STOVE NOTES: UNDER THE SKIN

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Love it or hate it, rice pudding responds to careful cooking. Simon Hopkinson shows how ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2010

My brother liked his deep purple, whereas I preferred mine pale pink. We stirred as mad things until exactly the correct hue was achieved, while our patient parents looked on with pity. And I suppose my mother—who had made the rice pudding to which we were so furiously adding raspberry jam—wondered why she hadn’t just bought a tin of Ambrosia and served that up instead. (Cold, to boot. Ambrosia is always best cold, preferably eaten straight from the tin.)

There is a distaste for rice pudding, born, surely, of terrible school dinners. People think it’s horrible. But just as chips can be exceptional when cooked with care, so can rice pudding. In terms of finesse, though not of texture and temper, a peerless rice pudding is easily the equal of a perfectly made risotto, though its preparation takes practice. Mum’s pudding was usually good, sometimes OK and, occasionally, disastrous: forgotten in the bottom oven of the Aga with solid rice and burnt skin, or undercooked with pockets of milk and lumpy solids. But I always ate it anyway.
I have cooked the dish hundreds of times over the decades, and been happy with my present recipe for about the past 15 years. Although I’m unable to resist the occasional tinker—perhaps adding a tin of evaporated milk, or using unpasteurised Guernsey milk when I can find it—the basic recipe remains the same.

In essence, rice pudding is nothing more than milk, butter, sugar and rice, cooked until just set, a touch wobbly and with a gossamer-thin, pale golden tarpaulin of skin resting upon its deeply lactic surface. It must be baked slowly and quietly without being disturbed, and eaten when warm, or at room temperature. Anyway, this is how I do mine.

Over a moderate heat, melt a couple of thick slices of butter in a solid pot that will happily transfer from stove-top flame to oven—I find that decanting a simmering mass from a pan into another vessel can result in uneven cooking in the oven—then add about three tablespoons of caster sugar and the same of pudding rice (or the Spanish paella rice, Calasparra), and stir together until sticky and glistening. Pour in a litre of full-cream milk, add vanilla, a scant teacup of double cream, and a pinch of salt—my Mum always did, and it enhances flavour. The sugary rice will set into clumps once the milk is added, but soon disperses as the mixture is stirred and brought to a simmer. Once this is reached, grate at least a third of a nutmeg over the surface. Bake in a very low oven, without stirring, for about 60-90 minutes. If the surface burnishes too quickly, lay a loose sheet of foil over the top.

I love the consistency and flavour achieved by this method: its fondancy, its unmistakable milky essence, the warmth of vanilla and nutmeg, and, of course, the skin. I don’t favour adding egg, nor do I like it made in the style of a risotto; to me, that is just sweet risotto, which is plain weird. These days, adding jam seems to spoil the purity of the dish, as do further embellishments. As ever, there are those who would disagree—and they have every right to do so.

The Indian rice dish known as kheer is a case in point. When well made, this can be delicious and is rather good cold. However, it is not rice pudding. It has nuts in it, for one thing. And sultanas. And cardamom! Saffron is occasionally used, as a sign of luxury; and if one is truly trying to impress, silver leaf can be draped across the surface. The rice employed is usually finest basmati.

On another continent, in the Little Italy district of New York City to be precise, is a store devoted to rice pudding. It’s called—wait for it—Rice to Riches. Naturally, it ships overnight to anywhere in America. I am sure that the pudding is good, but it majors in a big way on “toppings”. That’s a step too far for me; the only topping I want would be skin, which is hardly a selling point.

In Europe, arroz con leche is Spanish rice pudding, with cinnamon and lemon flavours, eggs and no skin; gâteau de riz is the French version, using lemon again and set with eggs as a cake; budino di riso is Italian, also set with eggs, and using sultanas and candied orange peel for “bits”. But bits, for me, will always get in the way of the most important stuff: the rice. Now that I am a big boy, I don’t need jam any more. 
 

SHOPPING LIST:

Calasparra rice:  This can be found at R. Garcia and Sons and Brindisa in Britain, and in Portuguese and Latin delis worldwide.

Unpasteurised Guernsey milk:  In less heavily regulated countries, such as France, you can pick up raw (unpasteurised) milk in supermarkets; I buy mine from the Somerset-based Hurdlebrook dairy, which sells products from its herd of Guernsey cows at selected farmers’ markets in the south of England, while Beaconhill Dairy sells unpasteurised Jersey milk by mail order across Britain.

Vanilla:  Use either a split pod, or vanilla extract—never the artificial “flavouring”—both widely available from good food stores and supermarkets. It’s rarely worth buying the more expensive Madagascan-Bourbon vanilla, as opposed to Mexican—its flavour is only to nuance the rice, after all.
 

Simon Hopkinson is the author of "Roast Chicken and Other Stories" and "The Vegetarian Option", and former chef at Bibendum. His last Stove Notes column was about shepherd's pie. Illustration: Cath Riley