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Thrill of the chill

Tea ices are a refreshing and sweet way to end a meal on long summer days.

August 25, 2004|Donna Deane | Times Test Kitchen Director

There's nothing more civilized than a cup of tea. Or is there?

This time of year, as the real hot weather is just thinking about blowing into town, a cup of tea sounds, well, hot. That thought sent us straight to the ice cream maker. If iced tea is good, shouldn't something like a tea sorbet -- let's call it tea ice -- be even better?

But we're not talking Lipton. Brew a pot of your best -- whether it's a tippy whole leaf assam or extra-bergamot Earl Grey or green Chinese jasmine or Formosa oolong. Sweeten it a little, give it a turn through the ice cream maker, or just freeze it like granita and voila -- an elegant tea ice.

Usually, when ingredients are frozen, flavor nuances are lost, so we were surprised to find that with these tea ices, the lovely aromatics actually come through loud and clear. And the silky, slightly slushy texture is just the thing to finish a late alfresco dinner, or to cleanse the palate between courses.

Just brew the tea of your choice the same way you would to drink it, then add enough sugar or honey to sweeten it lightly. Let it cool, then put it in the ice cream maker. Nothing could be easier, lighter or more refreshing.

We loved the mellow, nutty taste of an ice made with genmai cha, Japanese green tea with toasted, partially puffed brown rice. A few of the crisp tea leaves and bits of toasted rice sprinkled over the top add a great crunchy finish.

Lapsang souchong, black tea flavored with pine-needle smoke, makes a fabulously smoky ice, if such a thing is possible. We used a touch of honey to sweeten this one. It's hard to imagine a more grown-up dessert.

Our Moroccan tea ice is based on Paula Wolfert's recipe for Moroccan mint tea, made from green tea steeped with fresh spearmint leaves and sugar. Fresh spearmint is a must; the more familiar peppermint won't give the same result. In its iced form, this cool combination is exhilarating and refreshing.

Chinese green teas or oolongs flavored with flowers or fruit make terrific tea ices. A plum-flavored oolong we found in a specialty tea shop made a lovely pale pink ice with an intriguing flavor -- and it was gorgeous in an antique tea cup. Aromatic jasmine-flavored Chinese green tea was superb; Chinese green flavored with chrysanthemum or rose would work just as well.

And one of our all-time favorite teas -- Earl Grey -- was terrific; the citrusy bergamot was perfect in an ice. We brewed it up and added milk and sugar for a dessert version of the classic.

Tea ices should begin with tea brewed from good quality loose tea, not teabags (the lowest quality tea is what's used in tea bags). Use spring water or freshly drawn water (water that has been left standing will not be well aerated) and heat it to boiling or just below, depending on the type of tea. For black and oolong teas, bring the water to a full boil before pouring over the leaves; for green tea, use water that is just below boiling point. Just as when brewing a good cup of tea, steeping time is important (many teas become bitter when they steep too long, but they don't achieve optimum flavor if steeping time is too short). Although the proper steeping time depends on the type of tea, we found that three minutes worked well for the teas in our recipes. Strain the sweetened or flavored tea immediately into a glass bowl or container. Cool slightly, then cover and chill in the refrigerator.

Unlike homemade ice cream, which needs to firm up and develop flavors in the freezer, tea ices may be served immediately. Or make them ahead of time and keep them overnight in the freezer. If you do this, remove the ice from the freezer about 30 minutes before serving. Let it stand at room temperature until it softens enough to fluff with a fork, or use a blender or food processor to quickly break it up into smaller crystals.

Tea ices can also be made like granitas. Pour the cooled sweetened tea into a shallow glass dish and put it in the freezer until it begins to freeze around the edges. Once this happens, use a fork to scrape the partially frozen icy edges toward the center. Do this about four times, or until the entire batch of tea is frozen but easily fluffed with a fork.

Once we began making tea ices, we couldn't believe we hadn't always made them. They belong -- with root beer floats, gin and tonics, and lemonade -- in the pantheon of just-right summer refreshments.

*

Genmai cha sorbet

Total time: 8 minutes, plus cooling and freezing time

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: Genmai cha is also called brown rice tea and is available in Japanese markets as well as stores that stock a variety of teas.

4 cups water

3 tablespoons genmai cha, plus additional for garnish

1/4 cup sugar

1. Heat the water just to simmering. Pour it over 3 tablespoons of the tea and the sugar and steep for 3 minutes. Strain.

2. Cool to room temperature.

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