I’ve got many things to thank my late grandma for; my passion for food being right at the top of the list. As I mentioned in my previous post, I was very lucky to eat her wholesome and tasty food for many years, and also learn a few culinary tips. One of those memories that will always stay with me is learning how to make the traditional Asturian rice pudding. Asturias is traditionally known for its dairy farms so it is only natural that a pudding like this is so popular in the region.
In the UK rice pudding has been particularly stigmatised, and many associate it with a sloppy unappealing dessert served at school dinners. Many friends have indeed confirmed their dislike for this pud so I wanted to find out why rice pudding had such a bad name. What to do? Just venture into what seems to be the benchmark for the standard UK version of this sweet treat: a can of Ambrosia. Yes, I know times have moved on and you can find more upmarket version of it in your supermarket, or even delish puddings at restaurants and gastropubs. But the taste of Ambrosia made me understand why many may have such bad memories of the pud. I would say to those who had rice-pud-induced nightmares: give rice pudding a second chance. And here is why the Asturian version of it, the one that many like me learned from their grandmas, can be so especial.
When you open a can of your standard rice pudding, this is what you may notice: first, the rice is totally insipid, just a texture but without adding any taste; second, the liquid is often too thin, not very creamy; finally, the taste is mostly sweet but unidimensional, without any layers.
How do you solve these problems? Patience and a little know-how. Here is how we do it in Asturias. First, for the rice to have flavour you must add salt at the beginning of the process. Salt? In a pudding? Yes, salt. A pinch or two will be enough, but this is crucial. Cover the rice with water, add the salt, lemon peel, and cinnamon bark. Bring to the boil and let it simmer until most of the water has disappeared. By this point the rice has absorbed the salt, meaning that it will be more flavoursome.
Second, it you want lush creaminess, you need full-fat milk (sorry healthy-conscious people) and patience. Like…a lot of patience. The milk has to be added in stages (about two ladles at a time). Allow to simmer while regularly stirring (to avoid it getting caught to the bottom of the pan) until the mixture has thickened. The process must be repeated until all the milk is gone, which could take anything between 1 and 2 hours depending on the amount of rice used. Having a pan with warm milk on the side helpd speed the process a little but this is nonetheless an awful long time, especially when you look at most other speedy recipes for rice pudding. Why so long? Essentially, when you simmer the milk, the water is evaporating and the cream and the rice starch make it nice and creamy. This is why only full-fat milk will do. And why you need some elbow-grease too. I remember as a child visiting rural restaurants and houses in Asturias where a large copper pot of rice pudding had been simmering for hours over some wood-fire. Given the yellow-ish colour, chances are that the milk was unpasteurised too and coming directly from local cows milked a short time before. Yeah, I know this probably wouldn’t pass any health inspection today, but the taste….oh, the taste!!
The last part in this labour-intensive cooking process is sweetening and flavouring the pudding. Once the milk has simmered away and the texture resembles a thick custard, it’s time to add the sugar. (If you add it at the beginning it will most definitely burn you pan.) I, like my grandma, also like to add a chunk of unsalted butter (no salt needed at this stage!) for richness and flavour. It is not uncommon in Asturias to add a little bit of aniseed liquor (Pastis, Sambuca, Ouzo, or similar). Occasionally, my grandma liked to add some brandy and she always said that the addition of booze helped mask the roughness of the taste of unpasteurised milk. We don’t have that problem now but a little booze can’t hurt, right? Personally, I’m not too keen on the aniseed but it’s a matter of taste (literally). Over the years, I have experimented with many different flavours, and my rule of thumb is that if the flavour goes well with milk or cream, it probably will be ok with rice pudding too. You can be as adventurous as you like. You can even split the mix and try different flavours, or just test on a portion before you ‘ruin’ the whole batch. Try coffee, Baileys, vanilla custard (my mum makes this sometimes), or my favourite: Calvados (apple brandy).
At our supper club, I make my particular homage to my güelita (grandma, as we say in Asturias). She loved roasted apples so I complement my rice pudding with burnt apple puree and praline, another way to incorporate the hazelnut flavour typical from Asturias. A brûlée-type caramelised top or a mere sprinkling of ground cinnamon are also good traditional ways of enjoying this pud.
If you want to make it at home 200 g of rice, 2 litres of milk, lemon peel, a pinch of salt, 50 g butter and 100 g of sugar (you may want to taste and adjust) will give you plenty of happiness for 8 to 10 people. Remember to thank my grandma too.