In Search of Rice Pudding


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

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I'm just going to say it: I object to the trendification of rice pudding. Can't we all agree that this thick, white, lumpy dessert is far from glamorous? When I think of rice pudding, I think of grandmas, and that watery plastic-cupped supermarket stuff, and Oliver Twist. But rice pudding doesn't just belong to Dickensian England: it can be found across the globe, burbling quietly as arroz con leche in Peru, or as Grjónagrautur in Iceland. Seems to me the Icelanders may have found an onomatopoeia for the glop-glop of rice pudding on the stove.

My search to find the best rice pudding in New York was fueled, fittingly, by nostalgia. (Cue milky flashback.) It all started on a little farm outside of Bordeaux, where we ran a twice weekly organic stand at the farmer's market. I was la petite fille américaine, there through the WWOOFing program (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) to help out in the kitchen and reassure my hosts that not all Americans like McDonald's. Every Monday, Flo-Flo from the dairy next door would bring in a huge tub of raw milk, muttering about its weight and sloshing the frothy stuff all over the floor. We would simmer it in a tall pot all morning, adding a few wizened black vanilla beans and a large shovel of sugar once the milk was hot. Then, after the morning chores were finished, we'd pour a pile of rice in to the milk and stir it every once in a while to prevent a skin from forming. Later in the afternoon, we'd set up a tray of little glass jars, line each one with a layer of golden caramel hot from the stove, and spoon in the pillowy rice. Riz au lait in its purest, most angelic form.

That first rice pudding has always seemed un-recreatable: there are no cows next door to me in Brooklyn, and I am not sure if those little glass yogurt pots exist outside of France. However, that hasn't stopped my rice pudding quest. I have tried Thai versions with coconut milk, and Armenian puddings fragrant with orange flower water, but they're not what I'm looking for. The Mom's Rice Pudding ($6) at Angelo and Maxie's Steakhouse seemed promisingly dowdy and simple, but the pudding wore a gritty cap of cinnamon, nutmeg, and candied orange bits, and its texture had been over-thickened with heavy cream. I scoured farmer's markets for Ronnybrook Dairy rice pudding, but it seems to have been retired without even a collector's issue.

Rice to Riches, with its quivering heaps of Sex Drugs and Rocky Road and Hazelnut Chocolate Bear Hug, didn't satisfy my cravings. Rice pudding isn't supposed to be sexy, and the web site's rice-themed animation videos struck me as inappropriate, like a grandmother in stilettos singing Britney karaoke.

I stumbled upon my perfect rice pudding by accident, in a small restaurant called Bombay Grill, where it is served in a tiny dish after the meal. It was milky and cold, with broken rice and an honest, delicate sweetness. The chef makes his rice pudding as we did in France, with no fancy fixings, not even exact measurements. I have approximated his hand gestures and transcribed them. Don't worry about its simplicity: it really tastes best with less. Start with more milk than seems necessary: it reduces as the rice swells, and you don't want the milk to get too thick when the rice is still undercooked and crunchy.

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