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Rice Pudding + Cold Afternoons

[On the table this morning, January 2011.]

Sunday afternoon post-pint (a Smithwick’s), I made rice pudding. And you know, I don’t really love rice pudding. I mean, I don’t mind it, though I definitely wouldn’t call it one of my Favorite Things. But when someone gets excited about a particular dish — in this case, my bf — especially one that’s pretty easy to make, I can’t not do it. I love to cook, sure, but even more I love to feed. I just have to cross fingers that none of my beloveds ever asks me to make something such as, say, homemade ravioli (having no pasta maker would make it a bit difficult to create from scratch), or a complicated, hours-long casserole requiring meticulous chopping. (Though, err, didn’t I make a wedding cake last summer?) Otherwise it’s all fair game.

An item about this rice pudding: it came about because I was reading Red Sky at Night (the Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom), by Jane Struthers. An unexpected find, this is the kind of book you didn’t know about but always needed (chapters include How to Navigate By the Stars; How to Find Your True Love — note, ladies, on Christmas Eve silently bake a tiny barley cake and he will come into the house at midnight; How to Prepare a Proper Tea); it’s the kind of book that as I perused it in the pub — with one eye on the Eagles game, though ahem I am not really a football person — I thought of at least three people to whom I must give it.

Anyway, of course there’s a whole section devoted to food, including how to make such wonderful things as a Ploughman’s Lunch (did you know — as I did not — that the Lunch actually originated in the 1960s? It seems such an old-timey thing. Though if you live in the Bay Area, why, you’ll never need to make a Ploughman’s Lunch yourself when you can simply hightail it over to the Pelican Inn for one of the best you’ll ever eat.), Christmas cake, and rice pudding. Obviously this book was written by a Britishwoman, and has a decidedly English slant. This obviously means I love it. I wanted to make almost everything. Immediately.

But her rice pudding recipe unfortunately seemed off: It called for just three tablespoons of rice and a pint of milk — this was supposed to feed 2-4 people. Perhaps there was a typo? Still, it was too late to turn back and I was clear on what the rest of my afternoon would involve. And what better way to procrastinate on a deadline than by doing a bit of cooking?

I dredged up an old rice pudding recipe from the depths of memory (the last one I made — and I remember this quite clearly — was on a snowy, frigid mid-winter night years ago in Washington. I’d spent the afternoon sledding and tromping around in the very welcomed piles of snow in Rock Creek park with some friends, and later invited them over for an Indian-inspired feast after we’d all warmed and dried ourselves off. I think I made some sort of cauliflower-cashew dish, probably a curry, and a big pot of coconut-rice pudding infused with lemon oil.) and assessed what kind of ingredients I had on hand. The great thing about rice pudding is that you don’t need much, which was fortunate because I only had access to

brown Basmati rice
milk, both whole and reduced fat
brown sugar
vanilla extract

And not too much else.

But rice pudding is fairly uncomplicated. I think most are made with white rice, but brown worked just fine here and actually I think I prefer it as it’s a bit chewier and also made me feel ‘healthier’ because it’s a whole grain. I added some tangerine zest because there was a bowl of them on the table, and a little bit of extra vanilla just because. You can eat rice pudding hot or cold — most people, I think, prefer it cold — but I like it warm, when it’s just congealing into a porridge-y mass, though not hot.

It’s been cold in San Francisco, clear and bright. I have no complaints, but it’s a change from the usual 50-60 degree constant that marks this city year-round, give or take the occasional 80+ ‘heat-wave’ days a few times a year. So I’ve dug out my deliciously cozy cashmere gloves, am wearing my old winter coat from the East Coast days, and am trying to keep my toes warm with extra wool socks. A bowl of warm rice pudding slipped down mighty easy on Sunday afternoon as I tucked my feet under me while reading the paper (and YES, did some research for an article). I almost didn’t mind the chill.

If you try this recipe, experiment. Add some almond extract or sprinkle bowls just before serving with toasted pistachios or crushed walnuts; swap a cup of coconut milk for the milk, or make it totally vegan with soy milk (or a mix of coconut-soy). I still don’t love rice pudding, but I think I’m coming around. It seems like the perfect thing for cool winter evenings: simple comfort for these darker days of the season. I’m happily digging in.

Rice Pudding, from all over, with my adaptions

1 cup brown basmati rice
2 cups water
1/4 tsp. salt
4 cups whole milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
2 tb. butter

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the rice, water, and salt. Place over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer gently until the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Add the milk and sugar, and stir to mix. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring frequently, until the rice and milk have come together into a kind of creamy porridge.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the vanilla, nutmeg, and butter. Stir well until butter is melted. Scoop the pudding into a serving bowl or individual cups, and press a sheet of plastic wrap against its surface to prevent a skin from forming. Chill.

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