Dump the milk, rice, salt, and split vanilla bean into a large, heavy saucepan (if you're using vanilla extract, don't add it yet). Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Uncover and continue simmering, stirring frequently, until the rice is tender and the pudding is reduced to about 3-1/2 cups, about 8 minutes. It's important to let the pudding simmer gently, not boil, and you'll need to stir constantly toward the end of cooking to prevent scorching.
In a medium bowl, whisk the egg yolks, sugar, and vanilla extract (if using). Slowly add the cooked rice mixture, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, making sure to scrape the bowl. Set the pan over medium-low heat and cook, stirring and scraping the sides and bottom of the pan constantly with a wooden spoon, until the mixture has thickened and coats the back of the spoon, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the pudding to a bowl or serving dish and lay a sheet of plastic wrap right on the pudding's surface to prevent a skin from forming. If you've used a vanilla bean, fish it out when the pudding has cooled, scrape out the seeds, and stir the scrapings into the pudding. Discard the empty bean. Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.
Swedish-Style Rice Pudding: Whip 3/4 cup cold heavy cream until it forms medium-firm peaks. Gently fold it into a batch of the chilled rice pudding.
Raspberry Parfait Rice Pudding: In four small wineglasses or parfait cups, alternately layer the 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.)
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 three 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 minutes. Serve immediately with Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce.
nutrition information (per serving):
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Photo: Scott Phillips