Rice pudding is a culinary common denominator; it turns up at humble cafeterias, vintage diners and at fashionable new American bistros.
The ultimate comfort food, it is soft, sweet, starchy, simple to make, eminently satisfying and dearly beloved by cooks who can't bear to see anything go to waste.
It is also internationally adored. Puerto Ricans have their arroz con coco, a rich dessert made with rice, ginger, raisins and coconut. Indians dote on kheer, a creamy rice pudding perfumed with cardamom and rose water. Gateau au riz (molded rice pudding) is a classical French dessert. The sticky rice dishes of China and Thailand could well be described as Oriental rice puddings.
Most rice puddings are humble fare, designed to use up leftover rice. But at least one version, riz a l'imperatrice, belongs to the repertory of classical haute French cuisine. Named for Napoleon III's consort, Empress Eugenie, this regal dessert features rice in a rich bavarian cream with candied fruits and liqueur.
There are thousands of rice varieties, but most can be grouped into two categories: long grain and short grain. The former remains firm and fluffy when cooked; it is used for making pilafs and other dishes in which you want the grains of rice to remain separate and fluffy.
Short grain rice cooks into a soft, glutinous mass popular in the Orient. Its stickiness makes it easy to eat with chopsticks. Rice puddings made with long grain rice will be drier and more cake-like, while puddings made with short grain rice will be creamier and more custardy.
Below is a quartet of rice puddings from around the world.
GOOD, OLD-FASHIONED RICE PUDDING (8 servings)
Here's a pudding that's ideal for using up leftover rice. The recipe comes from the legendary Raphil's, a colorful delicatessen, now closed, of the heyday of Miami Beach.
3 cups milk
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups cooked long grain rice
1 cup sultanas (yellow raisins)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Bring the milk to a boil in a heavy saucepan. Beat the eggs and sugar together in a large bowl. Gradually whisk in the milk, followed by the rice, sultanas, vanilla, grated lemon zest and cinnamon. Pour the mixture into a 8-by-12-inch baking dish.
Bake the rice pudding in a 350-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until set. (An inserted skewer will come out clean.) Let cool to room temperature before serving. Serve at room temperature or lightly chilled.
Per serving: 273 calories, 7 gm protein, 53 gm carbohydrates, 5 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 115 mg cholesterol, 74 mg sodium.
ARROZ CON COCO (Puerto Rican Rice Pudding With Coconut) (8 servings)
This rice pudding features a trio of coconut flavorings. Coconut water is the clear liquid found inside a fresh coconut. Coconut milk is made by mixing equal parts freshly grated coconut and boiling water. Strain the mixture, pressing hard with a wooden spoon to extract the liquid. That liquid is the coconut milk. You can also used canned unsweetened coconut milk. (The Southeast Asian brands are the best.) Coconut cream is a sweetened coconut product available at most liquor stores and Hispanic markets. Short grain rice can be found at Hispanic markets, too. This recipe comes from Boston-based Puerto Rican cooking teacher Rafael Perreira.
1 cup short grained rice
1 cup coconut water (or an equal amount of coconut milk)
2 cups coconut milk
1 cup coconut cream (such as Coco Lopez)
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger root
1 stick cinnamon
4 strips lemon zest
2 to 3 tablespoons honey, or to taste
1/3 cup raisins
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into little pieces
Cinnamon for sprinkling
Wash the rice and let soak in cold water to cover for 1 hour.
Bring the coconut water, coconut milk and coconut cream to a boil with the ginger, cinnamon and lemon zest. Stir in the rice and reduce the heat. Gently simmer the rice for 20 minutes, or until the rice is soft and all the liquid has been absorbed. Stir the rice from time to time to prevent it from sticking. Preheat the broiler.
Stir in the honey and raisins and cook for 2 to 3 more minutes. Remove the cinnamon stick and lemon peel, and spoon the rice into a buttered baking dish. Dot the top with butter.
Brown the rice pudding under the broiler and sprinkle with cinnamon. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Per serving: 140 calories, 2 gm protein, 28 gm carbohydrates, 2 gm fat, 2 gm saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 17 mg sodium.
KHEER (Indian Rice Pudding)
Kheer is a creamy rice pudding from India. It owes its fragrance to cardamom and rosewater, and its richness to the milk, which is reduced by more than half. Basmati is a fragrant long grained rice available in Indian markets, gourmet food stores, and many health food stores.
1 gallon milk
8 green cardamom pods
1/2 cup pistachio nuts, plus 1/4 cup for garnish
1/2 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 cup sugar
Place the milk and cardamom in a large, heavy saucepan. Gently simmer the milk, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half. Meanwhile, finely chop the pistachio nuts.
Stir in the remaining ingredients, minus the 1/4 cup pistachio nuts reserved for garnish. Gently simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally, for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the rice is soft and the pudding has thickened. Remove the cardamom pods. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate.
Just before serving, spoon the kheer into bowls and sprinkle with the chopped pistachios.
Per serving: 574 calories, 20 gm protein, 68 gm carbohydrates, 26 gm fat, 11 gm saturated fat, 66 mg cholesterol, 243 mg sodium.
RIZ A L'IMPERATRICE (Rice Bavarian Cream)
Riz a l'imperatrice is a classic of 19th-century French cuisine. The version below, adapted from Richard Grausman's "At Home with the French Classics" (Workman Press), has been simplied and lightened to suit 20th-century tastes.
1/2 cup long grain rice
3 cups milk
6 tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean, split, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/4 cup candied fruits (optional)
1 envelope unflavored gelatin, softened over 1/4 cup cold water
2 egg yolks*
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
1 teaspoon kirsh
1 cup heavy cream, stiffly beaten
Candied violets for garnish
Raspberry sauce for serving (see below)
Cook the rice in 2 cups boiling water for 15 minutes and drain.
Bring the milk, sugar and vanilla bean to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the rice, cover the pan, and cook over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes or until about 1 cup milk remains. (Add the candied fruit after 20 minutes.) Discard the vanilla bean.
Transfer the rice mixture to a large metal bowl and whisk in the softened gelatin, egg yolks, Grand Marnier and kirsch (and vanilla extract, if using). Place the bowl over a larger bowl of ice and water. Stir the mixture until cool to the touch, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. When the mixture begins to gel, fold in half the whipped cream. Spoon the mixture into an 8-inch cake pan and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
To unmold, run the tip of a paring knife around the inside of the pan. Dip the mold in a pan of hot water for 5 to 10 seconds. Place a round platter over the mold and invert. Give the pan a little shake: the riz a l'imperatrice should slide right out. (If it doesn't, repeat the procedure.) The rice can be unmolded several hours ahead, but keep it refrigerated.
Pipe rosettes of reserved whipped cream on top of the rice and garnish with candied violets. Spoon the raspberry sauce around the rice, serving the remainder on the side. Serve immediately.
* Uncooked egg yolks may be contaminated with salmonella and should be avoided by young children, the elderly and anyone with immune system deficiencies.
Per serving: 257 calories, 6 gm protein, 24 gm carbohydrates, 16 gm fat, 9 gm saturated fat, 121 mg cholesterol, 60 mg sodium.
RASPBERRY SAUCE (Makes 3 cups)
3 cups fresh or frozen raspberries
3 tablespoons red currant preserves
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Pure'e the raspberries in a food processor, running the machine as little as possible. (Over-pure'eing will crush the raspberry seeds, making the sauce bitter.) Strain the raspberries into a bowl.
Melt the red currant preserves in a small saucepan over low heat. Whisk the preserves into the pure'e and add sugar and lemon juice to taste.
Per 1/2-cup serving: 80 calories, .6 gm protein, 20 gm carbohydrates, .3 gm fat, 0 gm saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1 mg sodium.
Steven Raichlen is a freelance food writer and director of his own cooking school in New Hampshire.