Winter comfort food: simple puddings past and present

January 15th, 2010

January’s brief, snowy white landscape has melted with winter rains, and I spotted a few snowdrops poking through along the walk to lift my spirits.  In these chilly days, the simplest puddings are so comforting, whether made of simmered semolina, cubed day-old bread or poached apples.

Slow-cooking rice smells so good!

But rice rises to the top of my puddings list, especially as north winds whistle around the sloped corners of our Périgordine roof. This moment calls for the tried and true, so I pull out old recipes tucked between tattered edges of my grandmother’s Newell, Iowa church guild cookbook.  I delve into pre-Beeton English recipes, in short:  making rice pudding stirs the historian’s curiosity. It seems that Romans with upset stomachs were given a gruelly rice pudding made with goat’s milk to asuage their discomfort. Rice is easily digestible, a standby for restoring strength to invalids through the centuries.  Cooked in almond milk with a little honey, rice pudding was a noble dish – flavored with saffron – in the Middle Ages. It is likely that both rice and saffron, along with cinnamon were brought back home by returning legions of pilgrims and crusaders. It took on importance as a Lenten dish, in fact it is something of a miracle: a handful of round rice and a liter of milk, cooked slowly, will feed a crowd.

Before launching into actual recipes we might use today, consider an earlier approach, that of John Evelyn, a cook* in Restoration era England. I have adapted the English version to current usage. This follows a description of preparing the intestine casings, as the puddings are stuffed into ‘gutts’, like sausages, and boiled:

“To make rice puddings:  Pick  half pound of rice clean, boil it in 3 quarts of milk till it is tender. Strain it through a colander, stir in ‘a penny’ of grated bread, a pound and half of beef suet shredded very fine. Beat well 16 eggs and 4 egg whites; 2 Nuttmegs, grated, beat a half pint of cream, add a little Rose water and  a pound of sugar, a little musk and Ambergreece. Fill the prepared gutts – but not too full. This quantity will make about 3 dozen double puddings:  boil them quickly.”

His high carbohydrate combination of rice, bread, suet and sugar suited the times when walking many miles and wood chopping were the norm in a day’s work – and finding 20 eggs was evidently no problem.  Every era, every country has set down its own preferred pudding recipes, to the point that one might devote an entire book to the subject. Middle Eastern rice puddings are delicately scented with rose water, Macedonian Lapa is a rice pudding covered with black poppy seeds, while in Hungary Teiberizs is often dusted with cocoa powder and/or cinnamon. Cinnamon is sprinkled through a lacy cloth over Portuguese Arroz doce, a rice pudding seasoned with lemon zest and almonds – never with vanilla, while French Riz au lait à la vanille calls for a vanilla bean steeped in the milk. In Normandy, the traditional Teurgoule is baked for hours in a shallow earthen dish to let a cinnamon-flecked crust form. The same approach to an English slow-baked rice pudding lets a crust form after pouring the hot milk and rice into a buttered baking dish – often made on Mondays while the household wash day claimed the cook’s attention, my English friend recalled.

Then there are the questions of raisins and whether to enrich the pudding with a couple of egg yolks. Some Scandinavians have adapted both, tossing a handful of port-soaked raisins into a Danish bowl of Risengrod, but not into the cold version with whipped cream, Ris à l’amande. You might say every cook has his or her own twist on tradition.  But they all say: start with round rice.  For the long-baked creamiest of puddings, short grained thirsty pudding rice takes its time to soak up all the liquid. Whether your liquid is whole milk, part cream or almond milk, use inexpensive round rice (not Arborio, better suited for savory risottos) – the best out of the 40,000 varieties of rice available in the world. Now, how do you make this picture of simplicity?  One recipe says:

Soak 4 Tablespoons of round rice in water (1 part rice to 8 parts liquid) for 20 minutes. Drain it; preheat the oven to 325°f. Heat 3 cups of whole milk with a split vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan, add 3 Tablespoons light brown sugar or light honey and a pinch of salt along with the soaked and drained rice. Butter a round or oval baking dish. Pour the hot milk/rice mixture into the dish and bake  for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Leave it uncovered if you want a crust to form.  After the first hour, stir in 1/2 cup golden or sweet Smyrna raisins (if you wish), and this is the time to add 2 egg yolks if you wish for color and nourishment. Then scatter flakes of cold butter and 1/4 cup of flaked almonds across the top; sprinkle grated nutmeg and cinnamon over all. Bake another hour or two; the pudding will continue to firm up after baking. Remove from the oven, let cool and serve at room temperature with a dollop of raspberry jam or cherries in a light syrup. Not only comforting, but economically in tune with tight budgets!

A few gift books for 2010 inspiration

*One of  Restoration England’s Renaissance men, John Evelyn was a landscape architect, city planner, author and scholar. Prospect Books, London published John Evelyn, Cook , The Manuscript receipt book of John Evelyn, in 1997. This jewel of a book arrived one day recently, a surprise gift from an English friend.

Note: For more on rice, see   www.foodsubs.com/Rice.html

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