“What is the matter with Mary Jane?” is the refrain of A.A. Milne’s classic children’s poem, “Rice Pudding,” and the answer is one of the great lessons of cooking. Too many servings of bland food will drive you mad.
The essence of rice pudding is milk, rice and sugar, a blank slate. But almost every food culture has some version of rice pudding with spices and flavorings that evoke their cuisine; flavors that make bland food into comfort food.
It can be the tingle of cinnamon, or a vanilla pod. There are advocates for adding raisins soaked in bourbon to improve their flavor. This information was passed to me by a member of the Southern branch of the family, a group known for short life spans and dissipation, but it is true that almost anything marinated in bourbon comes out of the whiskey bath much improved.
When I started looking around to see what some of my favorite food cultures do with rice pudding, I found new flavors in kheer, an Indian rice, milk and sugar custard made with cardamom and saffron, or the pistachio and rosewater scented rice pudding of Turkish, Syrian and Persian traditions.
If you have ever stopped yourself in the produce section and said, ‘Wait, what would I do with a pomegranate?’ Naomi Duguid’s lovely new cookbook, “Taste of Persia: A Cook’s Travels Through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Kurdistan,” has the answer. Part travelogue, part cookbook, and completely inspiring, the book includes a recipe for rice pudding that combines rice, milk and sugar with rosewater and ground cardamom, topped with chopped pistachios. My new favorite rice pudding preparation follows her lead on the cardamom and rosewater, with the addition of saffron, which imparts a mellow, nutty flavor and a warm buttery hue.
1/3 cup white rice
1 quart whole milk
½ cup sugar
Pinch of salt
Pinch of saffron
½ teaspoon ground cardamom, or 6 whole cardamom pods
3 tablespoons rosewater
¼ cup chopped pistachios
1. Pick a heavy 2-quart baking dish that is about as wide as it is high. Add the rice, sugar, milk, salt, saffron, and cardamom and stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar is dissolved.
2. Cook in a 300-degree oven, uncovered, for a total of no more than 2 hours. Every 30 minutes, stir the pudding with the wooden spoon, making sure the skin that forms on top is stirred into the pudding each time.
3. After an hour and a half, add the rose water and stir every 10 minutes, until the pudding thickens, the rice is soft and swollen, but the mixture is still liquid. When the pudding is done, it still looks quite loose, but will thicken as it cools.
4. Remove the pudding from the oven, cover, and allow it to cool to room temperature. Remove the cardamom pods.
5. Serve topped with chopped pistachios. Rice pudding is best eaten slightly warm or room temperature — never cold. If you are not going to serve it right away, refrigerate and reheat very slightly to serve.
Variation for raisin-lovers: Instead of the last four ingredients, put ½ cup of raisins in ¼ cup of bourbon, heat in a microwave for 30 seconds, soak for 10 minutes, drain and add to the milk, rice and sugar along with a stick of cinnamon. Serve with a light dusting of ground cinnamon.