Rice is one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. Domesticated in China as many as 15,000 years ago, trade routes helped spread this grain across the ancient world. Rice has many different uses, but porridge-y things, from congee to rice pudding, seem common in cultures around the world. Although Americans may be most familiar with Asian "white rice" and "brown rice," there are actually hundreds of different varieties. In fact, the first rice to be cultivated in the United States was actually an African variety.
The development of rice plantations in the American South is a direct result of skilled labor and knowledge by enslaved Africans exploited by the people who enslaved them. South Carolina and Georgia in particular were some of the few places in North America where rice was grown commercially until the later 19th century, when rice spread to Louisiana and Texas. In the early 20th century, Arkansas and California followed suit. Today, Southern states still grow Carolina varieties of African rice, while California focuses more on japonica varieties of Asian rice, likely influenced by Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush of the 1840s and after.
Early recipes for rice pudding included cooking it in a pie crust, baking it with just butter and milk, or in a custard. In the U.K., a short-grained "pudding rice" is most often used to make rice pudding. In the U.S., Americans tend to use long grain white rice varieties. You don't find rice pudding too often these days. Usually relegated to nursing homes and hospitals, you'll occasionally find it on restaurant (or especially New York deli) menus. But I think rice pudding deserves a revival.
When life has you down, nothing tastes more comforting and nourishing than homemade rice pudding. But rice pudding can be finicky stuff to make. I don't know when I discovered the idea for this genius recipe, but I'm sure it was somewhere on the internet about ten years ago. This recipe couldn't be easier, and it's the only one I ever use. No eggs, no custard, no baking, one pot and done. So simple.
As a Scandinavian, rice pudding is in my blood. This one is a cross between the traditional Norwegian kind, served hot and cinnamon-y at Christmas, with a lucky almond in someone's bowl resulting in a marzipan pig, and the Swedish kind I grew up eating at midsommar - cold, creamy, and with raspberries on top. It's good hot or cold, with or without milk or cream or whipped cream. It's one of my favorite comfort recipes, and I hope you enjoy it, too.
Easy Rice Pudding
The genius of this recipe comes from the substitution of arborio or risotto rice for regular white rice. The arborio rice thickens the milk as it cooks, creating a creamy, sweet deliciousness that's in the rice to the core. I can't take credit for discovering it, and the American who came up with it was probably inspired by the "pudding rice" of the U.K., but it's too easy and delicious not to share. This recipe does bear a little watching, as milk is quick to boil over, but make it while you're doing dishes, baking something, or otherwise puttering around in the kitchen.
1 cup arborio rice
5-6 cups whole milk (or milk of your choice)
1/2 cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
about 1 cup raisins (I used half Thompson and half golden)
Place all ingredients in a 4 or 5 quart stock pot and cook over medium to medium-high heat until the milk comes to a boil (watch it so it doesn't boil over!). Then reduce the heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the milk is absorbed. When it's still a bit soupy, turn the heat off and let the rice rest. It will absorb more milk as it sits. Serve hot for breakfast or warm or cold for dessert. It keeps well in the fridge, but the rice will absorb milk, so if it gets too thick, add a little milk to thin. If you don't have a cinnamon stick, a sprinkling of ground cinnamon is fine. If you'd rather leave out the raisins, feel free! Add dried cranberries, blueberries, or serve with fresh or frozen strawberries or raspberries. You could also flavor with orange or lemon zest, nutmeg, almond or vanilla extract, or any other flavorings you enjoy.
Do you have a favorite creamy dessert? A favorite way to eat rice pudding? I must admit that while this recipe is very good, it's not quite as good as the Swedish rice pudding I grew up eating, which was VERY creamy, sweet, and served cold with thawed frozen sweetened raspberries with their juice. I would stir it to turn the rice pudding purple and make sure I got raspberries in every bite. Alas, the only recipe I have for that makes gallons, so I've never tried it.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.