Cranberry Chai Ice Cream
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This recipe for Cranberry Chai Ice Cream is brought to you in collaboration with BC Egg, who have financially compensated me to develop it.
All opinions are my own.
A delightul spice-forward ice cream with the sweet/tart bite of fresh cranberries. Top it off with a shot of sweet cranberry-chai “affogato” for an extra special treat. Includes a custom chai recipe, or use your favourite blend for a simpler version.
Cranberry Chai Ice Cream is incredibly easy to make if you have a high-speed blender and an ice cream maker, but notes and variations are included for other methods too.
Is autumn ice cream season? Trick question! Ice cream is never ever out of season. Or out of the question. Or out of my mind, for that matter.
Oh sure, autumn is a great time for other desserts too. I mean, if you meditate hard enough on the image of yourself on a long walk through the woods, watching the colourful leaves tumble through the brisk autumn air, I’m pretty sure that an apple pie will magically manifest itself in your oven. If only. But if you’re anything like me, you’re pretty much down for a cold dessert at any time of the year. I grew up in a place where the winters routinely reach -40° (Celsius and Fahrenheit – they cross over at that horrifying nexus), so perhaps my tolerance for cold is a little on the extreme side, but I still think that the appeal of a good ice cream isn’t bound by season or climate. With the fresh flavours of berries and stonefruit more-or-less behind us, we can instead turn our attention to the bounties of fall. Apples, pumpkins, and cranberries are all spectacular fall treats, and are worth exploring in a wide range of sweet and savoury dishes. Interestingly, the fruits of fall seem particularly well suited to bold and highly aromatic spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. I mean, it’s become a cliché at this point, but look at pumpkin spice. There’s a reason that so many people look forward to it.
But I’m getting side-tracked here. This is cranberry chai ice cream, not pumpkin spice ice cream. I’ve got nothing against PS, but I wanted to walk a trail a little less traveled here, and to take a look at how the fascinating and flavourful spiced chai came to exist in the first place.
The Peculiar History
of Masala Chai
I feel a touch guilty. This is a recipe for cranberry chai ice cream, and I might be selling the cranberries a bit short. They’re delicious, fascinating fruits, and they deserve to be used more often (and not just with turkey). But as I pondered what I wanted to write about for this post, my mind kept coming back to the chai, because… well, because it’s just a fascinating subject. Sure there’s a lot more going on in the recipe itself, but I’m not going to argue with fair Clio when she deems fit to set a story idea rattling about my brain. And after all, if you’re itching to jump to the food itself, that’s what the Recipe Notes section (not to mention the Jump to Recipe button) are for.
Tea (and more specifically masala chai) is intimately associated with the Indian subcontinent, and much beloved there today – but this hasn’t always been the case. Chai, you may already know, simply means tea (in a variety of languages). This is why the term “chai tea” is redundant. Outside of India, the word ‘chai’ is often used alone to refer to the sweet, milky, spice-heavy prepared tea drink properly known as masala chai. Tea is important of course, but it’s the masala – a fragrant and warming blend of spices – that really sets Indian chai apart. While masala chai is today a quintessential part of the food culture of South Asia, it came into being only thanks to the peculiar intersection of volatile global economics, ancient traditions, and imperialism.
Before I go further, I want to pause and say that the history of tea in the Indian subcontinent is incredibly complex. I can’t really get into the nuances in this short space, but I will try to hit on a few of the key reasons that it grew to prominence, and to explore how the spice-centric masala chai came into being.
The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is native to China (most likely the southern region of Yunnan), where it has been popular for thousands of years. Initially treated as medicinal concoction, the popularity of tea grew and spread in East Asia over the centuries. By the 16th century, Portuguese traders and priests had become acquainted with the beverage, and its popularity began to spread in Europe.
The popularity of tea quickly spread beyond China to Japan, Korea, and parts of Southeast Asia, but initially made only limited headways into the Indian subcontinent. A local strain of tea plant was grown by the Singpho (or Jingpo) people of Northeastern India, but the plant was not widely known or regarded outside of this area. But the status of tea in India (and indeed the world) would soon change in massive ways thanks to an insatiable European desire for the drink, and a growing conflict between two other nations.
By the 17th century, tea drinking had become firmly ensconced in Britain, along with a novel tea culture. China enjoyed an absolute monopoly on the tea trade for centuries – a fact which drew the ire of the powerful and increasingly expansionist British Empire. China was uninterested in trade, and would only accept silver as payment for tea, silk, and other goods. This imbalance caused England to mount considerable debts, leading to increasingly desperate attempts to manipulate the tea markets. One of these attempts went famously awry in 1773 when revolutionaries in the American colonies dumped tea into Boston Harbour in protest over taxes that had been added by the British government. This event – the Boston Tea Party – set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in the Revolutionary War and formation of the United States of America, further imperiling the economy of Britain.
By the early 19th century, demand for tea in Britain had grown considerably, but the economics of the situation had many in England feeling panicked. The now-globally powerful British Empire became determined to reverse its economic troubles by gaining control of the lucrative tea trade. This rather complicated task required all manner of shady (or outright illicit) machinations, and would have geopolitical ramifications that are still felt to this day. The British East India Company had noted with great interest the endemic tea growing methods of the Singpho people in the Assam region of Northeastern India, and a local tea industry had begun to make tentative steps in the 1820s and 1830s. But the Assamese tea industry was small, and the demand in Europe was for the specific tea varieties that were grown in and controlled by China. Beginning in the 1840s, tea plants and cultivation secrets were illegally smuggled out of China and into Assam. Initial attempts to grow Chinese tea plants went rather poorly, but the continued ‘importation’ of information and even tea experts eventually helped build a flourishing tea industry.
Of course, Assam’s tea industry could only grow so fast, and it wasn’t even close to being able to meet the British demand for tea in the early years. Not content to wait, the British East India company turned to another rather more nefarious tool to help them balance the economic inequality of the Chinese tea trade: opium. The British had discovered that the opium was virtually the only product that they could obtain that was in demand in China. They began producing it in huge quantities in Bengal in order to import the drug to the East – along with the far more addictive smoking methods adapted from the North American tobacco pipe. China banned the trade, causing the British East India company to begin smuggling it through middlemen and smaller traders. In 1839, The Chinese Empire confiscated some 20,000 chests of opium, causing the British Empire to take action and setting off the first Opium War. European victories yielded massive concessions and unequal treaties in China, massively shifting the balance of the tea economy (amongst other things). The Qing Dynasty of China was economically and politically eviscerated, and collapsed entirely in 1912. The Anglo-Indian tea industry, meanwhile, continued to develop. By the turn of the 20th century, India and Sri Lanka (which had only taken to growing tea after the disease-related collapse of its coffee industry) were producing over 80% of the British Empire’s tea.
All of this has only gotten us through the ‘chai’ part of masala chai. India was, for all intents and purposes, an economic puppet in Britain’s tea economy. Sensing the potential of a domestic market, colonial authorities and corporations began promoting the consumption of tea within India, only to find that it was rather slow to catch on. What little tea had been consumed locally had been used for medicinal reasons, and the tea-loving fervour that had driven Britain to war(s) wasn’t shared by most Indians. Things began to change in the 20th century when the Indian Tea Association began promoting not only tea, but tea culture and the custom of a teatime break for workers across the country. The ITA (then a British organization) promoted tea in the English style, with a little added milk and sugar, but inventive and locally attuned vendors quickly began modifying it to Indian tastes. The spices that were so beloved in Indian cooking lent themselves to a new kind of tea – one made with the dark, flavourful, fully fermented teas of India, brewed with milk and a good deal more sugar. This echoed, in some ways, the medicinal ingredients that had been added to teas and other concoctions in ancient Ayurvedic traditions, but the flavours were chosen more with enjoyment in mind. The ITA (and the English) weren’t thrilled at first; masala chai requires less actual tea to make per cup served, meaning less tea was used, and therefore purchased. But masala chai exploded in popularity, and the tea culture of India had been born and grown into something entirely unexpected. It was agreeable and unique, but also variable – anyone could tweak their masala to their own tastes, and different chaiwalas could create unique recipes to entice customers and keep them loyal.
The popularity of masala chai has spread globally, to the point where ready-made bagged teas, syrups, and drink blends can be found with ease at many coffee shops and grocery stores. Despite the enormous variability possible in the ingredients, “chai” has effectively become a flavour of its own. And that’s really how we end up here, with a recipe for cranberry chai ice cream – a world away from the origins of masala chai – or simple tea, for that matter. But it’s not all that surprising, in my opinion; masala chai is warming, sensory, and just plain likeable. The spices work so well with so many flavours – and if they don’t quite work for you, well you can change them. Western masala blends tend to focus heavily on cinnamon or cassia, while ground ginger and cardamom are more characteristically Indian. Ultimately, whether you follow my recipe, adapt it to what you have on hand, or tweak it to your own tastes, I hope you’ll take a moment to appreciate just how complex and strange the story behind your dessert truly is. It need only be a moment of course – you wouldn’t want your ice cream to melt.
If you have 1) a high-speed blender (e.g. a Vitamix) and 2) an ice cream maker, then this recipe is as easy as can be. If you don’t have one or both of those items, you can still make this work, but it will involve a bit more input on your part. Extensive details are given below, but if you’ve got the equipment, you can probably jump right to working on the recipe itself.
One general note before you get started: leave yourself lots of time. There’s a fair bit of waiting/downtime – you’ve got freeze your ice cream maker bowl insert ahead of time, wait for the chai to sit, to wait for the custard to cool, wait for the ice cream to freeze, etc. The hands on time here is pretty minimal, but trying to rush the hands-off stuff can lead to trouble.
While this ice cream is delicious and delightful all on it’s own, I really love the extra touch added by the shot of “affogato.” A true affogato involves a shot of espresso poured over gelato, and while the ingredients here are very different, the idea is the same. In this case, the shot is a mixture of cranberry juice and chai, preferably warm but not scalding hot. I find keeping the ingredients separate until you’re ready to use them works best.
The best thing about this ‘affogato’ is that you don’t need to anything special to make it; the cranberry juice and masala chai are both made as you work your way through the main recipe. That being said, if you want to make more affogato, or if you’re short-cutting a bit, you can always use pre-made cranberry juice (not cocktail, which has a lot of added sugar) and/or chai.
Ingredients and Shortcuts
I used fresh cranberries to make this, which yields a great overall flavour. If you can’t find fresh, frozen will work as well.
The spice list for the masala chai can look a little intimidating, but there are options and work-arounds, so don’t stress out too much! The simplest time-saving option is to use a good quality pre-made masala chai. If you have a blend that you know and like, feel free to use it in place of my recipe, but be sure to make a strong batch, as you want the flavour to stand out in the ice cream. Note that chai syrups can’t be substituted for the tea and spices, as they’re concentrated and heavily sweetened. If you do want to use a chai syrup, you’ll have to cut it with milk and avoid adding any additional sugar.
If you want to make your own masala chai but you don’t have all the ingredients, you can omit or substitute as you see fit. Other than the tea (which is essential), the primary flavour components are generally fresh ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom. Beyond those, you can feel free to modify the spices based on what you think works.
Stovetop Custard Making
(the no-high-speed-blender method)
The high-speed blender step is a really interesting time saver, though it may be new to many readers. There are a fair number of Vitamix ice creams out there, but these are generally no-churn recipes that use the blender to make the finished ice cream from a non-custard base. What we’re doing here, however, is using the heat of the blender to cook the ice cream custard base in preparation for adding it to the ice cream maker. It’s something I’ve done many times with curd, and it works beautifully. Running the blender at full speed for 5+ minutes builds up a substantial amount of heat, which cooks and sets the egg yolks while still keeping the whole mixture nice and smooth.
The one drawback of this method is that it ONLY works with a high-speed blender. A low-speed blender, food processor, or immersion blender can’t spin the blades fast enough to build up the friction needed to cook the custard. If you don’t have a high-speed blender, you’ll just have to make the custard base the old-fashioned stovetop way. Luckily, this isn’t all that tricky. The basic steps are laid out in the notes of the recipe, so I won’t repeat them here. I will, however, add a couple of extra helpful hints.
- Give yourself time. Rushing can be disastrous, so make sure you’ve got the time you need to tend to the custard, preferably without any distractions.
- Don’t stop whisking. The whole idea is to constantly keep things moving in order to emulsify and cook the egg yolks without allowing them to form lumps or chunks.
- Don’t try to work too hot. Though it takes a bit of time, it’s better to start at a low temperature and gradually bring it up if your custard isn’t thickening. Trying to work with too high a temperature is likely to scorch your cream or curdle your eggs.
- Got lumps anyway? Just run the custard through a strainer. If you’ve got BIG chunks of scrambled eggs however, it’s better to start over.
The only remaining tricky bit is dealing with the cranberry solids. In the high-speed blender version, these are mixed right into the custard from the get-go, but you’ll have to either leave them whole (so that your ice cream has individual pieces of cranberry in them) or blend them into the custard separately with a food processor, immersion blender, etc. Either way is fine, though the two methods will obviously give you texturally different finished products.
No Ice Cream Maker?
Making proper ice cream without an ice cream maker is time-intensive, but by no means impossible. The key is to allow the ice cream to freeze a little at a time while periodically stirring to keep the ice crystals very small. I won’t lie, it is a lot more work – but it can be done!
First of all, I want to be clear that this is not a no-churn recipe. If you stick this recipe right into the freezer and forget about it, you’re going to get a solid block of (delicious) ice. In order to end up with scoopable ice cream however, you need prevent the formation of those large interconnected ice crystals. This means there’s a lot of freezing, stirring, and repeating. I found this overview of the process from Handle The Heat quite useful, so if you’re hoping to try this method I’d read through that post thoroughly.
The details for this method are given in the notes of the recipe card, so I won’t repeat them here. I will, however, encourage patience. This method takes time, and you’re going to feel like you’re doing a fair bit of stirring without seeing much in the way of results. But the ice cream will start to thicken up and freeze eventually, and you want to make sure you keep mixing it to get more air into the mixture (and to keep the ice crystals small). Remember, if you end up freezing your ice cream too solid, you can always defrost it partially and try stirring by hand again. Or… ask to borrow someone’s ice cream maker.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a large single scoop with a shot of cranberry-chai affogato (1/10th portion of the total recipe).
We have to bear in mind that this is ice cream, and not, say, a salad. It’s got good amounts of Vitamin A, and less sugar than you’ll find in many commercial ice creams.
It’s ice cream. Lots of fat, lots of sugar, lots of calories. But it’s a delicious treat, so enjoy it in moderation.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
Cranberry Chai Ice Cream
- 1 lb cranberries (fresh or frozen)
- 4.25 cups water
- 2 tbsp sugar
Masala Chai (see note for shortcut version)
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 cup water
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 2 slices ginger
- 6 pods green cardamom lightly crushed
- 1/8 tsp black peppercorns
- 1/8 tsp fennel seed
- 2 cloves
- 2 blades mace
- 1 tbsp black tea preferably Darjeeling
- 1 cup masala chai (see above)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/8 tsp salt
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 5 large egg yolks
- 1 cup solids from making cranberry juice (see above)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Cranberry Juice & Solids
- Combine the cranberries and water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes.
- Strain the solids and set them aside to use in the ice cream.
- Stir the sugar into the warm cranberry juice to dissolve it. Set aside to cool.
- Combine all of the chai ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer (not quite a boil), then turn off the heat and cover the pot. Let it stand for at least 30 minutes, and even longer (e.g. 2-3 hours) if you have time.
- Strain out and discard the solids. Set the finished chai aside to cool.
- (Note: the following instructions are for the simplest version of the recipe, and require both a high-speed blender (e.g. a Vitamix) and an ice cream maker. For variations without these components, the notes below).
- Combine all of the ice cream ingredients in a high-speed blender (e.g. a Vitamix). Blend at high speed for 7 minutes to create a custard. Allow the hot mixture to cool somewhat, then refrigerate until well chilled (around 4 hours, or overnight).
- Add the chilled ice cream mixture to your ice cream maker, per the manufacturer instructions. The finished ice cream will likely be a little soft, so scoop it into a container and freeze for an additional 1-2 hours, or overnight.
- Mix the cranberry juice with the remaining chai (you can adjust the ratio to taste if you like). You can add more sugar to the mixture if you like (it's only mildly sweetened as-is), but do bear in mind that it will be served with the already sweet ice cream.
- Immediately before serving, pour a shot of the cranberry-chai mixture over each individual portion of ice cream. Serve with lady fingers or biscuits, if you like.
- Combine the chai, sugar, salt, and cream in a medium saucepan. Heat until simmering, stirring regularly to avoid scorching.
- In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together thoroughly.
- Slowly pour about 1/3 of the hot chai/cream mixture into the eggs while whisking vigorously to temper the eggs.
- Pour the yolk mixture back into the original pot. Keep whisking.
- Return the pot to the stovetop and heat over a low flame to further set the custard. Mix and stir until the custard is thick and easily able to coat the back of a spoon.
- Remove the finished custard from heat. Add the cranberry solids and blend the mixture together (a regular blender, food processor, or immersion blender will work here). Set the finished mixture aside to cool, then chill and proceed with the remaining instructions given above.
- Pour the chilled ice cream mixture into a large metal baking dish. Freeze for 45 minutes, then check to see if ice crystals are forming around the edges. Once you start to see ice crystals, mix the ice cream base vigorously with a spoon or hand mixer.
- Return the ice cream to the freezer for an additional 30 minutes, then repeat the mixing process. Repeat every 20-30 minutes, as needed, until the ice cream is thick and well-set. Note that the mixing process gets more difficult as the ice cream freezes. A hand mixer can make the process easier.