Friday, February 13, 2009

One bean, glory

Maybe I should start off this post by saying that I was never really a fan of rice pudding.

Bread pudding? Now, that's something I can get behind. My dad makes the most marvelous (and enormous!) version based on a recipe in the Joy of Cooking that will feed a family of five, even one with appetites as big as mine, for days on end.

But rice pudding always seemed kind of odd, and the texture ran to gummy the few times I did try a bite. I don't know, I just never understood the appeal.

Some of my earliest memories of the stuff involve a certain Indian buffet that my family frequented fairly regularly growing up. It was next door to the music shop where my sisters and I had our piano lessons, but since lessons were right after school and my family never ate before 8:30 at the earliest (and yes, that did make it hard to have friends over for dinner), it wasn't optimal eating time. So whenever we had a craving for Indian, we'd trek all the way across town, a good 30 minutes away, to gorge ourselves on naan and dals galore.

No matter how full we were after the meal, we always found a little room somewhere for dessert. I only had eyes for the gulab jamun, but my mom always went for the rice pudding that was sitting, a little sadly and dejectedly, behind my sugar syrup doused favorite.

Any time rice pudding has been on a menu, which hasn't been that frequently, come to think of it, I inevitably choose something else. I don't know, the stuff seems so creamy (I don't do well with creamy), so vanilla...a bit too plain jane, if you know what I mean.

But, as always happens when a certain food blogger is around, I found myself craving something I'd never before given a second thought.

And of course, yet again, whatever the lady touches turns to gold and I now have another dessert to moon and moan over.

The process is very easy. Just throw the rice and some salt in a pot with water, allow it to absorb, then dump in cream, milk, sugar and vanilla. Leave the whole lot alone for about half an hour and you have the most un-boring vanilla dessert imaginable.

I think it all comes down to the use of a vanilla bean, myself. I'd never before sprung for one, but I saw immediately that without it, the pudding wasn't going to be worth its salt for a formerly ambivalent rice pudding eater such as myself. The bean infuses the whole mess with an incredibly intense vanilla flavor. Plus the little black specks make the nearly overwhelming whiteness of the dessert much more interesting visually.

I realize that vanilla beans are viewed as being costly, and they are if you buy them one at a time in a glass jar at your grocery store. However, if you look around online, I guarantee you can get a much better price. A simple Google search for vanilla bean landed me three different online purveyors with reasonable prices.

Vanilla Bean Rice Pudding
Adapted from Molly Wizenberg
Bon Appetit, March 2009

1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup long-grain rice (I used jasmine, Molly calls for basmati)
1/4 tsp. salt
3 cups whole milk (I'd bet you could sub in 2% here to lighten it a bit)
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean

Put the water, rice and salt into a heavy large saucepan (make it large or it will bubble over on you later!) and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Turn the heat down to low and cover. Simmer until water is absorbed, 9-11 minutes.

Add the milk, cream and sugar to the pot and stir. Cut the vanilla bean in half and save the other half for another use. Split the half you're using lengthwise, then use the tip of your knife to scrape the seeds from the inside of the pod into your rice mixture. Toss in the now-empty bean and increase the heat to medium.

Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until rice is tender and the whole mixture has thickened to a creamy texture (it should look like most of the milk and cream has been absorbed), about 30-35 minutes.

Remove the pudding from heat and discard the vanilla bean. Chill pudding thoroughly overnight (my favorite way to have it, but you can try it warm as well).

Serves 6-8.

Note: You can grate some nutmeg over the top for another traditional, and I was itching to throw some cardamom in. I'll try that next time, I think, though I love the purity of that gorgeous vanilla bean. Play with it and adjust to your tastes!

P.S. Apparently, rice pudding is on the minds of many this time of year.

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