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Making the Creamiest Rice Pudding

Milk—not cream—makes a silky pudding, and ingredients like coffee, caramel, ginger—even coconut—add exciting variety

"Until you've made this a few times, measuring is the best way to make sure the milk and rice are cooked to the right degree," says Abby Dodge.

by Abigail Johnson Dodge

fromFine Cooking
Issue 43

Creamy, vanilla-scented, soothing, and satisfying, rice pudding is one of my all-time-favorite comfort foods. And I know I'm not alone. Just the mention of rice pudding elicits more "oohs," "mmms," and "aaahs" than other desserts seem to. (When I was testing recipes for this story, quite a few more neighbors than usual offered to come take the leftovers off my hands.)

Yet rice pudding can be downright awful when not made the right way. I have a few tricks for getting the creamiest results, including using medium-grain rice, milk (not cream), and a two-step stovetop cooking method where you cook the rice in milk and then stir in eggs to make a custard. After you've tried my Classic Rice Pudding, use it as the springboard for delicious variations (see below). Try the Ginger Crème Caramel Rice Pudding and Baked Brown Rice Pudding, too. While keeping silky consistency and creamy flavor as their trademarks, they each offer a tasty departure from the traditional.

Eggs add rich flavor and custardy texture

The ingredients in rice pudding are simple ones, but a few important choices ensure the best outcome. Medium-grain rice throws off the right amount of starch to thicken the pudding and make it creamy. At the same time, it stays tender through the cooking without breaking apart, which keeps the pudding from turning mushy. I've tried long-grain rice, but it doesn't stay intact and is less starchy, so the finished pudding is less creamy. Arborio and other short-grain rices, which are even starchier than medium grain, make a thick, sticky pudding and maintain too firm a bite for a smooth, tender result.

Creamy pudding needs slow, gentle cooking so the rice is tender and the milk is reduced.

For a luscious pudding, I prefer milk rather than cream, oddly enough. The combination of the rice starch and gently simmered milk produces a thick, rich rice pudding that belies its not-so-rich milk base. I avoid cream because it reduces and thickens before the rice cooks through—a dense, chewy pudding with a fatty mouth-feel being the result. The only exception is the Baked Brown Rice Pudding, where a combination of heavy cream and evaporated milk gives the smoothest texture (brown rice needs longer baking, which would cause the milk to break, with a curdled, watery result).

Not all rice puddings are custard based, of course, but I like the added richness of stirring in beaten egg yolks after the rice is tender. The pudding color changes from bright white to mellow yellow, while the eggs add luxurious texture and deeper flavor.

Rice pudding needs low heat in both stages of cooking.

When cooking the rice and milk, simmer gently until the rice is tender and the milk is reduced. For the classic recipe, the mixture should measure 3-1/2 cups before you add the eggs. This measuring step might seem cumbersome, but it's the best way to ensure fluid texture (at least until you've tried it a few times and you're familiar with the cooked rice's final consistency). If you find that you've cooked the rice down to less than 3-1/2 cups, add a little milk to make up the difference. The mixture may look a little soupy, but don't worry: the pudding tightens as it cools, and if you let the milk and rice cook down any further, the pudding will be gloppy and stiff after cooling. (If you've ever made risotto and noticed how much stock it drinks up toward the end of cooking and as it sits, you'll know what I mean.) The Baked Brown Rice Pudding, too, may look a little loose when you pull it out of the oven, but the pudding firms up as it cools.

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    Stop to measure. The cooked-down milk and rice should total 3-1/2 cups.
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    Add the egg yolks and then cook briefly and gently. The pudding is done when it coats the back of a spoon.

After adding the egg yolks, simmer gently so you don't curdle the custard. You'll do this by returning the mixture to the heat right after the yolks go in and by cooking it gently for about two minutes, just until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Thickening can happen quickly, so keep watch to make sure you don't reduce the pudding too much or cook it on too high a heat, scrambling the eggs.

Fortunately, it's easy to loosen up rice pudding that may come out too stiff despite all your precautions. If you've already added the eggs and the pudding isn't quite fluid enough after being cooled, add just enough cream so the pudding is looser, as you'd loosen risotto by stirring in a bit more stock right before serving.

Variations on classic rice pudding

These variations are all based on the Classic Rice Pudding recipe. All serve four.

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    Thai-Style Rice Pudding
    Substitute one 14-oz. can of coconut milk for 2 cups of the whole milk. Omit the vanilla bean and substitute 1/4 tsp. coconut extract and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract. Garnish with shredded toasted coconut and sliced fresh mango.
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    Swedish-Style Rice Pudding
    Whip 3/4 cup cold heavy cream until it forms medium-firm peaks. Gently fold it into a batch of chilled rice pudding.
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    Coffee Rice Pudding
    Add 2 tsp. instant espresso powder to the pudding at the same time you add the vanilla extract, and proceed with the recipe as directed. Serve with a dollop of whipped cream and either a crisp chocolate cookie or shaved chocolate.
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    Raspberry Parfait Rice Pudding
    In four small wineglasses or parfait cups, alternately layer chilled rice pudding and fresh raspberries, starting with the pudding and finishing with a few raspberries. (For a special touch, garnish with a nasturtium or another edible flower.)
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    Rice Pudding Soufflé
    Heat the oven to 400°F. Butter the bottom and sides of a shallow 2-qt. baking dish; dust with sugar. Whip the whites of 3 large eggs until foamy. Continue to beat on high speed while gradually adding 2 Tbs. sugar. Beat the whites until they form medium-firm peaks. Gently fold the whites into a well-chilled batch of rice pudding. Spoon into the prepared dish; bake until puffed and golden, 25 to 30 min. Serve immediately with your favorite bittersweet chocolate sauce.

Photos: Scott Phillips


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