Rice puddings have a bad rep. Bland, boring, cafeteria fare are some of the less than complimentary descriptors heaped on this humble dessert. But like most old-fashioned dishes, a homemade rice pudding is comfort food at its best–creamy, suave and lusty. And when the canvas of rice and milk is painted with spices and fruit, it’s easy to make rice pudding into something elegant and even exotic.
As summer gathers her skirts to settle down into the balmy days of June, my desserts revolve more and more around fruit. These days they are heavily strawberry flavored–it’s the height of the berry season, after all. At first, we simply ate them out of hand. Then, we started embellishing strawberries with whipped cream, or better yet, with sour cream or crème fraîche. Recently I’ve been tempted time and again by rice pudding tarts, which are common at Belgian bakeries, and I decided to combine two of my favorite desserts into one.
Layering strawberries macerated with sugar and the vanilla flavored rice pudding already makes for a very elegant presentation, but I wanted to make the flavor likewise glamorous. To do that, I added a small amount of orange blossom water. Floral waters like orange blossom and rose are some of my kitchen staples, which I use nearly as much as vanilla extract in cooking and baking.
Even if you don’t care for floral tastes, a mere 1/4 teaspoon in a batch of sugar cookie dough or vanilla custard can add a haunting flavor and complexity. I love orange blossom water in Middle Eastern desserts because it gives such an appealing green accent and it makes the milk taste sweeter. It also gives a seductive flourish to a familiar taste.
In my rice pudding recipe, I likewise use orange blossom water with a light hand to create a rich flavor without an overly perfumey feel. I add the orange blossom water both in the pudding base and in the strawberry compote. As I discovered, it helps mimic the heady perfume of wild strawberries, fraises-des-bois, which in fact share some elements with orange flowers. I don’t include eggs or heavy cream in the pudding because for me the rice provides enough heft, and I prefer to make other flavors stand out. I dare anyone to call it old-fashioned!
Orange Blossom Rice Pudding With Strawberry Compote
You can use other seasonal fruit. Raspberries, peaches, and apricots are perfect as they are, while the flavors of pears, cherries, apples and blueberries can be enriched by tossing them in a hot pan with sugar and a teaspoon of lemon juice. If your strawberries are less then perfect, cooking will concentrate their perfume and sweetness. You can also vary the spices. Cinnamon, saffron, cardamom, and lemon zest are other great possibilities. The canvas of rice is very easy to paint with flavors!
The pudding can be cooked a day or two ahead and stored in the fridge, but don’t layer it with fruit until you’re ready to serve.
My favorite brands for orange blossom are Mymoune and Cortas. Orange blossom water is available from the Middle Eastern stores, Dean & Deluca, online from Kalustyan’s and Amazon.com (in Europe, Amazon.de and G. Detou carry a wide selection of orange blossom waters).
1/2 cup (100g) short grain rice (such Arborio or Japanese style rice)
2-3 cups (625-750ml) milk, whole or low-fat
a pinch of salt
1/4 cup (50g) sugar + extra 2-3 Tablespoons
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon orange blossom water
1 cup (150g) hulled strawberries, sliced in small slivers
1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water
2 Tablespoons sugar or to taste
- Mix berries and sugar and let them macerate while you make the pudding.
- Set a thick bottomed pan on medium heat, add 2 cups of milk and rice and bring to boil. Lower the heat to low and stir, scraping the bottom. If you are using a vanilla bean, split it in half and add it to the milk right now. Depending on the type of rice, the pudding will take 20 to 25 minutes to thicken. As it cooks, add more milk if needed. Add salt.
- When the rice grains are soft, add sugar. The cold pudding will taste less sweet, so keep this in mind when adjusting the sugar quantity. Add orange blossom water and vanilla extract, if using. Remove from the heat immediately and cover the pan. Cool the pudding in the fridge. If you were using vanilla bean, you can leave it in the pudding till it cools completely. (Then you can rinse it, dry it out and reuse it one more time. Or stick it in a jar of sugar to flavor it with vanilla.)
- Layer pudding with compote and serve. Enjoy!
Photography by Bois de Jasmin, all rights reserved.