The other day, warped by that unique strain of exhaustion and hunger only parenting can breed, I was actually grateful to find edible chunks of plain rice cake stuck to my toddler's car seat. If a few bites of food that's about as appetizing as Styrofoam could provide solace, I figured it might be time to revisit a more appealing alternative: rice pudding.
I love a good rice pudding, but its reputation as an American comfort food doesn't exactly describe my experience. As a child, I ate thousands of rice puddings at the local 24-hour coffee shop. Armed with a spoon, I would watch the little hand on the clock spin around and around as my mother moved through her entire meal in deliberately hostile slow motion, repeating her cooking philosophy to anyone who would listen, "It's just not worth messing up the kitchen for two people." In retaliation, I'd tap my spoon against the cool metal pudding dish until I was certain my mother was losing her mind.
Though we tend to think of rice pudding as American diner food, it's an ancient comfort dish. The earliest recipes first appeared in medical books, and were recommended for people of all ages as a way to ease digestion and soothe an upset stomach. Originating centuries ago in the Middle East, the sweet milk-and-rice recipe was known as firni. It was served cold and seasoned with cardamom, rosewater and pistachio nuts. From there it made its way across Asia to Latin America and Europe, where it is enjoyed as a traditional holiday treat.
Today rice pudding is enjoying an unorthodox renaissance with unusual flavors. Manhattan's Rice to Riches serves only rice pudding--with 20-some variations that include Bottomless Pear with Anise, Endangered Maple with Sun-dried Blueberries and Pistachio Protest with Sage, all concocted by chef Jemal Edwards. While cinnamon and vanilla have their places on the menu, Edwards uses sushi rice and adds a fruit reduction to the pudding base, folding in whipped cream after it's chilled.
Back on the West Coast, I decided to cut loose and create a pudding centered around three of my favorite flavors: chocolate, almond and cherry. Sweeter than my final product, though, was the knowledge that even the most memorable family recipes can be reinvented.
Cherry, Almond & Chocolate Rice Pudding
2 cups water
1 cup short grain sushi rice
pinch of salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 cup dried cherries
3.5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
Combine the water, rice, salt and brown sugar in a large covered saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer on the lowest heat until all of the liquid is absorbed about 14 minutes. Uncover and slowly add 1 cup milk, stirring frequently until milk is absorbed. Add the cherries. Slowly add remaining milk and keep stirring constantly like risotto. When the milk is absorbed add the almond extract. Let cool, then chill in the refrigerator. Serve garnished with the chopped chocolate. Optional: Top with fresh whipped cream.