Top Ten List: Introduction to Chai (8th of 10)

Since a Top Ten list would make this blog post too long, I’m splitting the posts up into ten individual posts, showcasing one spice at a time. I will keep the intro below for each post to maintain continuity.

Everyone has their own favourite spices that they tend to use almost exclusively in all of their baking (I dare you to find someone without a container or packet of cinnamon in their cupboard!), but sometimes a change can work wonders; if you’re looking to jazz up any of your tried-and-true recipes, or just haven’t found a reason to try that new spice you saw in the grocery store, over the next several posts, I will not only list my favourite spices and give you their flavour profiles, but I’ll also link to some really good baking recipes that use the spice. It’s my hope that some of my readers will try something new, which could lead to a whole new world of awesome baking!
…well, I can try, at least.

A few general words on how to buy and store your baking spices: Like most spices, buying whole, fresh or recently dried pods and grinding them at home just before you need them is the best course of action, but if they are not available, ground is fine. My recommendation is to buy only small amounts of pre-ground spice at a time (bulk stores may have it in the spice aisle), store in a cool, dry place, and use it up within 6 months.

Next up: CHAI!

Chai

In a way, having “chai spice” on this list is a bit of a cheat, since Chai is actually a mixture of spices that in themselves are very customized to the personal taste of the maker. Traditional Chai spice consists of some combination of cinnamon, star anise, ground ginger, cardamom, cloves, allspice and nutmeg. Some spice mixes also include dried basil, black or mixed peppercorns, coriander seeds, vanilla bean pods, crystallized or fresh ginger, and/or dried orange or other citrus rind.

Whether your Chai is being used for tea (masala chai) where it is mixed with black tea leaves and made as a hot drink with milk (see this quick and easy recipe from Lacey Baier at A Sweet Pea Chef on how to make the yummiest Perfect Chai Latte), or for a spice to be added to baked goods (no tea leaves added) can vary what ingredients you put into your spice blend. There also may simply be preferences involved in what you might put in your own DIY Chai blend; for example, I don’t love the idea of dried basil in my Chai mix, but I do love vanilla bean pods and dried citrus.

Health Benefits of Chai

There are many studies on the web that claim this beverage may have benefits for heart health, digestion, controlling blood sugar levels and more.  However, there’s that part of me that thinks these purported health benefits have more to do with the individual ingredients that constitute your average masala chai spice. For example:

I’m no expert, but there is still much more direct research to be done. I’ve linked these studies to the spices above so you can come to your own conclusions.

But now for the real reason you’re reading this post: the recipe!

I developed this delicious cupcake recipe based on a “hidden menu” drink I used to serve with my fellow java-slingers at a certain green-aproned coffeehouse many moons ago. One of the off-menu drinks is known as a “Dirty Chai”, which is essentially sweet, milky hot chai tea mixed with an espresso shot. Two espresso shots was known as a “Double Dirty Chai”, and three shots (for regulars and insiders only) was…well I can’t mention that naughty name on my blog. It was also informally known as “call the coroner”, because that was too strong, bitter, and patently vile to drink for most patrons.

I regularly drank those.

I’m not sure I slept for most of that year. I’m also fairly certain that I believed I could vibrate through solid objects…

These delicious Chai and Espresso Cupcakes will definitely get your motor running, and if you decide that sleep is for the weak and want to try them out, I’d be delighted to hear about your adventures!

Dirty Chai Cupcakes

Yield: 14-16 cupcakes | Prep: 40 min | Bake: 18-20 min

Chai spice mix:

  • 3 tsp/8g/0.3oz ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp/4.8g/0.16 ground cardamom
  • 1 tsp/4.8g/0.16 ground ginger
  • ½ tsp/2.4g/0.08oz ground allspice
  • ¼ tsp/1.2g/0.04oz ground nutmeg (fresh is best)
  • ¼ tsp/1.2g/0.04oz orange peel zest (tip: use a Microplane zester for the finest shred)
  • ⅛ tsp/0.06g/0.02oz ground cloves
  • ⅛ tsp/0.06g/0.02oz finely ground white pepper

Cupcakes:

  • 3 tsp/8g/0.3oz chai spice mix (see above)
  • 2 cups/275g/10oz cake flour, sifted
  • ¾ tsp/4g/0.13oz baking powder
  • ¼ tsp/1.2g/0.04oz baking soda
  • ¼ tsp/1.5g/0.05oz salt
  • ½ cup/115g/4oz unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup/190g/6.5oz granulated sugar
  • 3 large/90mL/3fl.oz egg whites
  • 2 tsp/10g/0.35oz pure vanilla extract
  • ½ cup/125g/5oz sour cream, or plain or Greek yogurt
  • 1 bag masala chai tea, steeped in ½ cup/120ml/4fl.oz 2% hot milk for 30 minutes
  • 1 shot=⅛ cup/30g/1oz espresso, cooled (can substitute with espresso powder mixed in hot water)

Chai Spice Buttercream:

  • 1½ cups/335g/12oz unsalted butter, softened
  • 5–6 cups/600-720g/22-25oz confectioners’/icing sugar
  • 2 tsp/6g/0.2oz chai spice mix (see above)
  • ¼ cup/60ml/2.1fl.oz heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tsp/10mL/0.35fl.oz pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

Decoration:

  • 1 tsp/2g/0.1oz remaining chai spice mix
  • 2 tsp/6g/0.2oz chocolate sprinkles, curls, or cocoa powder (optional)
  • a handful of chocolate covered espresso beans (optional)

Note: all ingredients are presumed to be room temperature.

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F (177°C). Move rack to middle of oven. Line two 12-cup muffin pans with cupcake liners and set aside.
  2. Chai Spice Mix: Combine chai spices. Yield: 6 tsp, split between the cupcake batter and buttercream, and a bit left over for garnishing the finished cupcakes.
  3. Cupcakes: Whisk 3 tsp of the chai spice mix, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together until thoroughly combined; set aside.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar together on high speed using a hand blender or stand mixer for about 2 minutes or until smooth and creamy. Scrape down with a silicone spatula as needed. Add the egg whites one at a time and beat on high speed until combined. Add the sour cream and vanilla extract and mix until combined. Scrape down the bowl as needed. 
  5. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the dry ingredients until barely incorporated, then slowly pour in the chai milk and cooled espresso shot and mix until just combined. Do not overmix.
  6. With an ice cream scoop (for best measuring), spoon the batter into the cupcake liners to ⅔ full. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Place pans on cooling rack for 10 minutes, then carefully de-mold liners onto rack and cool thoroughly.
  7. Buttercream: Cream the butter on medium speed about 2 minutes. Carefully add 5 cups icing sugar (1 cup at a time), 2 tsp chai spice mix, vanilla, and a pinch of salt with the mixer running on low. Once combined, increase mixer to high speed and beat for 2 minutes until well-incorporated. Add heavy cream and beat for another minute. You can tweak the frosting’s creaminess to your preference at this point by adding more icing sugar (1 tbsp at a time) if it’s too thin or heavy cream if too thick. You can also add a second pinch of salt and a little more of the chai spice if frosting is too sweet.
  8. Decoration: Frost cooled cupcakes in your desired design, sprinkle some of the reserved chai spice, add a chocolate covered espresso bean, and sprinkle a small pinch of chocolate curls or cocoa powder over the top; serve.

Cupcakes can be stored covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days.

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