Set aside an afternoon or an entire evening to make classic, long-baked pudding, though the preparation itself takes only a few minutes. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and butter either an 8x8-inch or (for better evaporation and a firmer texture) an 11x7-inch heat-proof glass pan. Stir together 4 cups of milk, 3 tablespoons of long-grain Carolina, Texmati, basmati, or jasmine rice, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and either 1/4 cup of white sugar (preferably cane, for better flavor; easily found brands are Domino and C&H) or 6 tablespoons of lightly packed light or dark brown sugar. White sugar will give a more familiar taste, brown more similar to dulce de leche. For a firmer pudding that will cut into squares, start with 4 tablespoons of rice. If you were raised with raisins, use 1 tablespoon less of sugar for 1/3 to 1/2 cup of dark or golden raisins; if they’re dry, first soak them in warm water to cover for ten minutes and then drain and stir them in. Split a vanilla bean lengthwise and add it now (or, if you only have vanilla extract, add it later).
Jasmine and sushi rice, which release more starch, can thicken a pudding made with low-fat or even skim milk, including reduced-lactose, but the pudding will have a somewhat tinny flavor. And after all, much of the charm of “milk puddings,” as the English call them, is the milk. (Though rice pudding is common in practically every culture, it plays a part in the English national identity; the newly revised and always delightful Oxford Companion to Food defends the puddings with a hurt pride, noting that it is “fashionable in some circles to despise milk puddings.”) Whole milk gives the full butterscotch flavor, and in my tests, it set faster.
Stir the pudding every half hour for two hours, to keep the rice (and raisins) evenly distributed. If you’ve used a vanilla bean, remove it before the last stirring—and if you love vanilla, scrape out the softened seeds and stir them back into the pudding. If you’re using vanilla extract, add a half or a full teaspoon at the last stirring. This is also the time to add nutmeg, if you like—a quarter to a half teaspoon, preferably freshly grated. Cinnamon isn’t traditional or even very good (I find it overpowering), and is best saved for a final dusting.
The total cooking time is three to three and a half hours, and if you forget one of the stirrings, it won’t matter much. The crust should be golden with a few browned dots (start checking it at two and a half hours). Don’t worry if the liquid moves when you tilt the pan, because the pudding will thicken as it stands. It might take several hours, but once the rice has absorbed almost all the warm milk, the pudding will have a creamy texture that could make even a diner owner proud.
If impatient mothers didn’t make stovetop pudding, they likely used the method spelled out in earlier editions of The Joy of Cooking, as my mother did. (She used the 1951 edition, which I consulted. For reference, I always have at hand the 1975, the last original, and the 1997, the completely rewritten, editions; the just-published edition is an odd amalgam of them all.) One reason long-baked pudding might have fallen out of fashion is that nearly everyone in the 1950s and ’60s bought parboiled long-grain rice, like Uncle Ben’s, which has already gelatinized and won’t absorb enough milk to soften if added raw. This pudding starts with cooked rice, and uses eggs to guarantee a firm, quick set. It takes about an hour and a quarter start to finish, and it gives me a chance to repeat the method for perfect rice I once developed after a rice-cooking marathon.
Here it is: Bring 1 1/2 cups of water and 1/4 teaspoon of salt to a boil. Stir in 1/2 cup of long-grain rice. Cover closely and simmer over very low heat for twelve minutes. Don’t peek. Turn the burner off and let the rice sit for five to seven minutes. Now, open the pot, and you’ll find beautifully steamed rice. (Actually, you’ll find very moist rice, better for pudding; to serve on its own, use 1 cup of rice to 1 3/4 cups of water.) Measure out 2 cups and set aside any remaining rice.
Heat the oven to 325 degrees and butter the glass pan. In a bowl, combine 1 1/3 cups of milk, 2 large eggs, 1/4 cup white or 6 tablespoons lightly packed brown sugar, and 1/8 teaspoon of salt, then beat or whisk until blended. Add the rice, stir lightly with a fork, and pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Stir in 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Bake for about fifty minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out mostly clean. Since the rice will absorb more liquid and harden in the refrigerator after a day or so, the pudding need not be completely firm—but it shouldn’t slosh in the center, either. The time in the oven is too short to form a delicious skin; expect a light gold with white sugar, or more nicely dark, if you use brown.
Rice pudding is good warm or cool, and open to every sort of flavor addition, as the Turks, who have entire pudding parlors, and the Indians and the Chinese, among others, know. We in New England like rice pudding with maple syrup, of course, and eat it for breakfast. But freshly whipped cream goes awfully well, too, folded in or served on top. And although leftovers can be warmed in the microwave or on the stove with a bit of milk to soften the rice, the best way to eat rice pudding may well be straight from the refrigerator at midnight.