green tea, brewed with spices and nuts, keep enticing me.

I'd never heard of kahva, or Kashmiri tea, before, but I found a simple recipe for it in Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian cookbook, which I've been slowly working my way through for years now.

Even if the closest you've gotten to Kashmir is wearing a soft, warm sweater and lying on a rug listening to Led Zepplin, just the first sniff into a cup of this gently spiced tea will transport you.


In a medium-sized pot, combine 4 cups water with 12 cardamom pods, lightly crushed, 4 teaspoons blanched slivered almonds and 4 teaspoons sugar. Bring to a boil, remove from heat and let sit, covered, for 3 minutes. Add 4 teaspoons Kashmiri green or gunpowder tea, stir, and cover again for 2 minutes. Strain into glasses and serve hot.

You can add a pinch of saffron or cinnamon to the tea too, if you like, both of which are regional variations. And though these rosewater-pistachio cookies aren't a traditional accompaniment, I don't think anyone will mind eating them alongside.

Pistachio Rosewater Cookies
Makes: about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

1 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup canola oil
3 tablespoons rice or soy milk
4 teaspoons rosewater
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped

1. Heat oven to 350°. In medium-sized bowl, whisk together sugar, oil, rice milk, rosewater, vanilla, lime zest and juice. Add cornstarch and whisk until dissolved.

2. Mix in flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon until well combined. Refrigerate dough for 30 minutes, or overnight.

3. Roll dough into balls about 2 teaspoons in size and dip tops into chopped pistachios. Place on ungreased baking sheets, nut-side up, and flatten slightly with two fingers.

4. Bake for 13-15 minutes; remove from oven and let sit on sheets 5 minutes. Remove to rack to cool completely.

They're even vegan (another recipe from the amusing Veganomicon cookbook), so you can pretend they're healthy. I know I need at least a brief respite from all the delicious butter and salt I've had over the past week.

22 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamus: Day 12

For the last day of this series, I thought a lot about the ultimate tea gift. A year's supply of Uji Gyokuro; a cordless, laser-guided, instant-read thermometer to get that exact water temperature; a handcrafted Japanese birch-veneer tea canister?

Nothing seemed just right.

I realized, then, what my favorite gift is: the first cup of tea I have in the morning. I'm lucky enough to be able to make and enjoy one every day.

So set your alarm five minutes earlier on Christmas morning and make yourself a cup of your favorite tea. Drink it quietly before you do anything else, and just revel in the smell of the leaf brewing and the gentle tickle of the steam on your lips before you close your eyes and sip.

Do it every day, and it will be an endless gift.

21 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 11

Who could resist this porcelain Winter Wren Tea Set ($98) from Anthropologie, consisting of an adorable chunky pot and four diminutive, beak-emblazoned cups?

There's something so relaxing and '70s about this design. And it's the kind of gift that will no doubt be appreciated, especially when wrapped up with some loose tea.

I know I would love to open this gift, if only I could scrounge up three friends to have over. Setting up the stuffed animals at the table and pouring tea for them just seems so second grade.

20 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 10

Just when you thought a Christmas gift couldn't get any more ridiculous: A single cupcake stand ($64) from the amazing studio of Whitney Smith pottery.

This hand-thrown, pale-pink glazed stand and bell-jar lid- topped with one little, tiny, perfect bird- is almost cute enough to eat. Can you imagine finding this under the tree?

And if you sneak a tea-flavored cupcake inside before you wrap it up, then you probably can get out of gift-giving for the next three years, at least.

19 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 9

This one may seem a bit over-the-top, but think about it: A cup of tea gets cold pretty quickly unless you're chugging it. So this knit mug cozy ($20) from Ruth Cross is actually a necessity.

Admit it, it's ridiculously fetching.

It's crafted out of a soft alpaca-wool blend, it comes in your choice of black, gray, white or berry, and nothing will keep your recipient's darling little hands (and cup of tea) happier.

18 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 8

Dutch people are unmistakably Dutch.

As is this playful tea pot ($120) from Dutch designer Esther Derkx. Images of gymnasts, dancers and pinup girls- who perhaps indicate how you'll feel after four cups of tea, or after moving to Holland- are artfully screen-printed onto salvaged vintage teapots. That makes it ideal for any preachy, eco-conscious friends on your gift list.

Get one of these and you'll want to belt out "hit me with your best pot," but quietly, quietly- you don't want to give away what's all wrapped up in that box.

17 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 7

It's sad but true- you probably can't afford to give anyone a trip to Hawaii for Christmas this year.

But you can give them the next best thing: 100% Hawaiian grown and processed green tea from Mauna Kea. It's produced on the big island of Hawaii using natural farming techniques, and it is one of the very few teas made in the U.S.

Give its everyday organic green tea ($10 for 15g), and you'll be showered with mahalos even without a pair of tickets to Honolulu in your other hand.

16 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 6

Attention readers: We have a winner! Mazeltov to floatingink, who loves Iron Goddess oolong- please write me at teaspotnyc at gmail dot com so I can send you the goods. And now, on to the gifts...

If the thought of any more tea to drink has your friends or family clutching their stomachs, what about wearing it?

It's not possible to overdose on the luxe white tea eye cream ($23) and white tea night cream ($28) from Israeli-based soapsmith Sabon. (It's a favorite brand for germaphobes like me, because the retail outlets have a giant copper sink where customers are encouraged to wash their hands and test out the various lines.)

If you use these products, your skin will be so smooth that people might mistake you for a little lost child while you're out finishing up your holiday shopping.

Don't give away the fact that you're pushing 40 just yet, though- milk it and see if you can get at least a candy cane out of it, or a seat on some old fat guy's lap.

15 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 5

For the open-minded tea-gift giver, check out The Art and Soul of Baking ($29.95) by pastry chef Cindy Mushet, published by chi-chi cooking store Sur La Table. I don't have this book so I can't speak to the over 250 recipes, but I've paged through it greedily and read endless positive reviews.

And how winter wonderlandy is that cover?

If you've never had anything other than Oreos to accompany your tea, this may very well be the book to help fill the kitchen with homemade cookies, cakes and breads. And if you give it as a gift, the recipient just might repay you with some of those. It's only fair.

Don't forget to enter the Tea Spot giveaway!

Just leave a comment on any of The 12 Days of Teamas posts by December 15th, and tell me your favorite tea to give or receive. After I consult my numerologist to pick a random number, Numi's fabulous flowering tea gift set could be yours, absolutely free.

14 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 4

What better to go along with that matcha scoop than a unique chawan or matcha bowl ($37) from Inkypots?

This handmade, delicate ivory stoneware vessel would set off the emerald-green of the tea beautifully, and I imagine it would be a delight to wrap your hands around as you sip.

And you never have to drink alone- that little bird perched on the rim will be there to keep you company no matter how early you get (or stay) up.

Don't forget to enter the Tea Spot giveaway!

Just leave a comment on any of The 12 Days of Teamas posts by December 15th, and tell me your favorite tea to give or receive. After I consult my numerologist to pick a random number, Numi's fabulous flowering tea gift set could be yours, absolutely free.

13 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 3

No, it's not an adorable mini field hockey stick for mice, though that would also make an amazing Christmas present.

It's a chashaku or Japanese bamboo tea scoop ($6) from Matcha Source, and with it you can dole out the proper amount of powdered green tea time and again. I've always wanted one because they feel so amazingly light and smooth in hand, and it would probably correct my little issue of accidentally dumping 1/2 cup of matcha into my sifter, cursing the day, and then carefully trying to pour the excess back into the container without losing any (that matcha is expensive stuff).

Plus, a little mouse could use it to play field hockey. That's cute.

Don't forget to enter the Tea Spot giveaway!

Just leave a comment on any of The 12 Days of Teamas posts by December 15th, and tell me your favorite tea to give or receive. After I consult my numerologist to pick a random number, Numi's fabulous flowering tea gift set could be yours, absolutely free.

12 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 2

For any tea novices on your list, soothe their anxieties about making a cup with the expansive Harney and Sons guide to tea gift set ($75).

It includes the fascinating little book A Guide to Tea, which I have and refer to frequently, and a foolproof kit for perfect brewing, including three types of loose tea that are highlighted in the book, a measuring spoon and an instant-read thermometer.

Only an idiot could screw up a cup of tea after receiving this gift. (You may want to keep that in mind, and adjust your expectations of your next recipient-made cup accordingly.)

Don't forget to enter the Tea Spot giveaway!

Just leave a comment on any of The 12 Days of Teamas posts by December 15th, and tell me your favorite tea to give or receive. After I consult my numerologist to pick a random number, Numi's fabulous flowering tea gift set could be yours, absolutely free.

11 December 2008

The 12 Days of Teamas: Day 1

It's the holiday question that's been burning in everyone's mind: What to get the tea lover in you life?

Since I love telling people what to do, look no further. Tea Spot will be featuring a unique gift for each of the next 12 days. And my math isn't that bad; I do realize it's more than 12 days till Christmas. But if you're unlike me, you actually do plan ahead and will need to get some of this shopping done before Christmas Eve.

The list opens, appropriately, with flowering tea- Numi's flowering tea gift set ($39.99), which includes a clear glass teapot and nine different varieties of flowering teas, from whites to greens to oolongs, all tucked into a reusable bamboo box.

These teas are as entertaining to watch as they are to drink, and if you have a tea drinker in your life who thinks they've seen everything, it would be perfect.

Lamenting your empty wallet as you consider your list? Well, what makes Tea Spot's gift guide the epitome of all those out there is that you can actually win this very item- all for your selfish self, or for someone on your list.

Just leave a comment on any of The 12 Days of Teamas posts by December 15th, and tell me your favorite tea to give or receive. After I consult my numerologist to pick a random number, today's fabulous flowering tea gift set could be yours, absolutely free. I'll send it to you in one piece and everything. How's that for a happy holiday?

10 December 2008

B Is for Bagel

Yeah, I made them. And I'll do it again.

My natural skepticism and burning desire to prove everyone wrong led me to immediately question this simple bagel recipe I found recently. How could just a stirring together of flour, water, yeast and salt- no kneading, no lengthy rise time- make a decent bread?

Call it science, magic, the devil's touch- however you look at it, it really does work. And it makes something fit to have with the most expensive, precious tea you've got stashed away.

It honestly took less time to make homemade bagels than it did to upload these images. What are you waiting for?

You even get to boil them before baking, which is delightfully counterintuitive if you've ever made a yeasted bread before. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because I never lived anyplace that even served cream cheese, much less bagels, until I was in college.

(I was too busy marveling at this stage to document it, so you'll just have to imagine what it looked like.)

And it was hard to pause before devouring the final product:

My other morning discovery, which may sound a little strange coming from a vegetarian: If you have one of these with a cup of Hou Shan Yellow Buds, a Chinese yellow tea, you'll pick up some delicious roasty, bacon-y overtones that I'd never noticed in this tea before. Perhaps it was playing off the salty, seedy taste of the bagel; who knows? Ours is not to reason why.*

*Possibly my favorite thing about writing this entry was researching the origin of that saying, and finding a post asking if it came "from Shakespeare, or maybe Bugs Bunny?"

08 December 2008

Red Sky at Morning

I do love mornings. I also love feeling awake for them, which is why I usually pass up tea without caffeine.

I used to have to wake up at 5:30 a.m. for a soul-crushing job on Wall St. that started at 7 a.m.- and that didn't mean brewing my second cup of sencha in the filthy, florescent-lit kitchen or counting the number of tiles as I sat in my favorite bathroom stall then. It meant staring at a screen immediately at the start of my nine-hour day, having to turn sentences written by overpaid, bloviating investors and soulless hedge-fund windbags into useful and concise financial advice, as well as being constantly alert for (gasp) a misplaced comma or a company wrongly tickered NYSE instead of Nasdaq.

I got through it by thinking of the process as swine (the writers) before pearls (the editor). And by reminding myself that as Buddha said, everything is an illusion.

Drinking 10 cups of tea a day helped, too.

Thankfully, I've escaped that Hades. And my mornings no longer have to take place solely before sunrise, so I can actually get through the day without caffeine, if I choose.

Although I almost always reach for green or black tea, sometimes it's nice to let the fruits and herbs of the season determine the morning blend. Pomegranate was an ideal pick, as it's now at the height of ripeness and of course, carries its own underworld-enslavement-breakout tale.

This tart, vibrant, ruby-red brew would also be lovely to cap off a winter dinner party, or simply to welcome those endless holiday guests.

Pomegranate Tea
Makes: 3 cups.

1 large pomegranate, well washed and cut into quarters
4 cups cold water
Few sprigs mint
Few tablespoons honey

Bring pomegranate and water to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, without crushing the fruit, 15-20 minutes or until fragrant and colorful. Stir in mint and honey and strain into glasses.

I know I'll get right back to the Uji tomorrow, but I still can appreciate every sip of this today.

05 December 2008

Doing and Eating Good

These peanut butter-oatmeal-chocolate chip and dark chocolate gingerbread cookies could be yours.

All you have to do donate $10 online or bring $5 to the Bonbon Oiseau trunk show tomorrow in Brooklyn. In addition to the bountiful spread of unique designers' jewelry, knitware and stationery (all at steep discounts), there will be a generous raffle basket, the proceeds of which will go to the Food Bank, a nonprofit provider of food assistance and educational and nutritional programs throughout New York City.

(How's that for a run-on sentence?)

This isn't going to be on of those holiday baskets full of things you'll immediately regift, either, like stale chocolate gold coins, a Santa-scented candle and itchy animatronic Rudolph socks. And if you don't win it, there's plenty more cookies and other lovely little gifts for sale.

Come on, I have contact diabetes from all this baking; someone should benefit from that. I'm not done, either. Think caramel, vanilla, matcha, fleur de sel and lots more chocolate- you'll have to come out tomorrow to find out what other sweets will make an appearance.

But first I need to sit down and try some of these for breakfast- just to make sure they're not poison- with a nice cinnamony cup of chai. And to wish myself a happy one-year blogiversary while I'm at it.

02 December 2008

Gingerbread Head

Yes, a sniff of a hot cup of tea is lovely, but nothing else brings the feeling of the season into your house as the smell of gingerbread cooking.

And nothing seems quite so perfect for breakfast than a warm square of it- dusted with matcha, of course- alongside a cup of green tea.

I guess you could make gingerbread in July, but it just seems so out of place, like a cat on a leash or a man wearing a fur coat. (I've unfortunately seen three so far this month.)

We're finally to December, however, and one of the only good things about that is that it's time to make this. So get to it. And break out the good stuff to drink with it. I'm sure a nice, strong black tea would be lovely (Assam or Keemun, perhaps), but I went for my absolute favorite Japanese green, Uji Gyokuro, to make this breakfast a special treat on such a cold morning.

Deep, Dark Gingerbread
Makes: 10 to 12 servings.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup water
3/4 cup unsulphured molasses
3/4 cup dark honey
1 cup packed dark-brown sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1 packed tablespoon freshly grated ginger

1. Heat oven to 325°. Line a 9x9-inch square or 11x7-inch baking pan with nonstick foil, allowing an inch overhang on two sides.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine butter, water, molasses, honey and brown sugar. Heat over low heat, stirring frequently, until butter is melted and mixture is well blended. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.

3. In medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice and cloves. When molasses mixture feels just warm to the touch, whisk in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Add milk and grated ginger and stir to combine. Fold in flour mixture in three batches; be careful to not overmix (some lumps will remain).

4. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 1 1/4 to
1 1/2 hours, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to cool in pan for 15 minutes, then lift out with the foil overhang and let cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

I'm warning you now, this one's a nibbler. You'll walk past it in the kitchen, willing it to cool faster so you can cut it. But you'll break down after about two minutes, saw a little corner off and eat it. Then you'll need to even the row out, so you'll cut a little more. And eat that.

Just think of it as practice for continued holiday eating.

01 December 2008

Tea in Low Places

It's kind of sad that finding yourself sipping a fabulous cup of tea in a restaurant is such a surprise.

But that's what made my recent meal at Esselon Cafe (99 Russell St., Hadley, Mass.) so pleasant. It's mainly an eggs-and-light-lunch type place, but the care lavished on even the simple green salad (with nary a slimy or wilted leaf in the bunch) alongside my tuna sandwich- wisely made with citrus vinaigrette, no mayonnaise- piqued my interest in the cafe's extensive tea list.

I rarely even bother to order tea in a restaurant: It's almost always bagged, and if it's not black, the water is often the wrong temperature. And if you ask for a pot of plain hot water and pull your homemade bag of loose sencha out of your bag, your dining companions may get a little uncomfortable.

Perhaps the mercury was going to my head, but I was feeling brazen. I marched back up to the counter and ordered a pot of Silver Needles ($3.25), a Chinese white tea which requires careful brewing to avoid bitterness or worse, flavorlessness.

Within minutes, it was delivered to the table already brewed, with the loose leaves set on the side. My boldness paid off: the tea was sweet, light and faintly fragrant, and the pot had enough to share with my satisfied lunch dates.

Why can't cafes in New York get their shamisen together and serve tea like this?

30 November 2008

Immortality, China-Green Style

On a recent trip out to the far reaches of western Mass (on a desperate pre-holiday yarn run, if you must know), I suddenly realized I was right by the tea shop owned by the knowledgable authors of one of the best books on tea, The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Robert and Mary Lou Heiss. It's the sort of book that begs you to open to a random page and lose yourself in sensory delights, like the scent of tea roasting throughout Shizouka City, Japan, and a walk through the tea bushes with a small local producer.

On top of that, it's truly an encyclopedic guide to every type of tea and how it's consumed all over the world. I find myself constantly turning to it for reference and inspiration.

I was thrilled then to walk into Cooks Shop Here (65 King St., Northampton, Mass.), which the Heisses have run since 1974.

It was like being in the proverbial candy store, and I ended up with some amazingly fragrant Earl Grey (blended in-house), a bit of Yunnan Gold Tips and something new for me, Immortal Goddess or Emei Shan E Rui ($10 for 2 ounces), a Chinese green that Robert recommended.

I think this is what I've been missing about Chinese greens: This tea brews up a beautiful pale golden hue, like the November midmorning light, and tastes incredibly sweet, smooth and deep. I practically felt immortal- which is necessary when you're plodding through something as time-consuming as knitting- as I gulped it down.

I will admit, however, I drank four cups in a row, which may have had something to do with that feeling.

If you're ever in the area, Cooks Shop Here is well worth a visit. Even if you're not nearby, the carefully curated teas and drinking accessories are available online, and stay tuned for more: The prolific authors will have another tea book out in about two years. It may seem a while to wait, but there's plenty of tea to explore- and to read about- in the meantime.

And plenty to knit, ug.

25 November 2008

Pumpkin Pie Revise

I've never made pumpkin pie before. I know, I know. Wipe that look of shock off your face. It's just one of those things I've never gotten around to, like going to grad school or learning Portuguese and how to walk in a pair of Louboutins.

When I saw this recipe in the November issue of Martha Stewart Living, I knew it was time to update the life list. It's a pumpkin pie, but updated with a semisweet chocolate infusion and sheathed with a dark layer of bittersweet on top of the lightly spiced graham-cracker crust.

A brief note on the recipe: make sure to use a deep-dish pie pan, because you will have leftover filling- almost 3 cups worth. (Hey Martha, recipe test much?) I was initially annoyed, but when the spirit Yankee frugality led me to pour the extra into a few ramekins and bake them for about 30 minutes alongside the pie, I was deliriously happy with the results. A slice of pumpkin pie straight from the refrigerator is lovely, but a cupful of warm, puddinglike pumpkin pie filling right from the oven is divine.

Regardless how you eat it, the tea to drink with this soft, rich and soothing pie is something to match the chocolate flavor: Keemun, which brews up an aromatic cup with light cocoa overtones. This Chinese black tea undergoes an unusually long withering time as it's processed, which leads to a pleasant natural sweetness on the tongue. It's palatable even for a green-tea lovers (ahem).

I may even be drinking this one alone, after the pie is gone. Luckily, since I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year, I don't have to save it for anything.

21 November 2008

Matcha Points

I have a problem.

I want matcha on everything now that it's been demystified for me. And not just alone, or in desserts. What about pairing it with salt?

Don't try to answer. I can tell you, it's fabulous.

As a precursor to next week's main eating event, I present this triple-threat snacksgiving. Or would it be a hat trick? Regardless, it's an unusual assortment of sweet, savory and crunchy that's much more enticing than the colon-blocking chips and dip. And since they all incorporate green tea, or at least pair beautifully with it, you can actually call these healthy.

From the front, there's matcha-roasted pumpkin seeds (saved from the next dish), simmered kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) and matcha popcorn. To make the seeds and popcorn, just follow your basic recipe using canola oil, salt and ingredient-grade matcha- and no microwave popping business, please. Just make it in a pan on the stovetop. If you can boil water for tea, you can do this.

Simmered Kabocha
Makes: 4 servings.

1-pound piece kabocha (Japanese pumpkin), seeded and peeled, if desired
4 cups water
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Cut pumpkin into crescent-shaped wedges about 3/4-inch thick. Put it into a medium saucepan along with the water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 7-10 minutes, until just tender.

2. With a slotted spoon, remove pumpkin to a bowl. Boil down the cooking liquid until 1 1/2 cups are left, about 10 minutes. Add soy sauce and salt, stir, and then place pumpkin back in saucepan. Simmer an additional minute, then let cool before serving.

This dish would be quite the stand-in for sweet potatoes on your Thanksgiving table, actually. And if you put out a few bowls of the pumpkin seeds and popcorn before the meal, everyone will be in such a good mood by the time they sit down, they won't even notice they're eating tofurkey. (They wouldn't have last year, if my sister hadn't opened her big mouth.)

The only challenge left is to try to take a bad picture of popcorn. I don't think it's possible.

19 November 2008

Matcha: The Source

I've been having matcha out so much lately that this morning, I wanted to make it myself. It's been awhile, but thanks to expert tips from the lovely founder of Matcha Source, Alissa White, I just made the best bowl of it I've ever had at home.

First the tea is sifted into a warmed, dry bowl.

The water is poured on top and whisked to aerate the brew.

The most important step is how you consume it.

I sat in my favorite spot in the pale morning sunlight and concentrated on the feel of the bowl, the sweet, vegetal smell of the tea, and that unmistakable taste- it's like drinking the essence of green.

My back against the wall, I held the bowl until the last trace of warmth dissipated. I got up, rinsed the bowl, and was now ready to write.

Matcha Source is just over two years old, and the company finds its high-quality tea in Uji and Nishio, Japan.

In Alissa's words, "Matcha was love-at-first-sight experience for me. A friend popped open a can in my kitchen, and the green matcha smoke wafted out of the tin and that was it: I was hooked. It looked like pigment and smelled like something I'd never come across before.

My dream is to make matcha accessible for Americans; to promote it as a delicious (and nutritious) beverage that is easy to prepare; to encourage experimentation and to build confidence so people are not intimidated by its history and mystique."

It's a noble dream, and one I share.

Matcha, in case you've been sleeping through this entire year of blog posts, is a Japanese green tea (tencha), stone-ground into a fine powder. It's best known as the centerpiece of chanoyu, the elaborately codified Japanese tea ceremony. But you really don't need a tea master, a solid gold antique kimono or centuries-old chawan (tea bowl) to enjoy it. As Alissa points out, it's as easy as spooning the tea (1-2 teaspoons per ounce of liquid) into a vessel, pouring hot water (165°-180° F, never boiling) over it, whisking to mix and give the brew an airy, frothy texture, and just enjoying it.

It really is that simple. The only other essential tips are to sift the matcha before using it (which can actually be done to the whole canister in advance, if you prefer) and to drink it quickly. Matcha doesn't actually dissolve in water; rather, the tiny particles are temporarily suspended after whisking, which is also why it should be mixed vigorously and consumed quickly.

If you really want to sound like a nerd- and risk your physical safety at parties- learn the various grades: thick (koicha), the superior and sweetest variety that is used for chanoyu, thin (usucha), a more everyday brew, and ingredient-grade, which Alissa recommends when baking or blending matcha with milk or juice.

And finally, when asked about her favorite tea ritual, Alissa recommends "one shared with a friend on a fall afternoon, served in a warmed cup." I can't think of a better way to spend the rest of the day.

As a treat to warm up Tea Spot readers, take 10% off any order at matchasource.com with the coupon code SPOTCHA. It's got everything you need- from premium tea to tools and vessels- to enjoy matcha every day.

18 November 2008

Super Prize Me

I was raised in a house with very little discipline. My parents insisted they were not hippies, but considering one lived in a cabin at Lake Tahoe, the other on a houseboat in Hawaii, and that they spent a few years hitchhiking all over the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, I have my doubts.

Not surprisingly, such free spirits weren't big on making anyone do anything.

It was great.

But occasionally, when I have something I feel like I have to do, I just won't be able to do it. And I give up trying almost instantly, which is what happened a few days after my traumatic Starbucks tasting. I had such big plans to taste tea in all the other big fast-food chains, but I found myself standing outside a McDonald's on Lexington Avenue and much to the annoyance of the crushing lunchtime mob on the sidewalk, I literally could not force my legs to step inside.

I had even fantasized about the ensuing purge after such a Spurlockian tasting, in which I'd treat myself to a real, pure cup of green tea. But why go through such torture before the reward?

I kept walking up to one of the best cafes in the city, and quite possibly, the entire country- where else can you get such a perfectly made bowl of matcha ($2.50) but Tafu (569 Lexington Ave., on 51st St.)?

I don't know how this little gem, hidden in a back lobby of a Double Tree Hotel, has managed to stay in business over a year, but I'm incredibly thankful it has. It only serves Japanese green teas and desserts, but it does so with impeccable precision. I've written about it before, but I can't say enough good things about this place.

The sweets offerings change with the seasons, and most have tea as a main ingredient, resulting in fabulous pairings with whatever you're drinking alongside.

After the matcha, I settled on a pumpkin wabi-sabi cupcake ($1.80) and a hot caramel-matcha latte (or kuromitsu, $6), strictly for comparison. This is what a blended tea drink should be: sweet, milky and a pleasant hint of vegetal bitterness, all playing off each other with every sip. It somehow manages to feel like it's good for you, even as it tastes better a pillowcase full of Halloween candy to a 5-year-old.

A latte here is almost twice as much as what Starbucks charges, but it's worth it to get the taste of real matcha, not some ersatz tea concentrate, prepared by people who actually know how to handle the leaf.

If you've never had matcha- or if you have but think you don't like it- please, try it here. It may just change your mind.