Get loose with your leaf teas

Steep a perfect cup of tea and go beyond the cup with your favorite blend

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Tea reigns supreme in England — and other countries once in the British Commonwealth — but it is also perfect for warding off New England's cold, windy winters.

"Tea is communal; It's nice to sit with someone and have a conversation over a cup of tea," said Cherri Sanes, executive director of ExtraSpecialTeas in Great Barrington. Sanes and her husband opened the tea shop in April 2016 to assist their son, Jache, and other adults with intellectual challenges after they "school out." (In Massachusetts, state schooling and services are provided until age 22.)

This January, enjoy a cup of tea in celebration of National Hot Tea Month, something we can all wrap our cold hands around. Before brewing just any old tea bag, Sanes said it's important to know the basics. All tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub native to East Asia, she said. There are five basic categories of tea: black, white, green, oolong and rooibos tea. The leaves used to make black tea are dried and modified through prolonged exposure to air. Green tea goes though the wilting process, but not oxidization, while oolong tea leaves are wilted and oxidized, but not to the prolonged extent of black tea leaves. White tea is the young tea bud, and is not wilted or oxidized.

Examples of black tea include Earl Grey, English Breakfast and Royal Breakfast teas, according to Sanes. Some white teas are Silver Needle and White Peony; green tea includes Genmaicha, which Sanes said has a nutty, smoky, rice flavor. Oolong tea, she said, undergoes almost a fermenting process and "tastes like fresh grass and has a wildflower smell." Rooibos is an herbal tea that comes from a bush in South Africa. Is has a reddish/brown color and is naturally caffeine-free with "a fruity taste, slightly grassy, mixed with other flavors."

The key to making the perfect cup of tea is the temperature of the water used to brew it and the amount of time it is allowed to brew. For herbal teas, the temperature of the water should be 208 degrees F and it should be brewed for 6 to 8 minutes. For black tea, the water temperature should be 195 degrees F and the brewing time is 3 to 5 minutes. Green and white teas should be brewed in 175-degree F water for 1 to 3 minutes.

"Let the water boil and then cool a bit for each of the teas. You can burn white and green teas if the water is too hot and then the tea won't be at its optimum," Sanes said. When making iced tea, she advised brewing the tea for its longest recommended time, and making it as strong as possible by using twice as much tea, since the tea will be diluted by the ice cubes.

"People are starting to realize the health benefits that tea has," Sanes said. "Black is energizing as it has the most caffeine. Green is also high in caffeine and is said to be slenderizing because it jump starts your metabolism. White, rooibos and hibiscus teas are immunity teas. Camomile tea is a relaxer and oolong is a mood elevator."

Sanes said her favorite teas were Lemon Ginger from No. 6 Depot Roastery and Cafe in West Stockbridge and Victorian Earl Grey from Tiesta Tea, which supplies EST with some of its teas. The best-selling tea at the tea house is Wuyuan Black tea from Little Red Cup Tea Company in Maine; "It's always smooth and delicious," Sanes said.

Not only does EST sell hundreds of different types and flavors of tea to drink, it also incorporates tea in its signature baked goods.

Kristen Vorisek, a board-certified art therapist, is the vocational manager at ExtraSpecialTeas. Part of her job is to manage the baking program, in which 10 of EST's participants assist her in making an assortment of baked goods for customers to enjoy along with their tea. The shop offers truffles, almond cakes, shortbread, tea candy and energy bars — all of them gluten-free.

"I love to cook and bake; I began when I was 12 or 13 and I've done it most of my adult life," she said. "And it teaches our participants skills they'll need for independent living and helps them with their math skills."

Prior to the tea shop opening, Vorisek said she had had no experience in baking with tea. "Cherri had the idea of having a specialty shortbread. It was my first experience with including tea into baked goods," she said. "I had to experiment with the recipe several times to make it better."

When using tea to bake with, Vorisek said there are two ways to use it. It can be ground into a fine powder, which she said she uses in the shop's shortbread, truffles, tea candy and energy bars. Another way to incorporate it is to brew the tea and add it to the baked goods.

"I recommend using tea in a simple frosting using powdered sugar," she said.

When using tea in baking, Vorisek advised, "Keep in mind how strong the tea is. Every one has a different taste and you should adjust the amount you use to make it stronger or more subtle."

SIMPLE TEA GLAZE

(Courtesy of Extra Special Teas)

INGREDIENTS:

1 cup sifted confectioner's sugar

1 to 2 tablespoons of brewed tea

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons of vanilla, almond, or orange extract

DIRECTIONS:

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Whisk together ingredients, adding a small amount of tea at a time, until glaze is smooth and thick. Drizzle over your favorite baked goods. We recommend it for pound cake, scones, and sugar cookies.

Note: Strong and flavorful teas work best. We like black tea paired with vanilla extract, Tiesta Nutty Almond Cream tea paired with almond extract, and Tiesta Maui Mango tea paired with orange extract. For a more subtle flavor, extract may be omitted. Experiment to see what you like best!

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LOVE STRUCK

Brew up some love with our simple Victorian Earl Grey Tiesta Tea Gin Cocktail this Valentine's Day. Perfect for any rose ceremony.

(Courtesy of Tiesta Tea)

(Makes 1 8-ounce cup)

2 tablespoons Victorian Earl Grey Tiesta Loose Leaf Tea

7 ounces hot water

1 shot gin (optional)

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Simple syrup (1 cup water and 1 cup sugar)

Optional: Add some milk or cream for a British twist!

DIRECTIONS:

Make simple syrup by heating up equal parts water and sugar, brew up the tea. Pour tea into mug and mix in gin. Add simple syrup to taste.

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NO-CHURN GREEN TEA ICE CREAM

(Courtesy of Robin Anish)

INGREDIENTS:

14 oz can sweetened condensed milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

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2 tablespoons matcha green tea powder

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

DIRECTIONS:

Chill condensed milk and cream until very cold. In a mixing bowl whip cream on medium until soft peaks form. Add condensed milk and vanilla and beat in medium until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle matcha powder and spices over mixture and blend on low speed just until blended. Pour into container and freeze about 6 hours before serving.

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GREEN TEA COOKIES

(From Martha Stewart's "Cookie Perfection")

Makes about 7 dozen

INGREDIENTS:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons finely ground green tea leaves (from about 8 tea bags)

1 tablespoon matcha

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

DIRECTIONS:

Whisk together flour, tea, matcha, and salt in a small bowl. Cream together butter and sugar in a mixer bowl on medium until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. On low, slowly mix in flour mixture until just combined.

Divide dough in half. Transfer each half to a piece of parchment paper; shape into logs 1 1/4 inches in diameter. Roll each log in parchment, pressing a ruler along edge of parchment at each turn to narrow log and force out air. Freeze 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap frozen logs and slice 1/4 inch thick. Place an inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until edges turn golden, 13 to 15 minutes. Let cool on baking sheets on wire racks.


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