Be Merry All’s Well That Ends Sweet

Apparently the Chinese were the first to sweeten rice. They cooked it with sugar, water and a few spices, without milk. It was the Persians who realized that the addition of almond or goat’s milk and honey “upgrades” the dish from a plain porridge to a delicious and comforting dessert. It is interesting to note that medical texts from the Middle Eastern region, dating back to the Middle Ages, mention sweetened cooked rice as a remedy for stomach aches and as a nutritious dish for babies and the elderly.
Over the ages, rice pudding became a beloved dessert in various cultures around the world, simply prepared by slow cooking with milk and honey or sugar. Rice desserts popular around the globe today differ from each other in the variety of rice used, the cooking method, and the spices used to provide the distinctive flavor and aroma of each dish. But there is a common denominator: These desserts are easy to make, satisfying and soothing.

Persians in medieval times delighted in sheer berenj: whole rice cooked for a long time with milk and sugar, so that it would attain a creamy consistency. Over time the dish was modified into a less heavy version called shola, made of finely ground rice sifted into a delicate powder, to which was added almond milk and orange-blossom water or rosewater. For festive occasions, saffron was added, lending the dish, called shola-e zard (“zard” meaning yellow ), a lovely amber color.

The cuisine of the Indian subcontinent during Mughal rule was greatly influenced by Persian cooking. Locals adopted the rice desserts gladly, not only because they tasted good, but because the ingredients were inexpensive and poverty was rife in the region. They prepared a dish called phirni, with ground rice and coconut milk or goat’s milk, instead of the almond milk used by Persians, and so the thick dessert became a thinner, but more refined and airy dish. Across India today the more popular dish is kheer: whole grains of rice cooked with coconut milk and sugar, sometimes with tropical fruit added. This dessert is called payasam in southern India.

During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, rice desserts were characterized by the addition of lemon zest, cinnamon and cardamom. A Turkish dish called sutlac was served hot or cold in individual bowls, as a first course at wedding celebrations, or for dessert.

In Europe at the beginning of the 17th century, especially among the Italians, aficionados of sticky rice dishes and porridges, budino became popular : This was a baked rice pudding with raisins, lemon zest and eggs. Thus, the ancient dessert of sweet porridge usually made just before serving time evolved into a baked good, prepared in advance, that is served as a cake or tart.
For their part, Jewish communities around the world also warmly adopted rice desserts over the generations. For Central European Jews, particularly those of Romania, rice pudding was an everyday food. A parve version, baked with eggs and sugar, was served after a meat meal, and a dairy version cooked in milk was popular for Shabbat breakfast.

Sephardic Jews – for whom rice dishes in general and rice desserts in particular form an inseparable part of their diet – serve rice pudding at the Yom Kippur break-fast because of its quick preparation time, and its satisfying and reinvigorating nature. Upon their return from the synagogue, fasters would be served hot arroz con leche (in Ladino ) – rice with milk, seasoned with lemon zest and cinnamon and garnished with rose petals. Turkish Jews had a custom of breaking the fast with sutlac, sometimes cooked in melon-seed milk or almond milk. The B’nei Israel Jews of Mumbai would serve kheer after the fast, garnished with slivered almonds and fresh coconut. Syrian and Egyptian Jews served the Yom Kippur muhalabiyah seasoned with orange-blossom water, and with pistachios and honey syrup on top.

The following recipes all serve four.
Rice pudding with coconut milk, mango and orange syrup
1/2 cup round or sticky rice
400 milliliters (1 can ) coconut milk
150 milliliters whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the orange syrup:
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
2 ripe mangoes, cut in wedges

Soak the rice in cold water for one hour, and drain. In a medium pot, combine the coconut milk, sugar and salt; bring to a boil. Lower the heat, add the rice to the pot and cook for about 20 minutes, uncovered; stir continuously with a wooden spoon to keep the rice from sticking to the pot. Taste the rice and if it is soft, turn off the heat; if it’s still a bit hard, continue cooking for five minutes. If the pudding has thickened too much, you can add a little coconut milk or regular milk to thin it out.

Make the orange syrup: In a small pot, bring the orange juice, sugar and vanilla bean to a boil. Lower the heat and continue cooking for five minutes. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the syrup; turn off the heat. Place three heaped spoonfuls of hot rice into each serving bowl, and top with mango wedges and a tablespoon of orange syrup.

Baked sutlac with raisins, cinnamon and sugar brulee
1 cup round rice
1 cup milk
50 grams sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup small black raisins
lemon zest
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 cinnamon sticks
For the brulee:
1 tablespoon demerara sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Soak the rice in cold water for one hour, and drain. Add the rice to a pot of boiling water; cook for 15 minutes, and drain.
In a small pot, bring the milk and sugar to a boil. Skim off the skin; cool the milk until lukewarm. Heat an oven to 170 degrees Celsius. In a medium bowl, lightly beat an egg while adding the sweetened milk. Combine the cooked rice with raisins, lemon zest and cinnamon, and divide equally into individual oven-safe bowls. Pour the milk mixture over the rice, up to the bowl’s edge. Place a cinnamon stick on top and bake for 20 minutes.
Remove the bowls from the oven and switch it to a grill setting. Sprinkle brown sugar and cinnamon on top of the sutlac and return to the oven, this time to the top rack. Caramelize for 3 minutes. Serve hot.

Sweet rice dessert with figs, honey and cookie crumbs
1/2 cup rice
550 milliliters whole milk
50 grams (1/4 cup ) sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, halved
1 teaspoon lemon zest
8 figs, quartered
2 tablespoons honey
4 Speculaas cookies (for example, Lotus Biscoff ) or gingersnaps, crumbled

Soak the rice in cold water for 1 hour, and drain. In a medium pot, bring milk, sugar and salt to a boil. Lower the fire, add the rice and the vanilla bean. Cook for about 20 minutes, uncovered; stir continuously with a wooden spoon to keep the rice from sticking to the pot. Taste the rice and if it is soft, turn off the fire; if it’s still hard, continue cooking for 5 minutes. If the pudding has thickened too much, you can add a little milk. Stir in the lemon zest. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pot and set aside. In a frying pan, bring the honey to a boil, add figs and cook for 2 minutes; turn off the fire.
Place 3 heaping spoonfuls of hot rice into each serving bowl, top with fig quarters and cookie crumbs, and serve.

Rice dessert with bananas in caramel-toffee sauce and espresso
1/2 cup rice
550 milliliters whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, halved
1 teaspoon lemon zest
For the caramel-toffee sauce:
50 grams sugar
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 bananas, sliced into rounds
1/2 cup espresso coffee

Soak the rice in cold water for 1 hour, and drain. In a medium pot, bring milk, sugar and salt to a boil. Lower the fire, add the rice and the vanilla bean, and cook for about 20 minutes, uncovered; stir continuously with a wooden spoon to keep the rice from sticking to the pot. Taste the rice and if it is soft, turn off the fire; if it’s still a bit hard, continue cooking for 5 minutes. If the pudding has thickened too much, add some milk. Stir in the lemon zest. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pot; set aside.

In a frying pan, cook the sugar until it turns a deep brown, periodically giving the pan a shake (do not stir ). Lower the fire, add the heavy cream one teaspoonful at a time, and shake the pan until the cream gets absorbed into the caramel. Add bananas to the toffee sauce, cook for 2 minutes and turn off the fire.

Place 3 heaping spoonfuls of hot rice into each serving bowl, and top with banana slices and a tablespoon of toffee sauce. Over this pour a teaspoon of espresso coffee, and serve.

Rice dessert with rosewater, raspberry-malabi sauce and coconut chips
1/2 cup rice
550 milliliters whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, halved
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 tablespoons rosewater
For the raspberry-malabi sauce:
1/3 cup readymade malabi sauce
1 basket raspberries
1 tablespoon coconut chips

Soak the rice in cold water for 1 hour, and drain. In a medium pot, bring milk, sugar and salt to a boil. Lower the fire, add the rice and the vanilla bean, and cook for about 20 minutes, uncovered; stir continuously with a wooden spoon to keep the rice from sticking to the pot. Taste the rice, and if it is soft, turn off the fire; if it’s still a bit hard, continue cooking for 5 minutes. If the pudding has thickened too much, add some milk. Stir in the lemon zest and rosewater. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the contents of the pot, and set aside.

Make the sauce: Using a stick blender, grind together malabi sauce and 10 raspberries until you get a smooth paste. Place 3 heaping spoonfuls of hot rice into each serving bowl, and top with raspberry-malabi sauce, coconut chips and the remaining fresh raspberries. Serve immediately.

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