Rice Pudding

October 31, 2011

Newsflash: Chemo sucks.

First, it was the nausea that was the problem. Then the butt-blasting constipation. (Zofran: good for the tummy, Hell on the arse). The newest treat? Open, angry sores that lurk on the gums, in the mouth, down the throat. Those sores are mean little fuckers, and they make eating an unpleasant, if not downright impossible, task.

And yet, what’s the litany we keep hearing from medical professionals? “Eat, eat, eat.”  “Keep the weight on.”

You try to eat with festering throat sores, Doctor Jerkstore. See how that works out for you.

Not that I’m pissed off or anything.

Okay, okay, I’m a little angry.  I’m also a little worried, and I do my best worrying in the kitchen, because at least that’s productive worrying. Kitchen worrying is where it’s at. I highly recommend it.

This latest round of chemo produced some really nasty sores, so I worried in the kitchen quite a bit. I found myself riffling through the pantry, searching for inspiration, and I found myself looking at several gi-normous bags of rice. I always have rice around–several kinds. As I write this, I have 4 different kinds of rice tucked away in a cupboard.

I know my rice-love is a little odd–I mean, rice is just a blank canvas for whatever goes on top of it, right? Nothing to really get excited about.

Maybe for normal folks, but not for me. Rice is one of my A-list comfort foods, adorned with a big blob of butter and plenty of salt.  When I’m in the dumps or feeling dodgy, nothing soothes my soul like a big bowl of buttered rice.

I’ve always adored it. Growing up, on weekend mornings, Mama would custom-make breakfast for everyone. (yes, I am spoiled)

Daddy-o would always go for bacon or sausage. My sister would usually take the French toast route. Me? I’d ask for a big bowl of Uncle Ben’s converted rice, slathered with butter. I’d fidget the entire 20 minutes it took to cook, stomach flipping in anticipation.  When it arrived, steamy and fragrant, I’d tuck into it with a big spoon, ignoring my sister across the table, who was undoubtedly mouthing the word “freakshow” at my breakfast of choice.

I knew it was a freakshow breakfast, but I didn’t care, and Mama, bless her, never said a word.

For all my love of rice, I’m not a huge fan of it in pudding.  I’m not sure why. I mean, there’s a lot to like about rice pudding–vanilla, eggs, sugar–but it’s just not something I’ve ever really taken to.  Maybe it’s all those mornings of savory rice that spoiled it for me…who knows?

Still, rice pudding is a dish that brings a lot of people comfort because it feels like home. There’s nothing fussy about it, no doo-dads or fanfare, but it makes people feel cared for–a gustatory hug, if you will. Do you remember that scene in the movie Heartburn, when Meryl Streep’s character (a food writer) is in the hospital, and someone smuggles in a bowl of rice pudding (with rum-soaked raisins) and she swoons at the sight of it?  That’s what good rice pudding can do.*

Anyways, when Mama became afflicted with the Sores from the Bowels of Hades, I thought of rice pudding, and was determined to make it for her. Except for one leeeetle problem.  Lately, Mama can’t tolerate milk. Still, I was set on making it, so I loaded up the grocery cart with Lactaid and eggs and a fresh vanilla bean, and Project Pudding was on.

A little note about fresh vanilla beans: they’ll bankrupt you, but they’re totally worth it. Vanilla extract is no match for the black, flavor-packed, little explosions of love that come from a fresh vanilla bean.  Two vanilla beans set me back almost 15 bucks, but in a recipe this simple, it makes all the difference to splurge for the real deal. Honest.

I made the pudding on the saucy side (as you can see from the picture), and cooked the rice a little South of al dente, just to ensure that Mama could slide it down her battered gullet. Plus, leaving it saucy ensured that she could plop it into a saucepan and warm it through, if she wanted to eat it warm.

I had to forgo the rum-soaked raisins, which was a shame, but raisins are scratchy going down; feel free to add them if you wish. A rum-soaked raisin is a beautiful thing.

Make this for someone who needs a little pampering, or for yourself, if the day hasn’t gone quite the way you’d liked.  It’s a bear hug in a bowl.

Best-Ever Rice Pudding

adapted from Fine Cooking

serves 6

4  and 2/3 cups whole milk, or whole lactose-free milk, such as Lactaid.

1/2 cup white rice, such as basmati, jasmine or arborio

7 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 vanilla bean

1 3-inch cinnamon stick

2 large egg yolks

lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving, if desired

In a 4-quart saucepan, combine 4 cups of the milk with the rice and sugar. With a sharp paring knife, slit the vanilla bean open lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds to the milk mixture. Add the cinnamon stick and the scraped vanilla bean; bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce the heat and keep the mixture at a bare simmer. Cook, stirring gently and often, until the rice is completely tender, about 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

In a medium bowl, beat the egg yolks. Add one cup of the rice/milk mixture to the eggs and whisk together. Pour the egg mixture back into the remaining mixture in the saucepan. Put the pan back on medium heat, add the remaining 2/3 cup milk and cook, stirring constantly, just until the mixture begins to boil, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the pudding to a large bowl and place a piece of plastic wrap directly over the surface of the pudding. Set the bowl in an ice bath to cool the pudding quickly. When cool, discard the cinnamon stick and the vanilla bean. Divide the pudding into 6 small bowls or ramekins, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving. The mixture will seem a little thin before refrigerating, but it sets up nicely in the fridge.  Top with sweetened whipped cream, if desired.

*Does anyone else love food-related scenes in movies, or is it just me? I also love that scene in Heartburn where Streep and Jack Nicholson eat spaghetti carbonara in bed, out of one huge bowl, with two forks. And of course, there’s Meg Ryan and the orgasmic sandwich in When Harry Met Sally. The steak Cher forces on Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck. The extravagant pasta timbale in Big Night.  I could go on forever…  If you have a favorite food scene from a movie, I’d love to hear it!

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Ginny Marie November 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm

I SO wish you could have cooked for me when I was going through chemo! The best I could muster up for myself was plain mashed potatoes.


Lana November 27, 2011 at 12:01 am

We are going through the similar things in life… I just left my mom in Serbia after taking care of her for the last four months (I was supposed to stay for only thirty days, but her inoperable and unable to biopsy cancer showed its ugly head and I had no choice).
After a “one-shot” radiation therapy for her spine, she developed the mouth sores and never truly recovered.
While I was there, I made rice pudding for her frequently, in minuscule doses. It is mild, sweet, comforting, and it brings forth those strong nostalgic memories of childhood.
Here is a Cheers! for our mothers, with a wish to keep fighting:)


TKW November 27, 2011 at 10:36 am

I am so sorry about your mother. Thank you for writing and sharing your story. Fighting mamas are things to be cherished, indeed.


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