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.
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.
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.