In these trying times, we all need a little comfort. Someone once said that most comfort food comes from the nursery, and rice pudding ranks right up there at the top of the list. Milk, rice, vanilla and sugar are elemental flavors that can’t help but soothe.
The question is, which rice pudding? My wife went to boarding school as a teen and her favorite rice pudding is the type that was served there: baked, with a brown skin over a creamy rice layer, studded with raisins. I am partial to the creamy rice pudding you get at Greek delis in New York, although I never liked the heavy cinnamon dusting that some places feel the need to apply. The moral: Mostly, people like the version they grew up on.
An Internet search gives 326,000 results for “rice pudding recipe,” but reading through a few dozen reveals two basic techniques. One type of rice pudding is made from rice, sugar and milk baked for hours. The other type is made by cooking the rice in water or milk, and adding a custard at the end to thicken it.
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of rice: long grain, like basmati; medium grain, like Carolina rice; and short grain, like Arborio or sushi rice. Medium grain is best for rice pudding. The long grain lacks enough starch and doesn’t thicken well. The short grain has too much starch and makes the dish dense and sticky.
Once you choose your technique, variations abound. Vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and lemon rind are often added in the United States and Europe. In Southeast Asia, coconut is an integral part of rice puddings. I have seen recipes using cardamom, rosewater, saffron and ginger.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to traditional dishes. Do you try for the authentic flavor, something that tastes exactly like your family’s or the Greek deli’s down the street? Or, do you reinterpret the dish using the ingredients and techniques available to you today, and filter the recipe through your own tastes and current culinary prejudices? I maintain that the authentic is an inexact target. Most of our memories of the taste of a dish are tied up with the circumstances in which we tasted it and our affection for the people with whom we ate it. Tastes change with the generations and so do the available ingredients.
That said, there is no reason why you cannot try to either recreate the flavors you remember or devise your own combination of the flavors you most love. You may very well end up with your own interpretation of the dish # one that your friends and family will remember as the quintessential version.
And then there is the ever-important search for novelty. Who doesn’t like to wow guests with something new and different? Asian-inspired flavors, ingredients and techniques are the latest layer of our culinary traditions. In the realm of rice pudding, this means purple rice and coconut milk.
Purple rice, sometimes called black rice or forbidden rice, has a dark purple husk. When shopping, you’ll find two kinds of purple rice # long grain and sticky (short grain). The best purple rice pudding I’ve had called for the sticky version, but I can’t find it locally so I’ve been using the long grain variety, which works fine. It just doesn’t get as creamy.
These recipes call for you to stir the rice as it cooks. I like to use a heat-proof rubber spatula or a wooden spoon. Be sure to stir gently to avoid breaking up the rice grains.
All rice pudding gets firmer as it sits. Several of these recipes finish cooking with enough liquid to make them almost soupy. However, overnight the rice will absorb a lot of the liquid. By the second day, if there is any pudding left, it will be dry.
Originally published, Daily Hampshire Gazette, February 27, 2009