You probably haven't had rice pudding in years, and if you are like most people, you probably haven't missed it. So why did this once-popular dessert quietly vanish from our tables? Mostly because light and fresh foods have been emphasized in the last decade or so. Yet this simple and honest, though heavy, dish may be the perfect ending for a meal in cold weather.

A recent and somewhat unscientific survey of a dozen or so of my friends, all accomplished cooks I hasten to add, disclosed that most had never even made a rice pudding. How sad that such a delightful dessert, one that could be found on almost every restaurant and hotel menu a couple of decades ago, should so utterly and completely disappear from our memories, our menus and our meals.

Be that as it may, now is the time for you to join the small but growing crusade to rescue rice pudding from obscurity. Laugh in the face of current food fashion, strike a blow for old-fashioned dessert lovers everywhere by serving one of these two great (or nearly great) rice puddings before warm weather returns.

Now to get serious for a moment. I have some very strong opinions about rice puddings.

First, while any rice pudding can be prepared substituting brown rice for the white and brown sugar for the white, it makes the final dish dull and heavy and so I suggest you do not.

Second, nutmeg is overrated, overused and overpowering in rice pudding, and even in small amounts I disapprove of it. However, a half to a whole teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg can be stirred into any of these pudding recipes, if you wish, just before baking. Or better yet, a tiny amount can be sprinkled on top just before serving.

Third, I use vanilla beans, not the more common vanilla extract. This is because extracts lack the depth of character that the bean produces, and are at best a poor substitute. Lacking vanilla beans in your cupboard, you might consider stirring 2 teaspoons of extract into the pudding just before baking.

Next, and finally, to some ideas about serving this great American dessert. Probably the most orthodox way to serve it is family style, simply setting the rice pudding in the dish in which it was baked on the table with a large silver serving spoon inserted into it; or spoon it onto plates in the kitchen.

When serving rice pudding to more than the immediate family, consider accompanying it by lightly sweetened whipped cream, beaten to the runny, not stiff stage, or with an almond or Grand Marnier flavored whipped cream. For a company meal, a lightly sweetened fruit pure'e can be served with the dessert. Either pass the sauce separately or film individual plates in the puree and then place a heaping spoonful of the rice pudding atop the sauce. This last suggestion makes quite a dramatic presentation. Should you wish to go one step further, and one step further is as far as you can possibly go with rice puddings, place two or three fresh whole berries on the plate (they must be the same berry that was used in the sauce). AS GREAT A RICE PUDDING AS POSSIBLE (6 generous servings)

Despite protests from a few aficionados, dessert lovers everywhere agree that there's no such thing as a really great rice pudding. Some go so far as to insist that the phrase "great rice pudding" is a contradiction in terms. Puddings being puddings, their position seems defensible. However, this classic rice pudding with its custard base is as great a rice pudding as possible, and it will prove to be a surprising and most welcome addition to your next dinner party. 3 cups milk 2/3 cup uncooked long grain white rice 1/2 cup sugar 1 vanilla bean 1 cup light cream or half-and-half

4 egg yolks

Combine the milk, rice, 1/4 cup of the sugar and the vanilla bean (split in half lengthwise then cut into 2 or 3 pieces) in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat, stirring only once or twice. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover tightly. Cook until the milk is absorbed and the texture is creamy, about an hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove vanilla bean pieces.

When the rice is about half cooked, make the custard: Heat the cream in the top of a double boiler set over simmering water until it feels very warm to the touch, not hot. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer until they begin to thicken, then gradually add the remaining sugar and continue beating until pale yellow in color and thick and ribbony in texture.

Pour about a third of the heated cream into the beaten egg yolks and mix well, then pour the egg yolk mixture into the top of the double boiler with the remaining cream and stir vigorously together. This is called tempering the eggs and is said to be an unnecessary waste of time by the Egg Board, but it is traditional and I like to do it even if it isn't essential. Set the custard mixture back over the simmering water and cook, stirring almost constantly, until the custard thickens just enough to nap the back of a wooden spoon. ("Nap" is such a nice old-fashioned word meaning to coat.)

When the rice has finished cooking, mix the rice and custard together and pour into a well buttered 6-cup baking dish. Set the baking dish in a larger pan and add enough hot tap water to come halfway up the side of the baking dish.

Bake on a shelf set in the middle of a 375-degree oven for 1 hour. The top of the pudding should be nicely browned; if it appears to be darkening too quickly drape it loosely with foil after about 45 minutes. To test for doneness, insert a broom straw (or a toothpick or small sharp knife, if you prefer) into the center. Pudding is done when the straw comes out almost clean.

Variation: Rum Raisin Rice Pudding -- Place half a cup of golden raisins in a small saucepan with 1/4 cup dark rum (or bourbon, scotch, or cognac) and heat to just under a boil. Cool in the saucepan, then stir into the rice pudding when you remove the vanilla bean. BUNNY'S UNBAKED RICE PUDDING (8 servings)

This basic unbaked refrigerator rice pudding is considerably easier to make than the recipe above, as gelatin is used in place of egg custard, and the pudding is refrigerated instead of baked. The texture is more like a mousse then a pudding. This excellent recipe can be poured into a decorative 8-cup mold, then unmolded just before serving. 4 cups milk 1/3 cup sugar 1 vanilla bean, split in half 3/4 cup uncooked long-grain rice 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin 1/4 cup cold tap water 1 cup whipping cream

Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean and rice, in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring once or twice. Reduce heat and simmer, tightly covered, until milk is absorbed and the rice mixture is thick and creamy, about an hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside at room temperature.

Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water and allow to hydrate and soften, about 2 minutes. Stir into the rice mixture, removing the vanilla bean pieces as you do so.

When rice is cooled to room temperature, beat the cream with an electric mixer until firm (just passed the soft peak stage) but not stiff. Fold into the rice. Pour into an 8-cup mold, if you want, or any 2-quart container and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours. Individual custard cups are also good for molding this dessert. Unmold by inverting onto plates just before serving.