I just made. The best. Rice pudding.
Backstory: I spent about 23% of my total childhood sneaking slices of my grandmother’s chocolate cookie dough. The woman knows desserts. Simple desserts, though. Eleanor loves a Fannie May turtle. A bowl of vanilla ice cream. A nice nut cup. Pizzelles. So I wasn’t entirely shocked to hear that she had a recipe for rice pudding in her arsenal. I was, however, a little shocked to hear how simple it was to make.
Fast-forward to a recent lazy Sattaday lunch hour(s) in my grandparents’ kitchen. We’re nibbling on the last bits of our sandwiches, fishing out little bread scraps from the basket; excuses to have one more piece of salami, a little corner of provolone. The oven beeps and takes us by surprise– we didn’t even know anything was in there. Grandma gets up and buzzes over, shoving her jeweled hand (emeralds, I think) into an oven mitt and plucking out a pan of spice cookies. Of course. We should have known. “Oh, you know me. I’m always baking something.” My grandpa nods knowingly. She puts a few cookies on a plate and brings it to the table before my mom can remind her of the rice pudding she’s brought for our dessert. There’s some well-meaning bickering– “No, you should save them for you and Dad!” “No, no, Annamarie can bring some back with her.” “No, save those and bring them for Thanksgiving.” “I’ll make more for Thanksgiving!” My grandfather, my sister and I munch silently, our eyes wide and mildly entertained, darting between the debaters.
It’s resolved: Grandma will bring more for Thanksgiving, and we’ll have these cookies today along with the rice pudding my mom made (a win-win, clearly).
So, over dessert, we discuss how good the rice pudding is and what went into it. My mom is much more of a savory person than a sweets person (the apple didn’t fall far…), but she’s pretty good at improvising desserts and using handy shortcuts when the time calls for it. For her rice pudding, she just used rice, Jello vanilla pudding, and some cinnamon. Pretty simple. And yes, it was some good pudding. (Especially for me, since I so rarely make desserts… I’m easily impressed.) My grandmother asks if she put an egg in there. My mother, quizzical, says no.
Grandma proclaims that she’s also got a recipe for rice pudding, but it uses an egg. We ask to hear this recipe. When she gets to the end of her explanation and my mom realizes no Jello products were mentioned, she is concerned: “Wait… what about the pudding?”
I won’t lie: Anyone born in or after the Baby Boom would ask that, at least in their heads if nowhere else. The massive advent of convenience and packaged foods/ingredients eventually eclipsed the very idea that Everything Can Be Made From Scratch. (Because cracking an egg into your Duncan Hines brownie mix does not equal “from scratch.”) I’ll also admit that my grandmother’s recipe, in all its wholeness and simplicity, seemed almost too good to be true. But it turns out the secret is definitely in that one egg. This is how we do it, Montell Jordan:
Eleanor Scarpelli’s Rice Pudding
- 1 cup rice. I used basmati– not because I was trying to go all new-age on Eleanor, but only because it seemed to be the only acceptable rice available to me at the Whole Paycheck this evening. I rarely make rice otherwise so I wasn’t exactly in the market for a 30-lb. sack, you know? The basmati worked really well, though, of course.
- 8 cups milk. 8 c. is about a half-gallon, for those of you following along at home. I used 2%. It was real. (I think you need at least a little fat in the milk for this, though I feel like going all the way to whole milk could be overkill.)
- 3/4 cup sugar. Seriously, that’s it.
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
Cook the rice in the milk and the sugar for about an hour, or until the rice is soft and the liquid is fairly thick, though not too gooey. You’ll want to stir this once every 5-10 minutes (me: “So, how often should I stir the rice? Every 10 minutes?” Grandma: “Well, yeah, 10 minutes at a stretch is fine. But, every 5 minutes is better. I mean, you might as well if you’ve got nothing else going on.” Damn it, Eleanor, you know me too well.) (I was actually making chicken stock and OHMYGODTHIS at the same time, so I just sort of camped out in the kitchen for a while). If you’re like me, you’ll stick your face over the pot at several points in time to feel/smell the warm, sweet steam coming up, and then you’ll wonder why you’re uncomfortably warm and have rolled up your sweatpants like some kind of crazy street ninja and changed into a tank top in the middle of November. Once the rice is about finished, turn off the heat. Crack the egg into a bowl, whisk it up, and add the vanilla to it. Then add a little of the rice mixture– maybe a tablespoon– to the egg and whisk it, repeating 2 or 3 more times until you see/feel that the egg mixture is pretty warm. (When you do this, you’re tempering the egg so that when it gets added to the super-hot rice, it doesn’t instantly turn into scrambled eggs.) (What’s with me and adding raw egg to hot goo lately, anyway?) Stir in the egg completely– it sort of pulls the whole thing together and gives it that distinct smooth pudding-y texture.
And congratulations! At this point, you’ve got a basic– and INCREDIBLE– rice pudding. I added a teeeeny bit of cinnamon and fresh nutmeg; just enough for the flavor to suggest that there might be some in there, but nothing obvious.
So now I’ve got an enormous pot of rice pudding sitting on my stove. I’ve dipped my spoon in there at least seven times in the last three hours. Eventually I got real and just sat down with a little bowl of it. Now, I’m not really much of a dessert person. To be sure, if there are chocolate chip cookies lying around, I’m on it. If you bring me a chocolate bar, I will contemplate not sharing it. I will never not love ice cream. But making a dessert entirely from scratch (short of maybe tracking down a precious whole vanilla bean, I suppose) and meeting with sheer victory is something to celebrate. I stuck my head over the pot one more time, inhaled, and then I’m pretty sure I hot-dogged around my kitchen, end-zone style, for a good 30 seconds. Before I realized the people in the building across the street might be able to see me. So then I did it a little more.