It is difficult for me to decide which of these 3 components should be the leading star of this dessert just as it is hard for me to decide which of my 3 current favourite actors I would like nothing more than to have a cuddle with.
I simply adore rice pudding but not the sort you get in tins under the name "creamed rice" nor the type served in a large bain-marie at some hotel buffet looking all sad and remorseful at the end of the evening because it hasn't been too popular (surprise, surprise). I am no rice pud snob though as I have been known to tuck into little plastic tubs of Le Rice when I get a snack attack but they cannot be compared to the real McCoy, can they?
Rice pudding has a somewhat romantic history dating back to the Middle Ages. Every culture has a different take on this classic but the recipes always include milk, a sweetener, an aromat, maybe even nuts and fruit. Oh! and rice of course which is THE integral part of the pud.
The first rice pudding I ever made involved partially cooking the rice on the stove then completing it in a moderate oven with the custard base. It was a very old-fashioned recipe I dug out from some English cookbook. Maybe it was the anticipation and the mouth-watering photograph featured with the recipe but no words could describe how anticlimactic the whole experience quickly became for me. The rice grains were chalky in the middle and sat in a swamp of scrambled eggy mess. I mean, wasn't the rice meant to finish in a thick creamy custard like in the photo?! It took me a while to get over this unfortunate incident.
Thankfully, over the years, I have learnt to make an almost perfect rice pudding. The secret, I believe, is in the type of rice you choose. I have experimented with several varietals and finally settled on a pearly-white Japanese grain which is shorter than that of Calrose, Vialone Nano, Arborio and Carnaroli. When cooked, the grains plump up dramatically, become very aromatic and has the most satisfying glutinous bite. Also, the rice contains enough starch to thicken the milk to a velvety finish so there is no need for the addition of eggs or cornstarch as some dated recipes call for.
Look, I realise some modern recipes for rice pudding do prescribe to the risotto method of preparation and if you feel inclined, then do so by all means but really, my method is far simpler and the results are just as good - if not better.
Simply rain rice into scalded semi-skimmed milk perfumed with vanilla, grated orange rind and a crushed cardamom pod, gently sweetened with a minimum amount of sugar, then bring to a boil before covering and placing into a moderate oven to cook for 18 minutes and no more! Remove from the oven and give the rice a good stir and allow to cool. I have opted for semi-skimmed milk instead of whole milk because softly whipped cream is gently folded through the cooked rice after it has cooled. This not only gives it body but also a light creaminess.
The rice pudding is delicious as it is with a sprinkling of pistachio nuts for added crunch but I decided to take it up a notch serving it with some precious jewel-like cumquats (I preserved a fortnight ago as a condiment for a future savoury project). But why stop there, when warm dark chocolate sauce finishes this humble pud with a dreamy voluptuousness. Mmm...