Rice pudding is a little like ice cream without the icy part. It’s uncomplicated. It just slides down. You don’t have to wonder how it was cooked or what’s in it. Its flavor and texture is consolingly familiar, and when you’re finished eating, you’re wrapped in a creamy quilt of contentment. It’s the sort of food you want when you need a little cheering up.
Wherever in the world you call home, there was probably some sort of sweet rice pudding on the family table, a bowl that might have begun as nursery food and continued as a favorite sweet throughout childhood. Your pudding might have contained rose water (from North Africa to South Asia), red beans or red bean paste (China), or condensed milk (Latin America).
In my facsimile copy of Mrs. Beeton — as the British “Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” written in 1861 by the 21-year-old Isabella Beeton, is familiarly known — a recipe for baked rice pudding informs the reader that rice “is a very valuable and cheap addition to our farinaceous food.” She continues, “Baking it in a pudding is the best mode of preparing it.”
Mrs. Beeton’s Victorian pudding had the usual ingredients for a European-style version — “a small teacupful” of rice, eggs, milk, butter, sugar, lemon rind, and currants. It was also mixed with brandy and beef marrow. She baked hers in a dish lined with puff pastry. Her “nice pudding for children” omits the pastry and alcohol and instead of the marrow, adds a couple ounces of finely minced suet, the firm fat around beef or mutton kidneys.
Rice cultivation has a long history, beginning in ancient India and South China, writes the late Alan Davidson in “The Oxford Companion to Food.” Romans turned the grains, which were an expensive import, into a sweetened porridge with milk from almonds or cows and used it to calm the stomach. Baked rice puddings, with sugar, milk, breadcrumbs, and bone marrow, date to the 17th century, he writes.
Many old versions had a meaty element, which was eventually dropped from the recipes. That basic creamy formula was the foundation of contemporary American rice puddings. British-born Davidson writes that the skin that forms on the top of the pudding during baking is an element some people love and others avoid.
I dislike the skin. My girlhood rice pudding, which made the whole house smell wonderful, didn’t have one because my mother sprinkled the top with a generous layer of cinnamon and sugar, which makes an aromatic crust rather than a skin. When you spoon the firm, but still creamy, mixture into a bowl, the topping weaves through the custard so you get some in every bite. Her recipe used converted rice, so it probably came from a box of what was then called Uncle Ben’s (the company is now Ben’s Original).
I make a similar baked recipe using jasmine rice, which has a lovely aroma, but you can also use any long-grain white rice, which you need to cook first. Adding a wedge of lemon to the cooking water is a nice touch to flavor it. Use the pasta method for cooking the rice, that is, use much more water than the rice can absorb. This way, the grains stay separate and don’t glom together. After the rice cools, spread it in a buttered baking dish (glass or ceramic), dot it with golden or dark raisins, pour over a custard made with milk, eggs, sugar, and vanilla, then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar.
Vary this basic mixture by adding snipped dried fruits such as apricots instead of raisins, flavor the custard with a little saffron steeped in a few spoons of warm milk, add rose water or orange flower water, stir in lemon or orange zest, drizzle the rice with a little maple syrup, or sprinkle the finished dish with chopped pistachios or toasted almonds.
Serve it warm, of course, because there’s something about a warm dessert on a dark winter night that’s remarkably satisfying.
OK, so it isn’t ice cream. It isn’t anything like ice cream. Rice pudding is in its own cozy category.