Sunday, April 06, 2008

Challenge 100: Rice Pudding!

The first new thing that I tried for the '100 Challenge' (see our hundredth post) was a simple concoction, but a much-needed one at the time: rice pudding!

It was comfort food when I made it, without a doubt – to comfort me against the fact that (ironically) I'd been consuming some not-very-nutritionally-sound foods that day. When I first thought of it, I remembered the swaddling soothingness of rice pudding being made for me ages ago. I thought I'd had it in England at some point, along with things like bread-and-butter pudding or treacle tart, but my mom told me that my bubbie (my mother's mother) quite liked to make it too, so perhaps that's where I first had it.

But I'd never made it for myself, so I consulted Bittman and his How to Cook Everything, always a good starting-point when looking for a basic recipe. Here is what he told me to do:

Rice Pudding

take 2 cups of water and bring it to a boil in a medium saucepan
stir in 1 cup of long- or short-grain rice (I used basmati, having it to hand)
and a dash of salt

cover and cook over low heat until almost all water is absorbed (~20 minutes)

uncover, pour in 2 cups milk (could easily be soy or almond or lactose-free) and cook, stirring until half the milk is absorbed
stir in 3/4 cup of sugar (or more to taste – I found it sufficient)
and continue to cook until the milk is absorbed and the rice soft

At the end of cooking, feel free to add any flavourings you prefer. My mom told me that my Bubbie liked cinnamon (or possibly nutmeg), but I added cardamom, one of my favourite spices.

Bittman suggests that you could add raisins or snipped dates, figs or other dried fruit (about halfway through cooking); use coconut milk instead of some or all of the milk (that sounds good!); add vanilla or orange blossom or rose water at end of cooking; finish with as you would a creme brulee, with a burnt crust of sugar (hmm...); add one teaspoon of minced lemon or orange zest in place of spices (tasty!); or garnish with a sprinkling of toasted sliced almonds or other nuts.

Mine was fairly plain in comparison, but delightful. That cardamom was perfect, and the whole concoction was supremely comforting.

I found out rice pudding has a variant in almost every country – there's the Chinese Babao fan (Eight treasure rice pudding), the black rice puddings of Thailand and Malaysia, Champorado in the Philippines (chocolate rice pudding!), Indian kheer, Pakistani firni (with cardamom and pistachio!), Persian shola-e-zard with saffron, arroz con leche finished with condensed milk from Spain and Latin America, budino di riso from Italy (with raisins and orange peel) and riisipuuro from Finland, often served with cinnamon or berries and served at Christmas with one whole almond in it. Whoever gets the almond is supposed to have good luck all year.

In England rice pudding is both loved and reviled – sometimes being seen as stodgy and traditional 'nursery food.' A.A. Milne wrote a poem about a little heroine, Mary Jane, who begins to throw tantrums after being repeatedly served the pudding for lunch, and Dickens wrote about being subjected to boiled mutton and rice pudding. But I had no previous dreadful experiences to associate it with, and found it very tasty and soothing. There was quite a lot of it, though, and despite the fact that it keeps for a few days in the fridge, I'd make a half-batch, unless you have a willing audience to share it with (Michelle's not a fan of rice pudding, I found out!).

Next time I may try all sorts of different flavourings. Apparently they put maple syrup in it in Vermont. To complete my musings about rice pudding, I include the following extract from one of my favourite plays, Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard. It's set in 1809 and the present day, and in 1809, Thomasina is a teenage mathematical genius, coming up with ideas about chaos theory far ahead of her time, and talking about them with her tutor, Septimus:

Thomasina: When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you need stir backward, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this odd?

Septimus: No.

Thomasina: Well, I do. You cannot stir things apart.

Septimus: No more you can, time must needs run backward, and since it will not, we must stir our way onward mixing as we go, disorder out of disorder into disorder until pink is complete, unchanging and unchangeable, and we are done with it for ever. This is known as free will or self-determination.

Ah, the universe as seen in the microcosm of rice pudding!


moyrad said...

How did you get so much into one post?! It's cool to think of a food connecting you with the people in the past: family, historical and literary (fictitious and not). Who knew so many cultures have a variant of English rice pudding (or perhaps it was the English who adapted it).

Laura said...

I agree - the food continuum is such an amazing idea. Rice is a pretty ancient foodstuff, so it has a long history of connecting various cultures and peoples.

I think it's definite that the English (and Europeans and North Americans) adapted it (rice and rice pudding, that is) from Asia and Africa.

I actually meant to discuss a little about the huge recent increases on the price of rice and the shortages, and how it affects so many people in the world. Food is something we take for granted here as being abundant and cheap, but that's not the case. Interestingly enough, Mark Bittman has a fair amount to say about this in his (cunningly titled) online column 'Bitten':

Leeeeesha said...

Mmm, I adore rice pudding and after reading your post, Laura, am greatly envious of you.

I usually parboil my rice (using a short grain or italian arborio) and then finish it off in the oven with lots of milk and sugar and vanilla. Then I stir in some butter at the end and sprinkle cinnamon on top just prior to eating.

But, a half-batch!?! I vehemently disagree! I'll willingly consume an entire batch of rice pudding any day!

Anonymous said...

Rice pudding--never had any but once about 10 years ago--do not like at all--reminds me of tapioca pudding which I hate and grew up with because it was "good for me". Give me decadent gelato any day for dessert!! But your literary connections were very interesting and quite thought provoking.