Rice pudding is a dessert that can be found in almost every culture and in nearly every corner of the world. Most versions of the dish contain rice, a sweetener, liquid such as milk, and spices or other flavorings. Arroz doce, sweet rice, is the Portuguese version of this humble treat. It’s denser and richer than many others, sometimes almost sliceable, like a piece of custard pie.
Throughout my life I’ve enjoyed arroz doce at almost every imaginable occasion, Christmas, Easter, first communions, bar mitzvahs, birthdays, wedding showers, and after funerals—the list goes on forever. There is no occasion, happy or sad, that can’t benefit from a serving or two of luscious sweet rice.
Arroz doce stirs both joyous and bittersweet memories in me. It was the last food I prepared for my mother-in-law before she passed after a long illness, and it’s a treat I sometimes make for my dad who suffers from dementia. While he seldom remembers what he ate for breakfast that morning, the taste of sweet, creamy rice on his tongue reminds him of his mother’s pudding and of less stressful times—I can see the pleasant memories flood him when he takes the first bite. And if I’m being just a bit honest, I also make it for him because I know how proud he is that I’ve replicated my grandmother’s recipe, proud of me in a way that even my law degree couldn’t accomplish.
If you’ve read about my Meadows Shore series, you know the characters have a strong Portuguese heritage deeply rooted in Southeastern Massachusetts, and Meadows Shore is their childhood home, where they celebrate various aspects of their Portuguese culture, including the cuisine. There are few novels published in the United States that capture the essence of Portuguese culture, the family, and women, in particular. When I watch my widowed aunts, in their eighties and nineties, stand at the stove dressed in simple black dresses and perfectly coiffed hair, preparing arroz doce and other Portuguese specialties, I’m painfully reminded that there is perhaps little time left to memorialize the traditions that these women carried with them across the Atlantic Ocean decades before. So today, I share one with you, dear readers, hoping that a sliver of the past will live on forever, through each of you.
Avó Angelina’s Arroz Doce
Remember what Sophie said about Angelina’s arroz doce: “…food for the angels, but you’ll pay Lucifer himself if you overindulge.” It’s best to heed her words—you know she’s always right, well almost always.
The recipe seems long and complicated, but it’s not, although it does require patience. I’ve detailed the steps, and added a few helpful hints that I’ve learned through the years. Please remember this is a very dense pudding, not at all like the kind in the grocery store. Some recipes for arroz doce call for lemon peel or zest, which is traditional in some parts of Portugal. Lemon is not part of my family’s tradition, but if you would like to make your pudding with lemon (or orange) add the zest of one half lemon or orange, in long strips, to the pot when you first add the water, and remove it before you add the eggs in the last step.
1 cup of rice of short or medium grained rice do not use instant or converted (Like my aunts, I use the River Rice brand but Carolina rice works great too)
1 cup of water
Pinch of salt
3 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
4-5 cups of whole milk (low fat milk does not work well)
1.5 cups of sugar (you may want to adjust the amount of sugar to one cup, if you don’t want it too sweet.)
½ cup of half and half or cream.
5 large egg yolks
Rinse the rice under cold water in a strainer. Add to a pot with a tight fitting lid along with a pinch of salt and 1 cup of water (I’ve used many pans over the years, a heavy, non stick pan works best, trust me on this—a light, Teflon coated pan does NOT work) cover, and simmer until almost all the water is absorbed.
Remove lid and set aside, you won’t need it anymore. Add ½ to 1 cup of warm milk and the butter to the pan and keep the heat so low you can barely see a bubble. You can keep the milk warm in a separate pan, or do what I do—heat one cup at a time in the microwave. I use a heatproof rubber spatula to give the rice a stir every now and again. If you are not using a non-stick pot, watch the mixture very carefully so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Keep adding milk until the rice has absorbed as much as it can, and doesn’t have any bite left.
Heat half and half, and add it to the pot along with the sugar. Stir carefully until sugar dissolves. I turn up the heat a little at this stage and let the mixture bubble a bit. You need to cook it long and slow, and babysit it carefully so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Be patient!
When a good portion of the sugar mixture has been absorbed and the rice looks very creamy again, whisk egg yolks in a small bowl, adding a couple of tablespoons of the hot rice to the yolks to temper. Continue adding a couple of tablespoons of hot rice until you have about one cup. This will prevent curdling when you add it to the pot. Take the pot off the burner and using a spatula, stir tempered yolk mixture into rice—stir well and quickly. The pot I use holds heat well, so I don’t put the pot back on the hot burner—depending on your pot, you can return it to the burner, but for no more than a minute, stirring constantly—yolks are very temperamental! Take the pot off the stove and let the pudding sit for 3-4 minutes before spooning it onto a platter. Sprinkle with cinnamon or use your fingers to create a traditional lattice pattern over the rice.
Keep at room temperature until it’s cool enough to cover, and place in the fridge. The pudding is best if you let it sit overnight (This rarely happens in my house). Take it out of the fridge for about 20 minutes before serving.
If you have any questions email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you make the pudding, please let me know how it turns out.