This week I was cleaning out my spice drawers (yes, there are multiple). I discovered that we apparently have way too much cayenne pepper (three jars is considered “too much,” right?) and also that I have some kind of sick extract fetish. Nine (nine!) types of vanilla extract. Two bottles each of almond and peppermint extracts, several floral varieties (rosewater, orange blossom, lavender), and some randoms that I saw in the baking aisle at Whole Foods and bought for “just in case.” Black walnut extract. Rum extract (because real rum just won’t do?). Cinnamon. Anise.
But despite the fact that I seriously love extracts, using them sometimes feels a little bit like cheating. Especially when I have several bottles of whole spices that will do just as well in certain circumstances. They might take a little longer to work their magic, but the outcome is more flavor complexity, in my opinion. Consequently, in addition to my extract habit, I’ve also developed a bit of an obsession with milk infusions. So when I set out to make dulce de leche and saw that you can put a cinnamon stick in it, I thought, “Why stop there?”
“Why stop there?” is a phrase that sometimes gets me in trouble in the kitchen, but more often results in near-miraculous culinary concoctions. Working with the sudden drop in temperature that has graced Ohio, I turned my thoughts to warming spices, such as those found in chai tea. Now, don’t be an ass. I know that chai means tea and it’s redundant and blah blah blah. But can we all stop with the childish need to show off our superior intelligence and just agree that chai has now become synonymous with the spices that go into the masala chai tea beverage? Good, great, grand, wonderful.
(No yelling on the bus.)
There are a few different variations on “chai” spices, and I chose to go with cinnamon, star anise, green cardamom, ginger, cloves, and allspice. Peppercorns would also be welcome. Fennel seeds can sub in for the star anise. A whole other slew of spices could go in here to meet your tastes, so take my measurements with a grain of salt and tweak them to your liking. (Speaking of grains of salt, a little fleur de sel might not be a bad idea….)
So what do you do with this caramel-like spread (other than eat it off a spoon)? Pretty much anything you want. Spread it between macaron shells or cinnamon spritz cookies. Add it to brownies or a chocolate tart. Plop it onto your ice cream. Use it as a dip for raw apples, you health-nut, you! Get meta and stir it into your tea. Beyond that, package it up in cute little jars as wedding favors or stocking stuffers. If you’re feeling especially generous, you could even give a larger jar as a gift. Your friends should be so lucky.
- 1 quart whole milk
- 1½ cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 star anise
- 6 crushed cardamom pods
- 4 whole allspice
- 8 whole cloves
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- In a large saucepan, combine milk, sugar, and spices. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. When sugar has dissolved and milk is simmering, turn heat to low and stir in baking soda. Simmer over low heat for 20 minutes, then remove the spices with a slotted spoon or strainer.
- Continue to simmer over low heat, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the mixture has reduced to 1 cup*. Stir more frequently toward the end, about every 5 minutes, to make sure it doesn't burn. The whole process should take about 2½ to 3 hours.
- Pour hot dulce de leche through a fine mesh strainer into a jar. Cover the jar and transfer to the refrigerator to cool. Keep chilled.
- *If you want a thinner, more sauce-like dulce de leche, reduce to 1½-2 cups. It will take less time.