26 May 2008

Me Love You Oolong Time

I have a secret love, and it might be shocking to some.

It's oolong tea.

I know, I know, all I talk about is green. But oolong, which is between a green and black tea in terms of processing (and caffeine content), can be as desirable as Zima to a freshman sorority sister at her first big frat party.

Oolongs are much more than an in-between taste, though. They have a distinct flavor profile that is refreshingly astringent, and the ones I most often reach for have a unique smoky element, a result of the charcoal-firing process that the higher-end ones undergo. This also means that they stand up well to sweet dishes, so I made an apple-rhubarb pie- just to refresh my memory- to taste alongside a new oolong for me, Water Sprite.

And so it was with a confident hand that I lifted the first cup to my lips; ashy, mineraly undertones, cutting through the layered sweetness of the apples and syrupy rhubarb, greeted my tongue. The tea's clean flavor even boosted the subtle saltiness of the pie crust, too, so I imagine pairing it with bolder, savory snacks would work just as well.

Water Sprite hails from Fujian Province, China, and as you can see, produces a gorgeous, amber brew which nicely echoed the first hint of summer sun that we had here in New York this morning. It's available (surprise surprise) at Ito En, so you can try it for yourself. Oolong lover or not, I can't imagine anyone would be disappointed.

23 May 2008

An Even Puffier Piece

So it doesn't have a lot to do with tea, but as I was sitting, enjoying my Umegashima sencha this morning and appreciating its verdant, made-for-spring taste, I kept hearing something.

Something squawking urgently. Over and over.

And it is spring, after all, so behold: the baby starling on my back porch. I can honestly say I've never seen anything cuter in my entire life. If only I could somehow keep him calm enough to sit in a little tiny teacup and let me immortalize him digitally.

I'd have to win some sort of blog award then. And I would use all the prize money for birdseed and tea.

22 May 2008

A Puff Piece

It's almost June, so it should be prime weather for an icy green-tea frappe like the one I had the other day at Cafe Zaiya in midtown.

The day was about 50 degrees, however, gray and pouring rain, but I didn't let that stop me. I spent the afternoon with an incredible jewelry designer in the garment district, digging through bolts of antique tulle, dusty velvet flowers and vibrantly dyed ostrich feathers, all the while wondering what sort of antique germs and diseases could still be gripping tenuously to their undersides.

To discourage the tuberculosis no doubt already multiplying on the lining of my throat, I suggested we celebrate our finds with tea and a Japanese cream puff. After all, if it's going to be your last meal, it might as well be a decadent one.

And, if it's going to be decadent, you should start with something savory, just to prepare your palate. So onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls), a salmon bento box and a burdock-root bun were first up, followed by a Beard Papa cream puff for me and a layered green-tea pudding for my friend.

A little background on Beard Papa: I used to work in midtown, in the food department of a magazine, no less, but after I stumbled upon this place (the line of Japanese people out the door was a hint that something delicious could be buried inside), I would sneak out in the middle of the day just to satisfy my cream-puff craving. Even after I started working way down on Wall St., I would race up there and back for my lunch hour on particularly trying days, and devour a few- right on the subway, even- on my way back to the office.

Unfortunately, they weren't serving my favorite type that day: green tea, of course, in which the sweetness of the pastry-cream filling is balanced perfectly by the intense, grassy flavor of matcha (green-tea powder). I had to settle for the regular, which is a soothing, rich vanilla cream surrounded by a crisp, flaky pastry shell, adorned with powdered sugar (which yes, I did manage to snort and spray all over the table at one point while trying to annoy the man who sat himself next to us).

This Japanese rendition of a French classic dessert might just be the reason fusion cuisine was invented. And pairing it with the refreshing, not-too-sweet green-tea frappe is so good it should be illegal.

Once it really warms up, I'll have to try Beard Papa's green-tea shaved ice, too. I've seen it on the menu there for years now, but it's just so hard to get past those cream puffs.

20 May 2008

Take Back the Coffee Cake

Nothing against coffee drinkers, but it's time us tea freaks reclaim a little treat that has been separated from us for too long: coffee cake.

Fine, so maybe it evolved to accompany some other hot beverage, but its buttery deliciousness makes for a perfect counterpoint to the natural astringency and subtle sweetness in tea.

Coffee cakes (and the Kaffeeklatcsh tradition) have their origins in northern Europe, and were more breadlike than today's version, which is basically a sweet cake, often fruit-studded, with a streusel topping.

One of my absolute favorite versions is the blackberry one pictured, which I served with a grassy, bright-flavored Umegashima sencha (one of my everyday green teas) as a send-off breakfast to an old friend who was visiting from out of town. I hoped it would convince her to stay longer, but no luck. Well, at least I have the rest of the coffee cake to keep me company now.

And since we're usurping from the coffee drinkers already, I can tell you that this recipe is originally from that bastion of middle American housewives, Family Circle. It could stand up to a bolder black tea as well (try Assam or this delicious chai), especially if you can't imagine having this without coffee. But just try it with tea, and you'll see what I'm talking about.

Blackberry Coffee Cake
Makes: 12 servings.

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup milk
1 cup blackberries

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees, and line a 9x9x2-inch baking pan with nonstick foil.

2. Prepare crumb topping: Combine flour and brown sugar in small bowl. With a pastry blender or your fingertips, mix butter into flour and sugar until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in walnuts, cinnamon and cardamom until combined.

3. Prepare coffee cake: Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cardamom in medium-size bowl.

4. Beat together butter and granulated sugar in large bowl until mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add egg and vanilla, beating until smooth. On low speed, alternately beat in dry flour mixture and milk, beginning and ending with dry mixture. Mix just until all ingredients are blended.

5. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Sprinkle blackberries over batter in even layer; sprinkle crumb topping evenly over blackberries.

6. Bake 50 to 55 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Let pan cool on wire rack for at least 20 minutes; cut into squares and serve warm, or let cool completely and store in refrigerator until serving.

18 May 2008

Getting Away

Everyone needs to get away once in a while, even at the cost of reduced blog output.

But I wasn't completely neglectful- last week, I did manage to squeeze in some teasearch for any Boston-area cravings with an afternoon excursion with my lovely sister and a dear old friend.

Enter The Windsor Tea House, a very traditional, (old) ladies who lunch, pinkies-extended sort of place south of the city. The tea selection was larger than I expected, and the small savory menu and "from scratch" desserts (quotes theirs, which gave my sister a bit of pause) were pretty good. The teas were also well brewed, and arrived in plump, overstuffed tea cozies, matching most of the patrons there.

I had a greenish, smooth-tasting Ti Kuan Yin oolong with a rich, sugary blueberry bread pudding. Why bother with a salad or sandwich when there were so many sweets to try? I didn't sample their scone, the classic afternoon-tea accompaniment, but my sister did order a buttery crumpet, a British, yeasted, griddle-cooked pancake which are hard to find here and whose name never fails to make me laugh.

It was a bit disorienting to look out the window, which had a view of a tiny ice-cream shop that used to be called The Strawberry Parfait and served up endless scoops of delight when I was a kid. It's since changed owners and names, there's now a commuter train that roars past it and the tea house; and at the table, my friend had her extremely well-behaved two-year old and a new baby sitting with us. Things change quickly. Maybe that's why it's so balancing to have that simple cup of tea to clutch every day.

16 May 2008

Dr. Tea

For the first post of today, some completely unprofessional medical advice.

Dear Tea Spot,
What is the ultimate tea to drink when one has a severe head cold?
Stuffed Up in Kentucky

Assuming that our dear reader is still ill, here is the solution (not the cure, but at least it will make you feel like you're in partial control of your immune system): black tea, brewed for at least three minutes, then flavored with a half a lemon (squeeze the juice into the tea, then just throw the whole piece in there) and 2-3 tablespoons of honey.

I make it in the biggest mug I have, so I can just hold it until my nose, breathe in the lemony steam, and pretend I'm a consumptive female protagonist in a Russian novel.

Actually, the honey-lemon formula was originally the suggestion of my childhood pediatrician, whom I saw until probably age 19, at which point I was too big for the exam table and no longer challenged by the completed word searches in the Highlights magazines in his waiting room.

Feel better, Stuffy.

13 May 2008

Brown Bagging It

Lipton: brown, strong, ubiquitous. I was never much of a fan - other than the noticeable strength, the flavor struck me as one-dimensional. But it's probably found in more food service locations in the U.S. than any other type of tea.

Until the company footed the bill for an extravagant tea press trip to this spa in the desert of southwestern Utah a few years ago, I'd always turn my nose up at it. But it's funny how open you can become to bagged tea when someone's pouring hot oil on your forehead, giving your feet a red-rock-salt scrub, and serving you dark chocolate cake with a black-tea creme anglaise (yes, you must go here, even if no one is paying your way). I think the point of the event was to highlight the antioxidant content in tea, which Lipton was at the time rolling out on its packaging.

I was also pleasantly surprised to meet the people behind the bag, including Lipton's chief tea taster. He really did travel the world with his extraordinary palate, selecting high-quality teas for the wide range of the company's offerings.

It's easy to slip into tea snobbery and proclaim that you'll have loose leaves or nothing. But I've found a lot of people actually relish their cup of Lipton tea, and when faced with a menu that just notes "tea," chances are, it's what you'll get. Don't fight it, and you might enjoy it. I just downed my own cup, in fact.

11 May 2008


She was the one who introduced me to tea (and brownies and caramel cake and cream sauces) so many years ago. I didn't realize at the time how much seeing, or just hearing - when I was young and lazy, and still half-asleep in bed - her prepare a cup of tea first thing, early each morning, would influence me.

It was almost always bagged, and sometimes herbal; even though I stay away from Red Zinger and Twining's Earl Grey in my own kitchen today, it's still incredibly comforting to smell either of them. I enjoy bringing her my latest finds (loose, of course) from the city, and that we can truly appreciate each other's tastes when we talk about tea now. I wouldn't want to open a tea and dessert shop if it hadn't been for her sweet inspiration.

She showed me the indelible connection between food and love, and I'll never be able to thank her enough for that. Happy Mother's Day, Mom.

And if you haven't already, let this post remind you to wish your own the same. (She taught me all about guilt trips, too.)

08 May 2008

Tea for Three

It's funny how tea can be the perfect thing to enjoy in silent moments alone as well as ideal for sharing with those close to you. I can't say I prefer one over the other- each time has its unique appeal.

Today, however, it was tea for three at the Bonbon Oiseau jewelry studio: more Hou Shan Yellow Buds from Ito En. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, including one of the studio's feline mascots. I've been addicted to the yellow tea lately not only because of its incredibly full yet light flavor, but also because it's a spring-only treat. I'm reluctant to usher in the summer it would appear also from my delay of The Great Iced Tea Experiment of 2008. It just hasn't been that hot here, so it's difficult to stay motivated on the cold-brew track. Maybe next week.

Finally, this hardly comes as a surprise with all the TV reporters, press attention and interview requests I've been fielding, but I've already started to receive blogger loot. See what happens? You start boring people with inane stories about heated, flavored water and all of sudden, things you write about - like teapots that you would readily kill for - start appearing on your doorstep. It's that simple. I can't believe I've waited so many years to do this.

The little red number really looks right at home. And as soon as I can find three friends to complete my gorgeous new four-cup set, I can't wait to put it to work.

06 May 2008

Matcha Latte

The only thing better than a delicious cup of tea, of course, is if someone else makes it for you.

Since most people are borderline blockheads, however, this can pose a problem if you feel like being served. So you need to choose wisely.

And if it's green tea you seek, then you should go to the experts: the Japanese. An outpost of green-tea purveyor Tafu opened in Manhattan last fall, tucked into the bottom of the Double Tree Hotel on 51st St. It's a bit of an odd location for possibly the best cup of matcha you can find in the city.

Matcha, or powdered green tea, is tricky to prepare correctly- it must be carefully sifted and beaten with a bamboo whisk to produce the slightly foamy brew. Tafu has Starbucked the process for us lazy Americans, though, and offers delightful sweet lattes (plain, caramel, chocolate or of course, a la mode) in addition to the traditional, soothing bowl of matcha. Yes, tea lattes. Why should only coffee drinkers get to claim such hipness?

Yes, a small costs $5. But when you're wandering through the crowds of disgruntled midtown office workers with your minty-green matcha in hand and you're the only one in a good mood, you'll realize it was worth it.

04 May 2008

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

End of the day, and 20 degrees hotter. My faithful thermos proved sadly unnecessary at the flea market. I ended up pouring my tea out from it, and letting it cool off completely before drinking. Who would have guessed it ended up an iced tea afternoon?

It did get me thinking about tea in the summer, though. I remember the first time I heard a tea sommelier (after I stopped snorting because he actually referred to himself that way) speak: He was Australian, and said that he drank hot tea every single day of the year. And it gets hot down there (just ask Paul Hogan re: Linda Kozlowski's knickers). He claimed that drinking hot tea didn't make him feel hotter, even in 100 degree weather. This could have been typical Aussie bravado, but I didn't cut back on hot tea consumption that summer, and somehow, I survived.

However, in the midst of a terribly sticky week last summer when it was too hot to even conceptualize boiling water, I started experimenting with cold-brew iced tea. Basically, you step the tea in cold water and leave it in the refrigerator for several hours, or overnight. I can't remember what the exact formula was, so this week, I will brave the cold waters and sort it all out. I need to stock up on some Japanese green tea tomorrow at Ito En anyway, so I will get a few other teas to experiment with. Any ones you're particularly curious about turning into iced tea with barely a lift of the finger, just let me know.

Saved by the Thermos

It's Sunday, and that means flea market here in Brooklyn. I've been helping out with my friend's booth there for a few weeks now, and this one is dawning to be as gray (but still enjoyable) as the rest- all thanks to one of the best inventions ever, the thermos. According to thermos.com, the venerable vessel been around since 1904.

This one isn't quite as attractive as the bright yellow Bee Gees one I had in my lunchbox growing up, but at least it's a little cleaner and doesn't smell like stale Saltines. It's now full of Assam (an Indian black tea), and along with a nice chunky bar of chocolate from Barcelona, ready to keep me defrosted throughout the day.

02 May 2008

Weekend Reading

To start the weekend off right, a little amuse bouche. Initially I thought it had something to do with teapots, but no.

Remember, we're laughing with Steve and his trusty sidecar, not at him. Does the first word of his first post signify a clever greeting, or simply a confirmation of his mind state?


We all have them; tea and its implements are no different.
A Japanese tea master wishing to teach his student the importance of perception dashes a cup of tea to the ground, breaking the cup and spilling the tea. The tea master wished to illustrate the point that the broken cup was no longer a cup but just a pile of shards, while the tea was still tea, immutable and unchanged. But as the tea could no longer be consumed without the cup to hold it, the true importance of the cup becomes clear. It is the empty space of a teacup that performs the most essential duty, one with greater importance than merely the fleeting beauty of a pleasing shape, fetching design, or lustrous glaze.
from The Story of Tea, Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

There's a lot going on in that quote, but one substantial point comes through clearly, at least to me. Tea is always tea, setting aside the relatively minor fluctuations of brewing time, water temperature, vessel- much like people are who they are. Moods, locations, appearances, these all can shift, but think about it: do the people you know ever really alter their essence?

I think it's very rare. But that's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as you accept this and can uncover the distinct flavor in each different one.

I'm back to green this morning, one of my absolute favorites from Japan: Yame Gyokuro Gentei. More on gyokuro green teas next week.

01 May 2008

More Yellow

OK, so they're not tea, but they are yellow, have leaves, and struck me as beautiful.

Yellow Tea

No, it's not a joke.

There really is a rare, Chinese tea called "yellow tea," and it's absolutely delicious. It's between a green and white tea, in terms of processing, and the taste is smooth, clean with a slight hint of smoke and mystery, like the first European you met when you were a little kid.

The leaves are harvested in the early spring and undergo a gentle steaming, which differentiates yellow tea from the typical green-tea process and produces a sweeter, lusher brew (just imagine what you'd be like after a day in a sauna- no doubt, glowing and far more pleasant to be around). I'd definitely recommend it for green-tea avoiders, or anyone looking for a smooth but full flavor.

The type I found at Ito En is called Hou Shan Yellow Buds, and at $15 an ounce, it's not for every day. Once you taste it, however, you'll see it's well worth the price.

The pale golden color you see in the photo belies its rich taste and sweet fragrance. And yes, you can get right back in bed after you make yourself a cup.

Finally, yellow does happen to be my favorite color, and statisically, it's the rarest one for people to pick as theirs. (I'm not a mathematician, but I do play one on TV.) Whenever I come across a fellow yellow, they're in my life for good. Luckily for my misanthropic nature, however, that doesn't happen often.