Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Take on Rice Pudding

When we think of rice pudding, we generally think of the typical Greek-diner version of rice grains suspended in a custardy base, garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg or cinnamon. But apparently the Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, preferred a gussied-up version, with candied fruits and a little hooch. Known as Riz à l'Impératrice, or rice in the manner of the empress, it was one of the first truly adventurous dishes I tackled as a home cook.

My high school French club was having an after-school party and I volunteered to bring a dish. After poring over my dad's collection of food magazines, I found Riz à l'Impératrice in Cuisine. It seemed simple enough (ha!), plus my mother had a collection of groovy copper molds that she wasted on various Jell-O creations.

The Riz was far more impressive than any other dish that showed up at the party that afternoon. Certainly more than the runny chocolate mousse served in Dixie cups. At least *I* thought so.

Recently I decided it was high time to try it again. That old issue of Cuisine perished in a leaky ceiling/mildew incident some years back, and the only other version of the recipe I could find was that of James Beard.

Riz à l'Impératrice, from James Beard
House & Garden, January 1965

2/3 cup rice
2 cups milk
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon gelatin soaked in 2 tablespoons cold water
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3/4 cup candied or preserved fruit
Rum or whiskey
1 cup heavy cream
Red glacé cherries or candied citron and candied pineapple

Wash rice. Cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for 2 minutes. Drain and transfer to a saucepan containing 1 1/4 cups milk and simmer until the rice is very tender. Heat remaining milk.

In the top of a double boiler, combine the egg yolks and sugar. Gradually stir in the hot milk and continue stirring until smooth and thick. Add softened gelatin and vanilla. Strain. Mix into the rice and cool until the mixture begins to set.

Soak the 3/4 cup candied or preserved fruit in a little rum or whiskey for 1/2 hour. Whip the heavy cream and fold in the soaked fruit. Mix into the rice mixture. Turn into a decorative ring mold and chill. Before serving, unmold on a platter and decorate with glacè cherries or candied citron and candied pineapple.

I found the copper mold I had used originally and realized it had a 6-cup capacity. As I was cooking the rice, I knew it would never fill such a large mold. What to do? Luckily, the rice seemed to need more than 1 1/4 cups milk to reach a properly tender state, so I added an additional cup, a bit at a time. To compensate for the additional liquid, I added 1/4 sugar to the egg mixture. And I thought, what the hell - I'll whip the whole damn pint of heavy cream rather than just half of it. And it fit the mold perfectly.

Needless to say, I skipped the icky glacé cherries and candied fruits; of course that meant I couldn't use the booze. That's ok - my high school friends didn't get any either. At least - not in my dessert.

Now, unmolding creamy desserts can be a tricky thing. One must gently heat the mold to melt just enough of the gelatin to allow the filling to slide out. Too much heat and...


Ah...toss some toasted almonds on top and who's gonna know? (I have no idea how I unmolded the thing successfully at school.) What really matters is the taste - so rich, so yummy - possibly the best rice pudding ever. At least, according to Mr Minx. :)