While I often appreciate it chilled, rice pudding is at its most lush when eaten warm, or even slightly steaming, which makes it ideal for the February table.
This rice pudding is subtle and straightforward. I use a mix of milk and cream, but that's not to say the types of each are strictly particular – use what you have on hand. The addition of a beaten egg at the end of cooking further enriches the dairy, already reduced by cooking and thickened with the rice's starch, so the finish is as velvety as one could hope for.
With the pudding, I like some embellishments that complement, rather than echo, that dulcet sweetness. Turning to the freezer drawer, frozen cherries save the day, stewed quickly and simply into a sauce thrumming with star anise, cinnamon, cardamom and clove. (Keep in mind, the amount of sugar in the cherries will depend on the variety used; Morellos might need a touch more, while Bings, Lapins or Skeena could need less. Proceed accordingly.)
The fruit, barely cooked, sits atop the rice pudding while long tangles of keenly floral clementine zest slip through the sauce, seeping into whatever they touch. The plate is finished off with a spoon of whipped cream, and crushed cookies and nuts for gratifying crunch.
Servings: 4 to 6
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 cup starchy, shorter-grained rice (Carnaroli, Arborio)
2 cups table cream or half-and-half
(18% or 10% butterfat, respectively)
2 cups milk, plus extra as needed
½ cup granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon medium-grain kosher salt
1 fresh vanilla bean
1 egg, beaten
3 cups pitted cherries,
fresh or frozen (if frozen,
do not defrost or drain)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 star anise
2 green cardamom pods
1 small cinnamon stick
¹/8 teaspoon almond extract
A pinch of medium-grain kosher salt
A few grinds black pepper
For the pudding, melt the butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Scatter in the rice and stir until it’s slicked with the butter and sizzling, about 30 seconds. Pour in the cream and milk, followed by the sugar. Stir in the salt. Split the vanilla bean down its length with the tip of a knife and scrape out the seeds with the back of the blade. Rake the seeds into the pot, then pop the bean in too. Raise the heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring regularly. Once bubbling, turn the heat down to maintain a simmer and cook, still stirring periodically, until the rice is tender and the liquid has thickened, about 35 minutes.
While the pudding is cooking, tumble the cherries into another medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, then tip in the sugar. Use a vegetable peeler to remove the zest of the clementine in strips and add these to the pot. Squeeze the clementine’s juice over top, keeping back any seeds. Bundle the star anise, cardamom pods, clove and cinnamon stick in a small square of cheesecloth or a self-fill tea bag, or add them directly to the fruit. Dribble in the almond extract, add the salt and a few grindings of pepper. Stir well, then bring to a simmer over medium heat, and let cook until the fruit is tender and the juices are slightly reduced and glossy, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the spices if desired.
To finish the rice pudding, pull the pan off the heat and stir briskly. While stirring, pour the beaten egg into the pudding in a steady stream. Once the egg is incorporated, place the pot back over low heat and cook, stirring all the while, until voluptuous and steaming again, 3 to 5 minutes.
At this point, the pudding can be served hot or warm, or decanted to a serving dish and chilled. Fair warning, the pudding will thicken as it cools, so depending on your preferred consistency, more milk may be needed later.
To serve, top the pudding with the cherries, a dollop of cream, the crushed cookies and nuts.
Softly whipped cream or crème fraîche
Crushed amaretti, gingersnaps, or shortbread
Ground pistachios, almonds, or pecans