What kind of rice pudding you like depends, like all childhood food, on your earliest memories. Creamy and foamy, or dense and eggy? Stove-top or baked? White sugar or brown? The barest dusting of cinnamon, or just nutmeg? Skin or no skin? Most brutally divisive of all: raisins or no? Few opinions on the subject are neutral, and almost every one can be traced directly to a mother or a grandmother. Hence my annual attempts to duplicate the mythic rice pudding of my youth—not the rice pudding my mother made (of which, naturally, I have fond memories) but the one her mother made, which took hours and hours but was the only true rice pudding.
The Wages of Rice Pudding
Corby Kummer reviews Rice to Riches, a rice-pudding-only New York café.
Last winter my search for a master recipe that would work in my kitchen resulted in many lost afternoons ending with half-raw rice floating in sad pools of gray milk or embedded in caramelized rubber. So this year I decided to be more systematic. Before the ground had fully frozen, I turned to those two American bibles, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking, and made forays with several fashionable and easily available kinds of rice—more than a dozen forays, in fact, until everyone around me was refusing, like A. A. Milne’s contrary Mary Jane, to eat rice pudding again.
Tasters I recruited who like what I think of as diner-style pudding were displeased. Nothing about that sort of pudding seems homemade to me. I was surprised, in fact, that so many people associate what I think of as strictly a luncheonette item with their childhood kitchens. Creamy white tapioca-style pudding is certainly soothing. It’s easy for restaurants to make in big batches or buy in big tubs, and it makes a good match with the sprayed whipped cream that often tops it—the two are practically the same color, and equally characterless. I’m a skin man. And I think the point of rice pudding is intense milkiness, unsullied by the thickeners often slipped into stove-top pudding, and distinct grains of ever-so-slightly chewy rice. If you can’t taste the rice, you might as well make some other kind of pudding.
Classic baked pudding is simply raw rice cooked slowly in a low oven in an open dish so that the milk naturally condenses and gives a warm, butterscotch flavor as the rice absorbs it. There are no eggs, just some sugar and, if you like, vanilla and nutmeg. You can eat it with either a fork or a spoon, like its close relative macaroni and cheese. It’s pure and soothing, but has a depth of flavor and kind of austerity that makes diner-style pudding seem as ornate and decadent as the Winter Palace.
The standard recipe comes from Fannie Farmer, that Yankee (and thus frequently austere) home economist, and was followed by both my mother’s and my stepmother’s grandmothers, who farmed in the same small Connecticut town. My stepmother told me that her grandmother would fill a wide, three-inch-deep milk-skimming pan, “as big as her oven would hold,” with fresh milk, sugar, rice, and seeded raisins, and then leave it for hours; the family would eat it up by the next day.
Like all very simple recipes, this one can take forever to get right. The pan, preferably glass, should allow sufficient evaporation. The kind and amount of sugar matter. White sugar, though the most traditional, can be both bland and cloying (the sugar already in the milk will concentrate as the milk condenses). Too much sugar slows the absorption of the milk; if you add raisins, you need to reduce the amount. And, of course, the rice is key.
For several generations, supermarket rice was long-grain, the kind that is prized in Iran and India and was the first rice grown in this country, in the Carolina Low Country. Long-grain rices like Carolina, Uncle Ben’s, and basmati, generically called indica, are prized for their ability to remain distinct and fluffy—traits that aren’t considered optimal for pudding, which won’t thicken without the starch released by the rice. Hence most recipes call for short- or medium-grain “pudding” rice, generically called japonica, which gives up its starch much more easily and sticks together, as in sushi and risotto. The sushi rice I tried in several puddings softened reliably, but into a mush I didn’t like (though other tasters did).
Somewhat heretically, I prefer long-grain rice, so that I can tell what I’m eating, and because I like the firmness and the taste. For those who don’t mind softer rice, the ideal balance is jasmine, a widely available long-grain rice that is half sticky; it is used in Indonesian “compressed rice” and other dishes, all of them detailed in James Oseland’s excellent new culinary tour Cradle of Flavor.