Thursday, December 12, 2013

Mia Culpa Pudding

Rice Pudding Set-up
Rinsed rice and raisins in center; counter-clockwise from 6 o' clock - milk, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, salt, vanilla
Photograph by A. Schloss
Among cookbook writers Julia Child is known less for dropping chickens than by her rule for judging cookbooks -"A cookbook is only as good as its poorest recipe." So when one of my most devoted recipe followers (and the designer of this blog) , Denise Avayou, called me last week to tell me that the recipe for Slow-Baked Rice Pudding (page 195) in Cooking Slow didn't work for her, my heart sank. Even though Denise was sure that something was wrong with her oven and that the problem was because she used 2% milk rather than the whole milk the recipe called for, anyone who knows me would not be surprised by my self- deprecating reaction. I take my recipe writing responsibilities seriously and my Mom had raised me on the mantra, "As long as you feel guilty that's all that matters," so involuntary heart-sickness is mother's milk to me. 

Whenever I learn that one of my recipes yields less than stellar results I am thrown off balance. I test everything I send into print and I'm a pretty harsh critic. When Denise said that the custard wasn't set after 4 hours in the oven I could chalk it up to a faulty oven thermostat, but when she said the pudding was starchy and separated I knew I had no choice but to get back into the kitchen for more testing. 

Long Grain White
Short Grain Brown
My first guess was that I had called for the wrong rice. I use medium- and short-grain rice for puddings, because they contain both more starch than long-grain rice for better thickening, and because the quality of their starch is smooth and creamy. In Cooking Slow I had recommended Arborio rice, largely because it is the most readily available short-grain variety and because it is very dependable in quality. But perhaps for slow baking the starchiness of some Arborio rices is too much. Maybe all those sedentary hours at 200°F make some Arborio rices impenetrable rather than soft and yielding. I decided to retest using three different rices - a fresh batch of Arborio, some short-grain brown rice, and a sample with regular long-grain white rice.  

Incorporating warm milk into beaten eggs and sugar
Photograph by A. Schloss
I employed the identical process for all three batches, but the results were anything but consistent. The retest of the original pudding worked fine. After the 4 hours at 200°F proscribed in the recipe it was perfectly set, a knife inserted into its center came out clean and its internal temperature was just about 185°F. As expected the rice had sunk to the bottom of the pudding mold. After cooling I followed the recipe directions and stirred the custard layer incorporating it with the rice at the bottom, and found that getting the rice evenly dispersed was difficult. I'd call the results clumpy, and that's the quality I suspect Denise found unpleasant. I don't. I like those soft starchy globs of rice surrounded by creamy custard. I decided that long-grain rice might suit Denise's taste better. 

Layers of Pudding and Rice
Photograph by A. Schloss
For the most part it did, but I didn't like it better. The pudding baked perfectly. The rice was settled at the bottom of the mold, and when mixed after cooling the results were more homogenous, but not as creamy. There is something about those soft curds of Arborio that I prefer. Like Denise, you may not, which is why I print the recipe here with a few changes. If you don't approve I can assure you I feel guilty, which, as my mother insisted, is all that matters.

Note: The pudding made with short-grain brown rice, even with an extra hour of baking at a higher temperature, never set. My suspicion is that the rice bran surrounding each grain of rice is simply too tough to soften in such a gentle cooking method. 

Mia Culpa Rice Pudding

Slow-Baked Arborio Rice Pudding
Photograph by A. Schloss

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1/2 cup/100 g long-grain white rice (or Arborio rice)
1/3 cup/55 g golden raisins
1 tsp unsalted butter
1 qt/960 ml whole dairy milk or rice milk
3/4 cup/150 g sugar
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 large eggs
Pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 200°F/95°C. Butter the interior of a 1 1/2 qt/1.4 l souffle dish or pudding mold. Rinse the rice in a strainer just enough to moisten. Put the rinsed rice and raisins in the buttered mold, and set aside.

Heat the milk, half the sugar, and the cinnamon in a medium saucepan over medium heat, until bubbles form around the edge of the milk, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile beat the eggs, remaining sugar, salt, and vanilla extract in a medium mixing bowl until well combined. Slowly pour 1/3 of the hot milk mixture into the eggs, stirring constantly. Continue to add the milk in thirds until everything is blended. Pour into the mold and stir to moisten the rice.

Cover the top with heavy-duty foil and crimp the edges tightly. Bake until barely set, about 4 hours. When done a knife inserted in the center should come out clean and the internal temperature should read between 180 and 190°F/82 and 88°C on an instant-read thermometer. 

Remove from the oven and cool until just warm. When cool, stir the pudding with a fork incorporating the creamy custard on top with the more solid rice on the bottom. Don't worry if there are a few clumps.

Serve immediately or store tightly covered in a refrigerator for up to 2 days. Serve chilled or a little cooler than room temperature.  
Slow-Baked Rice Pudding
served with Cookulus Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
Photograph by A. Schloss


  1. Interesting, I think stirring the pudding intermittently while it cooks might solve the problem of clumpiness

  2. I had the same thought, and tried it. The problem is that the custard sets so gradually in the low oven that it doesn't really become viscous enough to keep the rice suspended until very near the end of the baking time. Stirring the custard after it sets and while it is still warm makes it break.

  3. This pudding looks pretty good. I always find myself craving for deserts after dinner; will definitely try this out in the next few days.

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