- Tom Stoppard
Some people think of childhoods long past, cozy corners in some nursery or propped up at a kitchen table in some small town far away with a nanny or grandma or mom hovering not very far away. Some people think of grade school lunches, women in hairnets and metal trays, ladlefuls plopped heavily into sections, or little plastic containers pulled hungrily out of crisp paper bags and popped open, spoon dipping greedily into soft, warm creaminess, spoons licked, fingers licked, sticky and sweet. And some even think of candlelight and elegant restaurants, warm and exotic vanilla and rich, thick, luxurious cream, satiny smooth, old family favorites making their reappearance, modern, updated classics a kiss of nostalgia.
And then there are those who think of punishment, the “it’s good for you” reproach from some stern adult standing tall and large one step back, brows furrowed. Big bowls clunked down on the table, the grind of chair legs across wooden floors as the seat is pushed up to the edge, the spoon within easy reach of small pegs of arms. A weighty snack meant to fill on the cheap, day after day, adding a layer of winter fat, bulking up small bodies against the cold, protecting against whatever ails them.
- Charles Dickens from The Schoolboy’s Story, 1853
I was raised in a grab-as-you-like home. From the moment we could reach the refrigerator door handle or peer over the edge of the kitchen counter, we were on our own as far as breakfast, lunch and snack were concerned. Breakfast was a quick bowl of cereal doused with milk or a Poptart or two, cinnamon toast prepared not by loving mom hands but by tiny fingers spreading butter on warm toast then dusting the top with jarred cinnamon-sugar. Lunch was eaten whenever we were hungry, sandwiches made, salads tossed or cans opened and heated on the stove, no parental supervision in sight. And snacks were pretty much a free-for-all: counters lined with boxes of cookies, barrels of pretzels or chips and cakes made by dad, ours for the grabbing whenever we were hungry. The freezer was a showcase for popsicles, fudgsicles, ice cream and ice cream sandwiches and the refrigerator overflowed with dad’s creations: gorgeous, exotic fruit compote, pastry puffs stuffed with creams and supermarket purchases of the Space Age variety, Jello and puddings, Koolaid and jarred chocolate sauces. My dad loved pudding, made box after box in every glorious color and flavor and we were raised on it like kittens on milk. Creamy and smooth, it was truly a thing of comfort, a symbol of home.
Thousands of miles away, my future husband grew up in a much more traditional setting, hot lunches simmered long hours on the stove, blanquette or daube, poule au pot or poulet frîtes, shared by the family as papa closed the shop and climbed the stairs for his daily two-hour respite. Snacks were limited and almost always homemade. And he grew up on Riz au Lait, the Frenchman’s version of Rice Pudding, creamy, sweet, warm and filling. Each baby was bottle fed with bouillie, cereal-thickened milk, each toddler, as they became toddlers, were served up big, steaming bowls of Riz au Lait. An old-fashioned woman, ma belle-mère, my Mother-in-Law believed in plumping up her children with fat-and sugar-rich snacks and that meant puddings made with either rice or tiny elbow macaroni long-simmered in whole milk and sprinkled with sugar. They were meant to fill up the growing children, to insulate them against the cold and damp of winter or to simply add on the pounds, an old-fashioned way to help them grow faster and protect their bodies against whatever could ail them.
My husband has been long begging me to make him Riz au Lait. With each cake I pull out of the oven or each glass of Panna Cotta I push into the refrigerator, he once again requests Riz au Lait, sighing heavily in disappointment as I simply do not offer him this token of womanly love. This is a dish that simply is not in my culture; I never ate this when I was a child. And although I do love it, it just never crosses my mind as something I could or should make at home. And he continues to ask for it and I continue to place cake after cake, cookies and ice cream on the table in front of him. Until last week. I was in the mood to bake and had selected a recipe. I opened up the refrigerator and to my utter shock and horror I saw that * gulp * I was out of eggs! Me? Out of eggs? Impossible! Oh, cruel fate dashing my hopes to the ground! On top of that, it was a national holiday and I knew that every single store was closed, so no eggs were to be had! And as the truth hit me squarely between the eyes, as I began to wail and moan and tear at my hair in despair, husband ran into the kitchen, glee shining in his eyes and the excitement of a child bubbling up and overflowing, and he sang “Riz au Lait! Riz au Lait is the answer! You can make it for me! There are no eggs in Riz au Lait!”
And so I did. And as I measured and stirred, as I gently, gracefully slid my thin knife up the side of a fragrant vanilla bean, as I sweetened and tasted and sweetened it a bit more and as I lovingly spooned creamy portions into elegant dishes, he recounted the story of his mother feeding them this delicacy simply in order to fill up their tiny tummies, like a sweet version of castor oil meant to plump and protect, and I stared at him in amazement and wondered that he could still love it, still clamor for it, still think of Riz au Lait as comfort food, homey and good, redolent of sweet memories. And with this one simple dish, I made my man smile.
A perfect recipe for a treat so creamy, homey and delicious, a confection that is both simple to make and simple to eat, Riz au Lait is a versatile snack or dessert that can be flavored as one likes, stirring in plump raisins or chopped nuts, served with crème anglaise or stewed fruit, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce, spiked with rum or Amaretto or flavored with cinnamon, cardamom or nutmeg. But we find that it is just perfect as it is, mere child’s play.
RIZ AU LAIT
And not, as my husband stoutly declares, Rice Pudding
7 oz (200 g) uncooked rice for risotto or pudding
3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk or half low-fat milk + half light or heavy cream
7 - 8 Tbs (100 – 120 g) sugar or to taste
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
1 Tbs (15 g) unsalted butter
Place the rice in a colander with tiny holes (so as not to lose any rice out the bottom!) and rinse under running water until the water runs clear. Drain.
Place the rinsed rice in a saucepan and cover with water; bring the water to a boil and allow to boil for 5 minutes. Drain the rice.
Return the drained rice to a medium-sized saucepan with the whole milk (or half low-fat milk and half cream), 1 tablespoon of the sugar and a pinch of salt. Using a small, sharp knife split the vanilla bean down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add both the seeds and the pod to the other ingredients in the saucepan. Bring it just up to the boil and then immediately turn the heat down to very low and, placing a cover atop the saucepan but leaving it ajar, allow the pudding to simmer, stirring often, for 30 to 35 minutes or until the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. The rice should be very soft almost melting in the mouth. It should not be al dente. The pudding should be creamy, neither runny nor dry.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove and discard the vanilla bean pod. Stir in the tablespoon of butter and about half of the remaining sugar. Taste and add as much of the remaining sugar until desired sweetness. Spoon into individual serving dishes, glasses or bowls.
Riz au Lait is best eaten warm but this particular pudding is delicious at room temperature and even stays creamy when chilled (if, for example, there are any leftovers). Riz au Lait can also be served with cooked fruit or jam served atop it to give it a tangy kick.