Universal comfort: rice pudding Dessert: In countries as diverse as Thailand, Mexico, Cuba, France, Italy and India, the treat is richly savored.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Just one spoonful of rice pudding takes Sheena Kadam back to her English childhood, when the sweet, creamy dessert was served almost weekly at school and nearly as often at home.

You can hear the nostalgia in her voice as she describes helping her mother stir it on the stove. She tells of her earliest food memory ' eating rice and cream.

"It's the ultimate comfort food," she says.

But Brits aren't the only ones who are passionate about rice pudding (though they may be more passionate than most). In countries as diverse as Thailand, Mexico, Cuba, France, Italy and India, it is savored by rich and poor, old and young, in sickness and in health, on low occasions and high.

"Rice pudding can also be sophisticated," says Deborah Madison, author of "The Greens Cookbook" (Bantam, 1987). In "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" (Broadway Books, $35), she makes a version with arborio rice, the same Italian short grain that gives risotto its creaminess.

In so doing, she avoids one of the pitfalls of the richest, creamiest rice puddings: loads of calories and fat grams that build up anytime you cook down sweetened milk or cream to its essence. Using reduced-fat milk is a way to mitigate this with surprisingly good results.

"Rice pudding is imminently likable, just the way mashed potatoes are," Madison says.

And perfection is nearly as widely debated. Short grain, medium grain and long grain are all the perfect rice and the worst rice, depending on whom you talk to. The best rice pudding is baked, according to one camp. But no, it must be slow-cooked on the stove, swears another. And thereis the raisin issue.

Italians make a "black" rice pudding with arborio, chocolate and coffee. But black rice pudding in Thailand starts with a simple medium-grain black rice.

An exercise in restraint, Thai rice pudding is almost the antithesis of the sweet, goopy stuff that makes Englishmen swoon.

Long vs. short

"I think the long grain is good for the long [cooking] methods," Madison says. But short grain, she says, is not.

"Simmering a long time in milk and baking in the oven, I think the arborio and short-grain rice makes a little too much starch." For quicker cooking methods, though, short-grain rices can be better.

But the dark purple or black rice of Thailand's pudding breaks down and yields its starch only after hours of cooking and stirring.

The type of rice is unimportant to Kadam. "I use any rice that I can find," says the rice-puddingaholic. "I've even used brown rice." She has also used other grains such as barley, and even macaroni ' both of which are not unusual in English "rice" puddings.

She did not mention converted or parboiled rice. Because it is, in effect, precooked, it doesn't take up the milk as well as other rices. A handful of rice puddings do start with cooked rice for the sake of speed; they rarely achieve rice pudding greatness.

Kheer, as Indian rice pudding is called on American restaurant menus, is not a rice pudding in India at all.

"Kheer is more of a gourmet dessert, made with very fine vermicelli [pasta]," Kadam says. "If you're going to make an Indian meal, you don't want to serve rice as a grain and a dessert."

In northern India, true rice pudding, or firni, is made with ground rice, she says. "It makes a completely different consistency, more like a set rice pudding."

Oven vs. stove

Kadam is equally adaptable when it comes to cooking rice pudding. "I can either make it in the oven and slow-cook it," she says, "or I'm going to be completely modern and make it in the microwave."

In India, she says, rice pudding and kheer are cooked on the stove top because most people don't have ovens. But in England, she says, oven-baking is the preferred method, "where people like a very rich, almost sticky pudding. They'll even serve a bit of extra cream on the side."

Either method produces a creamy pudding, as the milk is both reduced in volume and absorbed into the rice.

"The nice thing about baking is you do get that golden crust," Madison says. "I don't do the long-term baking kind partly because I don't want to heat up the entire oven to bake one dish. I tend to stir on top of the stove."

Thai rice pudding can be boiled in water or steamed in a bamboo pot. Steaming yields a molded sticky rice pudding. Made with sugar and coconut milk, it's served as dessert.

The more glutinous, almost soupy black rice pudding is traditionally boiled with young coconut meat and taro root and served with a drizzle of coconut milk or cream.

At its most basic, rice pudding is no more than rice cooked in sweetened milk or water.

The oldest recipes, at least in the European tradition, according to Kadam, were made with water, honey and almonds; the latter is still a popular ingredient. In England, the dish dates to at least the 14th century, she says, and probably comes from India.

She suspects adding raisins also has Indian roots.

Whether to add them ' or other dried fruits such as cherries ' is highly debatable today. Some people love raisins. Some people think they look like bugs.

"I like raisins when they're cooked," Madison says. "When I was a kid, we would beg to have our rice in bowls with butter and raisins with a little milk and sugar."

Raisins or no, the Indian influence shows up in one of the earliest American cookbooks, published in 1796: Amelia Simmons' recipe called for rice, cinnamon, milk, nutmeg, rose water and eggs.

Today, most Indian versions include cloves, cinnamon, cardamom and rose water, Kadam says, often with coconut or chopped pistachios on top.

"No matter how you cook it, rice is so uniquely delicate that you don't need to load it up with a lot of flavors," Madison says. "If you can restrain yourself."

Stove-top Rice Pudding

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 cup medium- or long-grain rice or 3/4 cup arborio rice

2 1/2 cups water

L 1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick or vanilla bean, halved lengthwise

1 tablespoon orange zest

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 cups milk

1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar or honey to taste

ground cinnamon

In a small saucepan, simmer the rice in the water with the cinnamon, zest and salt until liquid is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the milk and stir in the sugar, starting with the smaller amount. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened but still a little soupy, about 30 minutes. Taste for sweetness, discard cinnamon stick and add more sugar or honey if desired. Serve warm or chilled with a dash of cinnamon on top.

Per serving: 285 calories (16 percent fat), 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no fiber, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 181 milligrams sodium, 53 grams carbohydrate, 191 milligrams calcium

- From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone"

Slow Rice Pudding

Makes 8 servings

1 quart milk

3/4 cup short- or medium-grain rice

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 1 1/2-quart baking dish.

In a 1-quart saucepan, scald the milk. In the baking dish, stir together the milk and remaining ingredients. Bake for 2 to 2 1/4 hours, stirring once after the first half-hour.

When the rice is tender and all the milk is absorbed, remove to a wire rack to cool to room temperature. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Per serving: 173 calories (27 percent fat), 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no fiber, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 140 milligrams sodium, 27 grams carbohydrate, 157 milligrams calcium

Thai Black Rice Pudding

Makes 4 to 6 servings

1 cup black glutinous rice (see note)

6 cups water

3/4 cup sugar (divided use)

1 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup coconut cream

pinch salt

Rinse the rice and drain. Place the rice in a large saucepan, add the water and heat to boiling. Reduce heat to a slow simmer and cook at least 45 minutes, or until the rice is soft, stirring occasionally.

Add 1/2 cup sugar and coconut milk. Stir well and simmer for 10 minutes more. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, combine the coconut cream, salt and remaining [ cup sugar. Pour a small amount over each serving of hot rice pudding.

Note: Black rice is available at Asian groceries and some natural foods stores. You can speed cooking time by soaking the rice in water for several hours before cooking.

Per serving: 338 calories (50 percent fat), 20 grams fat (15 grams saturated), 1 milligram fiber, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 48 milligrams sodium, 42 grams carbohydrate, 15 milligrams calcium

' From "Thailand the Beautiful Cookbook" (Collins Publishers San Francisco)

Kheer

Makes 4 servings

4 cups milk

2 tablespoons long-grain rice

4 whole cardamom pods, slightly crushed

1 tablespoon sugar

10 pistachio nuts, unsalted and slivered, plus a few more for garnish

Combine milk, rice and cardamom pods in a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and reduce milk until you have 2 cups. This may take as long as an hour and 15 minutes. Turn off heat.

Remove and discard cardamom pods. Add sugar and nuts. Mix well. Allow to cool. Refrigerate. Stir before serving, garnished with additional nuts.

Per serving: 181 calories (44 percent fat), 9 grams fat (5 grams saturated), no fiber, 34 milligrams cholesterol, 120 milligrams sodium, 17 grams carbohydrate, 292 milligrams calcium

' From "An Invitation to Indian Cooking" by Madhur Jaffrey (Vintage Books)

Quick Rice Pudding

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 cup raisins

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons brandy or water

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 cups half-and-half (divided use)

1/2 cup blanched almonds, coarsely chopped

3 cups cooked rice

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon salt

In a microwave-safe casserole, stir together raisins, honey, brandy and cinnamon. Cover and microwave on high (100 percent power) for 1 minute. Let stand for 2 minutes.

Add 1 cup half-and-half, almonds, rice, vanilla and salt; stir to break up rice and blend ingredients. Cover and microwave on high for 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through cooking time. Stir in remaining half-and-half or stir rice pudding and drizzle half-and-half over individual servings.

Per serving: 337 calories (37 percent fat), 15 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 3 milligrams fiber, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 71 milligrams sodium, 46 grams carbohydrate, 120 milligrams calcium

Easiest Rice Pudding

Makes 2 to 3 servings

For rice pudding in a minute, stir 2 cups cooked rice into 1 cup vanilla pudding. Voila! It's rice pudding.

Pub Date: 5/20/98

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