What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She's perfectly well and she hasn't a pain,
And it's lovely rice pudding for dinner again!
What is the matter with Mary Jane?
-- A.A. Milne
I married into rice pudding. It was not part of my childhood experience other than through nursery rhymes and occasional cafeteria sightings.
When my husband and I were first married and a little short on food, his uncle, a butcher, supplied us with months' worth of frozen meats. My new grandmother-in-law sent us home with cooked foods to fill the rest of the freezer: stuffed cabbage, split pea soup, her special salad dressing and what I came to think of as rice pudding.
Most rice puddings, I learned later, are soft and creamy. Bubbe Anna's -- scented with lemon peel and loaded with raisins -- was solid enough to slice with a knife. It was delicious at room temperature covered in warm milk. I also liked it chunked off the block right from the freezer.
Bubbe Anna, all 4 feet 10 inches of her, was an excellent Eastern European Jewish cook. She did not, however, share. She'd leave one or two key ingredients out of every recipe, so none of her marvelous culinary creations has ever been replicated. My sisters-in-law and I have been trying for years.
So after Bubbe Anna's death 25 years ago, I moved on. I put rice pudding behind me.
Then just after New Year's I was on a radio talk show in Baltimore, and a caller had a question about rice pudding. The phone board lit up. We could have stayed on the air all day.
I started asking around. Almost everyone had something to say about rice pudding, not all of it good. For some people, the mere mention makes their eyes narrow and nostrils flare. They find it "too sweet," "creepy" in texture or, cruelest of all, "bland." On the other side of the table are the true believers. They regard rice pudding as the Platonic ideal of comfort food. They ate it as children, they make it as adults. They feel sorry for those who think of it as nursery fare.
But even there we find the divisive issues of raisins and skin. There exists a subset of humanity that hates any food containing raisins. And some people think the skin that forms on top of baked rice pudding is the best part, while others find it revolting.
Attitudes pro and con are universal, because wherever there is rice and milk, there is rice pudding. Those who love it find it particularly evocative.
"One of the fondest memories from my childhood in Denmark is the ritual of Christmas rice pudding," Inge Hill, 70, of Washington writes in an e-mail. After 50 years in the United States, she has never had a Christmas without julegroed, eaten with cinnamon, sugar and butter. A whole almond hidden inside fetches a prize.
That European-style food is probably the ancestor of what most Americans think of as rice pudding. But it's not the only one.
Caroline Albrizzio-Lopez, 42, of Silver Spring remembers it from her childhood in Venezuela. "When I think about arroz con leche," she writes, "it's not only about eating. I'm immediately transported to my childhood, and I start humming a nursery rhyme called . . . 'Arroz Con Leche.' " Rajendrani Mukhopadhyay, 30, of Bethesda waxes rhapsodic about the "magical" Bengali payesh his father makes for his son's visits home.
Italy's budini di riso are made with raisins and orange peel. Rizogalo is the Greeks' creamy lemon-flavored rice dessert. Rice puddings of the Middle East feature saffron and rose water. Thai rice pudding is made with sticky black rice and coconut milk and topped with fresh sliced mango. Bananas go into Cambodian rice pudding. Filipinos eat a sweet chocolate rice porridge called champorado for breakfast.
Not surprisingly, French rice pudding is not a simple affair. Julia Child's riz à l'imperatrice has two pages of instructions. The dish "is one of the grand old standbys of the classic French cuisine and has no relation, fortunately, to the dreadful rice puddings of one's youth," she writes in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
Quietly, rice puddings are appearing on international menus, part of the retro food movement. New York City, of course, has an all-rice-pudding store: Rice to Riches.
With rice pudding becoming so trendy, I decided to finally try to crack the Bubbe Anna code.
So one week I did almost nothing but make rice puddings. I stirred them on the stove (no skin) and baked them in the oven (skin). I used cold cooked rice; I cooked the rice in milk. I tried different spices, nuts and fruits. I used whole vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks.
I made little Italian lemon-rice pudding cakes with arborio and a Thai pudding with brown jasmine rice and coconut milk. The entire week was a Zen experience, for to truly saturate the rice with flavor yet keep it from getting mushy you must have time and patience.
I liked many of my experiments but still hadn't found what I was looking for. I thought I should visit India, land of many rice puddings. The most commonly known is kheer, flavored with cardamom and topped with pistachio nuts.
My hopes were dashed, however, the day I made Madhur Jaffrey's kheer from "Invitation to Indian Cooking" (Ecco, 1999). When I first looked at the recipe, I thought I was seeing wrong. It calls for 5 cups of milk and 1/2 tablespoon of rice. The result is a thickened cardamom-flavored liquid. It was tasty, but I was confused. Where was the rice pudding of my husband's childhood? I had taken what I'd learned from pudding makers around the world to create a soft pudding I really liked. It just wasn't what I had set out to find.
Then I made Sis Benjamin's version. Sis is my 92-year-old mother's friend from childhood. My mother urged me to try Sis's recipe because, she reminded me, Sis is a great baker. I followed the directions -- adding a little lemon peel -- and took from the oven something that, while not as firm, looked and tasted like Bubbe Anna's.
I called Sis, and she said she had created it for her late husband, Harold. She doesn't like rice pudding, it turns out. Harold felt differently.