Wednesday, April 25, 2012

How To Make Iced Tea, or a Lesson In the Perils of Multi-tasking

In my world, making iced tea is more art than science. My friend, however, uses an actual recipe for hers. To protect the innocent, we’ll call her H.

H is able to brew two perfect, aromatic quarts of iced tea within minutes. That is, just minutes after she gets out the recipe, plastic pitcher, tea bags, measuring cup, ice, saucepan and thermometer, then measures out her water, and combines it with 5 tea bags in a medium, non-reactive saucepan, heats it to exactly 190 degrees, waits for small bubbles to form on the bottom and sides of the pan, and cooks it for 10-15 minutes. 
She then allows the tea to steep 3 minutes more, but no longer (it could become bitter). Once that’s complete, H removes the bags and pours it over 1 quart of ice (previously measured into the pitcher), stirring until the ice is completely melted.

If she’s using sugar, she tells me 1 – 6 Tablespoons of natural cane sugar, stirred in while dissolving the ice, is the only way to go. For such a precise recipe, I find this wide range of sugar measurements perplexing. But thankfully I’m an unsweetened kind of gal, so once I actually try this recipe, I will skip that step.

Being the meticulous scientist that she is, H almost always accompanies this perfect brew with tea-ice. If you’re feeling ambitious, here’s how to make tea-ice: pour some of this hot tea into those ice cube trays you just emptied, stick them in the freezer and wait for them to harden. If you use plain old regular cubes made with water, your tea will become watered down before you can finish it. All this waiting for the cubes to freeze will give you plenty of time to repeat the above process again to actually make the tea you’re going to drink.

Once you’ve completed making the tea (twice), you are ready to pour it over the tea-ice-filled glasses and garnish with lemon-wedges. Drink and enjoy – after all that measuring, you deserve it.

My version of a “recipe” is a little less scientific. And sometimes, though not usually, there is a certain pleasure in the element of surprise that comes with my approach. 

1.            Fill a tea pot with water (how much depends on your mood and how many times you are interrupted by one of your children, coming to report on the other one who is splayed out moaning and bleeding in the next room).
2.            Put the pot on to boil while stirring oatmeal, frying an egg, digging out recyclable containers to hold the kids’ lunches, answering the phone, checking your daughter’s homework, and tying your son’s shoelace.
3.            Wait for pot to start wailing at you while boiling over, leaving permanent residue on your burners, and scalding you with steam and spittle as you try to remove it from the stove.
4.            Realize you’ve forgotten to make space in the sink for the monstrous jug you’ll need to pour the water into, and scuttle back to the stove to return the teapot to the range while you do the dishes.
5.            Do the dishes.
6.            Repeat steps 1-3, as needed. (You may need to re-fry the egg that burned while you were doing the dishes.)
7.            Remove teapot from stove and try to pour water into your container without burning yourself on steam. If you’ve purchased your teapot on clearance from a discount chain store, I can’t help you. Not that I would ever do this, of course.
8.            Tear open 4 or 5 teabags of your favorite tea, depending on how much water has spilled out during earlier steps. If using Trader Joe’s Earl Grey, you must do this quickly, before your foodie husband comes downstairs to find you blatantly disregarding the collection of $100/pound loose leaf teas he has specially ordered from his tea vendor in Chicago (Todd & Holland, if you must know). Drop teabags quickly into the container, submerging any evidence of pre-bagged tea.
9.            DO NOT GET DISTRACTED. No dishes, no checking email, no starting another cooking project. JUST WAIT. After 3-5 minutes, get those tea bags out of there! Some of those hard-core types will actually set a timer on this step, but I prefer to live on the edge. (Ya think?)
10.       Add another ½ gallon or so of cold water to the brewed tea. Wait a few more minutes, then refrigerate for a couple of hours. Don’t try to drink it right away: you’re just going to end up diluting it with all the plain-old-water ice cubes you’ll need to add.

I’ve drawn you a map, now you can choose the path – the tried and true, Cook’s Illustrated-approved, scientific method, or the more artistic (read: messy and often risky) approach. Just don’t try to multi-task, and you’ll be all set.

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