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

May 20, 1998|By Kim Pierce | Kim Pierce,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

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.

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