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In case anyone was curious about the delay since the last post, it wasn’t due to a crazy gazpacho-fueled lost-weekend bender. The unfortunately long gap is thanks to issues with the digital camera, which have now been resolved, so I should be back on track. That said, I’m taking next week off for an out-of-town event, and Sunday baking will be on hold until the following weekend.

But I’m here now, so let’s explain this violently red-and-white concoction, shall we?

I’ve mentioned before that I cannot pass up sour cherries when they show up for approximately three nanoseconds this time of year, no matter how insane the price. You don’t even want to know how loudly I squealed “Cherries!” when I saw one solitary quart at the mid-week farmers market, nor how much I paid for said quart, nor the elaborate protective structure I rigged up to get it home on the commuter train without squishing a single priceless cherry. Suffice it to say I put it in enough effort to give me every incentive to come up with a really special application for them.

I originally thought about making a pie, but since it’s also a bazillion degrees of late (see previous gazpacho post), I really didn’t want to use the oven if I didn’t have to. Then I opened the fridge and saw I had an open half-gallon of milk to use up and a good amount of basmati rice left over from dinner earlier in the week, and remembered that I’ve been meaning for a while to do a simple rice pudding in tribute to my grandmother. From there it was a short mental leap to the idea of layering the pudding in glasses with a sour cherry compote.

I’m fairly sure I’ve noted that Grandma was not a baker and she only had a handful of recipes in her repertoire. That’s not to say she didn’t have a sweet tooth. She loved desserts, and was the biggest ice cream fiend you’ve ever seen. Coming from a city with a bakery on practically every corner, though, she was used to buying desserts instead of making them, so the only ones I ever remember her making during her annual visits were fruit salads in the summer, and rice pudding in the winter. She never got sick of either, nor did I.

Grandma did not use leftover rice for her pudding, but that was probably only because she didn’t make a big batch of rice at least once a week the way we do. Anyway, what made her rice pudding hers wasn’t the rice, but the generous splash of heavy cream that got stirred in after the rice and milk and sugar had reduced down. Grandma was a huge fan of butterfat way before it got trendy, and saw absolutely nothing wrong with gilding the lily. The half-cup I use here is in fact a dialing-down of her approach, which would have been to pour in the whole pint container’s worth. You can leave out the cream in the recipe below if you like, and you’d still have a perfectly servicable pudding, but it wouldn’t be Grandma’s.

Grandma never served her rice pudding with a fruit compote that I can recall, but she did love cherries, especially cherries mixed with booze, so I think she’d approve of this addition too. If she’d made this, she probably would have given us grandkids the job of pitting the cherries. I’m not going to sugar-coat the fact that it’s a pain in the ass to pit all these cherries, and splatter is inevitable so your counter and whatever top you’re wearing are going to end up looking like a crime scene. I think it’s worth it, though, especially if you can pull up a favorite relative and have a nice chat while you’re making the mess.

Even without the cherries, this rice pudding is a fantastic blank canvas for experimenting with flavors. You can use coconut milk and tangerine peel for a more Asian twist or a cinnamon stick and a bit of brown sugar for a more Mexican feel. You can serve it with anything from ripe mangoes to stewed apples, and you can even sprinkle with sugar and pull out the torch for a crispy bruleed-sugar top.

One of my favorite things to do is flavor with orange zest and stir in some softly-whipped meringue after it cools to room temperature, which sounds bizarre but gives you a cloud-light, glamorous dessert that’s about ten steps above ordinary pudding.  The only thing I personally don’t hold with at all is raisins, but if that’s your thing, you do what you have to do.

Rice Pudding with Sour Cherry Compote
(Compote adapted from Sally Schneider’s A New Way to Cook)
Serves 4-6

For the rice pudding:
4 cups cooked rice
6 cups milk
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Half a vanilla bean, split
1/2 cup heavy cream

For the sour cherry compote:
1 quart sour cherries, pitted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup amaretto

In a large saucepan, combine the rice, milk, sugar and vanilla bean and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until the milk has reduced and thickened and the rice has softened to your liking, approximately half an hour. Remove from the heat, pull out the vanilla bean, and stir in the cream. Let cool while preparing the compote.

Place the cherries, sugar and amaretto in a medium pan. Cook over medium heat until the cherries have softened and released their juice, 5 minutes or so. Continue cooking until the liquid is syrupy, 5-10 more minutes. Cool to room temperature.

To serve, layer the rice pudding and cherry compote in alternating layers in small glasses. If desired, whip additional cream and offer it on the side.

Notes:

How tender the rice pudding is will depend on which rice you use. Basmati rice is never going to get completely soft, while a medium-grain rice will break down much more and go really creamy. You can also use cracked rice for an even softer texture. My favorite rice for pudding is probably jasmine, which splits the difference and also adds a little bit of fragrance, but use whatever you have and like.

Temperature also makes a difference. If you serve the pudding straight from the fridge, the starches in the rice will have seized up from the cold and made the grains harder, so I think it’s best to reheat to at least room temperature before serving.

If you don’t want to use amaretto in the cherries, you can just use the same amount of water instead. Cherries do really like almonds, though, and I think that tiny hint of nuttiness really adds something to the end product. Either way, don’t discard any of the liquid left over after you’ve scooped the cherries onto the pudding.  This screaming red, intensely cherry syrup makes a fabulous soda when mixed with a fizzy water, and you can also use it to cherry-ize your cola.

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