Chai custard sings of spice – of cardamom and cinnamon, cloves and ginger, peppercorns and rose. When the weather turns cold, as it did this week, I crave sweet and warming spices. So it’s tonight, as misty clouds enshroud our valley and the first snowflakes of the season tap gently against our window panes, that I warm milk with molasses and spice for my favorite chai custard.
Milk and Eggs (and Custard) in Autumn
As the daylight wanes and the transition from autumn to winter looms, hens stop laying and our local raw creamery begins to dry off their cows until they calve again in mid-spring. So just as the daylight shrinks a little bit each day, so does our farmers’ supply of fresh milk, cream and pastured eggs. I must conserve them, take care and not waste.
You see, I rarely use foods in such declining supply for extravant desserts or other novel applications: they’re too precious. Custards and creams must usually wait until after the spring equinox when the hens begin to lay again and the valley’s cows give us their milk once more. So, it is with a bit of reserve that I cracked my eggs and poured my milk for this chai custard tonight, for I know that in another month I won’t enjoy such a luxury.
Practically, I know that I can walk to the store and pick up milk and eggs year-round, but I realize such convenience is borne of industrialization – practices that necessitate removing food from its rightful season and (often) animals from the pasture where they rightfully belong. Perhaps in other areas of the country, where the seasons are more temperate and the winter more forgiving, local milk and eggs can be had year-round (or nearly so), but here, in the mountains, they’re a precious commodity in the dark days.
Chai Spices (and their medicinal uses)
Chai spices are warm spices which is why they carry so much appeal for me this time of year. Like any strongly flavored food, the spices used in this chai custard, convey an ulterior benefit: that of ancient medicine. Just as common culinary herbs carry medicinal uses, so do spices like ginger, anise, black pepper and cardamom.
Ginger, star anise and cardamom are typically used to ease stomach upset and promote digestion (though all are used in many and varying remedies), which makes them particularly well suited to desserts or after dinner teas. Similarly, black peppercorns stimulate the secretion of hydrochloric acid and, therefore also supports digestion. Rose, an atypical but not outright unusual ingredient in chai, is calming.
While I’m only an amateur herbalist (if that), I’m nonetheless fascinated by their use. I recently signed up for this class on herbal remedies by legendary herbalist Rosemary Gladstar.
How I Use Spices (and where to get them)
The spices I use in this chai custard are whole, dry spices. I prefer working with whole spices because they offer more diverse applications – and can be ground fresh in a spice grinder (like this one) so that the flavors they impart are stronger, cleaner and more fresh. Many spices are difficult to come by – particularly in their whole form – which is why I buy organic spices online and at bulk rates.
Kala Namak Black Salt
Kala namak salt is a black salt popular in traditional Indian cooking which makes it particularly well-suited to this recipe for chai custard. Kala namak is a potent and strongly flavored finishing salt with a noticeable sulfurous edge. For this reason it pairs nicely with egg dishes. A little bit, as called for in the recipe below, imparts a mysterious complexity to the dish and its intense sulfur nature is subdued a bit by the natural sweetness of molasses.
I found my self first drawn to kala namak salt while attending the Wise Traditions conference (I’ll be speaking again at this year’s conference), where I heard both Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride who wrote Gut and Psychology Syndrome and Dr. Louisa Williams who wrote Radical Medicine underscore the importance of sulfur in systemic wellness. Since that time, I’ve made an effort to incorporate more sulfurous foods into my family’s diet regularly.
Where to Find Kala Namak Salt
I use kala namak salt sparingly, and as a finishing salt – mostly in egg dishes or in complex desserts like chai custard. I purchase it online as it is not widely available. Of course, in practical terms, you needn’t wait to order kala namak to prepare this custard as a pinch of any salt will do.
- butter or coconut oil, (for greasing the ramekins)
- 2½ cups whole milk
- ¼ cup blackstrap molasses
- 1 heaping tablespoon cardamom pods, (crushed)
- 2 star anise pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 teaspoon rose petals
- 1 teaspoon dried ginger
- ½ teaspoon whole cloves
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- pinch kala namak black sea salt, (or other unrefined sea salt)
- ¼ cup whole, unrefined cane sugar
- 6 large eggs, (loosely beaten)
- Preheat the oven to 300 F, and grease 4 (6-oz) or 6 (4-oz) ramekins with butter or coconut oil.
- Whisk milk and molasses together in a sauce pan, then stir in cardamom, star anise, cinnamon, rose petals, ginger, cloves and black peppercorns. Warm the milk over medium heat until it begins to boil, then immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the spices to steep in the milk for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve.
- Gently whisk the spiced milk into the beaten eggs, then whisk in salt and cane sugar. Pour the custard mix into prepared ramekins, and gently place the ramekins in a large baking dish. Pour water into the baking dish so that it reaches half-way up the sides of the ramekins.
- Transfer the baking dish to the oven and bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the custards set.