As a dessert, rice pudding has a bit of an image problem. It looks bland and lumpy. It sometimes forms that unfortunate "skin." It's got no crunch. It's not even that sweet. Moreover, it's made of rice, a food usually associated with savory dishes. All things considered, rice pudding has a "diner" reputation, not a "fine dining" one.
As a dessert, creme brulee has it all going on. It's sweet. It's got crunch. It's elegant and creamy. It looks great. It's French, for goodness sake. It's "fine dining" personified.
Now, Sara Foster, a North Carolina chef, cookbook author and restaurateur, has married rice pudding with creme brulee. It is, indeed, a marriage made in heaven, and you can find it in her new book, "Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen" (Random House, 2011).
Rice pudding has been around since Roman times where, detractors will gloat, it was used as a medicine. According to "The Oxford Companion to Food" by Alan Davidson, it came of age in the medieval times, when rich folks ate it as a Lenten food. Since then, "rice pudding has tended to become a severely plain nursery dish," he opines. "Nevertheless, it has its devotees."
Those devotees know that, unless they have been handed down a foolproof heirloom family recipe, really good recipes for this rice pudding are hard to come by. Lacking a family heirloom, I've tried recipes that call for every kind of dairy product, from heavy cream to eggnog to skim milk to yogurt; that are made in the microwave as well as the oven and the stovetop; that include liqueurs like Cointreau or Chambord; that incorporate coconut, pineapple, citrus zest and mango. I have yet to make a rice pudding that equals in taste and texture the stuff marketed under the Kozy Shack label in the dairy aisle of the supermarket.
Foster's recipe, which calls for Carolina Gold or other long-grain white rice (see Cook's note), asks for nothing more exotic than a vanilla bean, a bit of nutmeg and ground cloves. And yet it exalts rice pudding from the nursery supper to the dinner party.
Foster's book contains an extraordinary number of come-hither recipes, from savory dishes like crispy fried oysters and Memphis-style barbecued ribs to an array of amazing desserts. (Check out her swoon-inducing Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie.) She's not only a great Southern chef; she's the Chef Who Rescued Rice Pudding. Brava!
#8226; Marialisa Calta is the author of "Barbarians at the Plate: Taming and Feeding the American Family" (Perigee, 2005). More at marialisacalta.com.