Thursday, 30 April 2009

Riz au Lait (Rice Pudding)

For a nation which stakes such pride in its butter and cheese, the French take a strangely indifferent attitude towards milk. The supermarkets ostensibly offer some choice, but sterilized UHT* milk, stacked in six-pack cartons alongside the bottled water, makes up 95.5% of total consumption, both domestic and commercial. Although long-life milk is cheaper and more readily available than fresh, it’s not marketed as an economy product and is as likely to top-up the coffee served at the chic Cafe Beaubourg as one in the grungy bar next to my apartment.

Nor do the French see milk as a marginal part of their daily diets. While they may have less of a breakfast cereal culture than either Americans or Brits, I would guess that in a great many households a bowl of muesli—or even corn flakes—with milk has overtaken the croissant. In the mornings, at least, a cafe crème (like a cappuccino) or cafe au lait is very popular. And béchamel (white) sauce is a staple ingredient in filled crepes, gratins, and the ubiquitous cheese and ham sandwich, croque monsieur.

Though my one-time status as a skim milk-user probably undermines my credibility, I nonetheless find UHT milk bland and a bit off-putting. But as the only milk available in small quantities, it’s what I usually bring home when the (rare) need arises—usually for hot chocolate. So when I happened to come across not just farm-fresh, but raw, unpasteurised milk, this past weekend, I was excited in principle, but dubious as to whether I’d either be able to finish it or to appreciate it fully. I briefly considered butter-making, but couldn’t justify it as anything more than an experiment. (After all, Bordier, reputedly the best butter in France, is available just down the road.) The same was true of crème fraiche. Cottage cheese was another option, but eating it has always felt like a chore. I eventually settled on rice pudding (riz au lait), something I’ve loved ever since I ate it at a New Jersey diner in the early 80s.

It can be found dressed-up with all sorts of flavourings and toppings, but riz au lait is generally considered to be a homely, grandmotherly sort of dish, one which old-fashioned bistros serve out of a big bowl, sometimes with a bit of jam or compote. I retained tradition by using a vanilla bean, currants and a big bowl—just for me.

Riz au lait (adapted from Cooks’ Illustrated)

The ever-fastidious CI recommends using medium-grain rice, starting the rice cooking in water and then, when it’s mostly absorbed, adding a mixture of cream and milk. I made the pudding with a medium-grain paella rice and started it off in water, but ignored the cream recommendation. The result was just rich and thick enough, and had the extra benefit of not being too sweet. All the better for breakfast.

Total time: 1 hour-1 hour 15 minutes
Active time: just a few minutes, though be nearby for regular stirring
Serves 3-4

½ cup medium grain rice
pinch salt
2 ½ cups whole milk, plus a bit more for reheating
1/3 cup sugar (though they recommended white, I used granulated light brown, the only thing I had)
½ vanilla pod
small handful moist currants or raisins

Bring 1 cup water to boil in large, heavy pot. Stir in rice. Add salt. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring once or twice until water is almost fully absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Add milk, sugar, vanilla and currants. Raise heat to return to a simmer, then reduce to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring frequently, until mixture starts to thicken, about 30 minutes. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook, stirring every couple of minutes to prevent sticking and scorching, until a spoon is just able to stand up in the pudding, about 15 minutes longer.

*Ultra high temperature or ultra heat treated

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know that I've ever met a rice pudding that I didn't like. Will definitely try this one soon!