Greetings from Maine on the Solstice! Time to light your candles and make some hearty, nourishing food for the soul on this darkest day, just before the light starts its return. Years ago, I began making today’s recipe — rice pudding — for friends in an old Massachusetts farmhouse. There have been so many friends since, for whom it’s a comfort food, and I’ve made lots of versions from different cultures from Mexico to India, based on their favorites. My mother used to talk about the Tomten, a shy, little Scandianvian elf-like creature, who lived quietly in barns, staying out of human sight and taking care of the farm animals. We got our milk from a small farm nearby, and I would try to imagine in which corner of the hayloft the Tomten might make his home. According to custom, on Christmas Eve, a dish of rice pudding was left in the barn as thanks to the Tomten. I also read of a different tradition in which the rice pudding was left outside the door on Christmas Eve for the trolls — otherwise a nasty one might show up in the guise of one of your relatives the next day to wreak havoc with the festivities. Hmmm … sound at all familiar? It does seem like at least a small dish of rice pudding might be a prudent preventive measure.
Whatever tradition you want to observe, here is a recipe for old-fashioned rice pudding that can be served a number of ways. Warm with a little butter, nuts, dried fruits or fresh berries, it makes a lovely winter breakfast. Cooled, with whipped cream and a bit of sweetener folded in, it is an elegant dessert, served with a simple red berry sauce.
If you would like to start your own holiday tradition of enjoying rice pudding on Christmas Eve and leaving a bit for the Tomten, a great book to read out loud with kids of all ages is “The Tomtes’ Christmas Porridge” by Sven Nordquist. It is a fun and magical peek at Christmas in another culture with amazing illustrations — and a gentle reminder for children that Christmas should be as much about giving thanks to all the people who enrich our lives in big and small ways as it is about receiving.
Rice Pudding for the Tomten:
- 1 cup uncooked white rice (I use Basmati — any kind will do)
- 4 cups (1 quart) whole milk (for a vegan version use 2 cups unsweetened almond milk with one 15 oz. can of full-fat coconut milk)
- 1 tablespoon vanilla
- honey or maple syrup to taste
- 1 teaspoon cardamom
- sliced almonds for garnish
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
Start with a heavy-bottomed pot. (This is important!) Cook the rice in extra water with a pinch of salt until it’s a bit overcooked and has started to turn sticky. Then add milk, vanilla, and cardamom, and bring just to a simmer. Then start stirring … you will have to stir until the mixture is reduced by at least half … this takes a while … be patient!
Once the rice and milk has cooked down to a thick, oatmeal-like consistency, turn off the heat, and stir in a few tablespoons of honey or maple syrup. This is not meant to be too sweet! At this point you can either serve warm with butter or proceed to the fancier, whipped-cream version. If you want to do this, let the pudding cool down a bit, then put a layer of plastic wrap against the surface to keep a skin from forming, and chill several hours or overnight. Make the berry sauce by combining the berries, preserves, and cinnamon, and heating just til the preserves have melted.
When ready to serve, whip the cream til stiff, adding a tablespoon of maple syrup, another 1/4 teaspoon cardamom, and a teaspoon of vanilla. Now fold the whipped cream into the rice pudding with a spatula. Don’t overmix — you want it to be light and fluffy!
Simple Red berry sauce:
- 15 oz. frozen raspberries or sliced strawberries
- dash of cinnamon
- few tablespoons preserves of your choice
Options for serving:
1.) Make a warm breakfast dish by stirring in a handful of raisins or dried cranberries near the end of the cooking process. Serve in bowls, topped with a dollop of butter, coconut oil, or nut butter. Add a sprinkling of nuts and fresh berries.
2.) For dessert: Chill the pudding in a large mixing bowl, and make your berry sauce ahead of time. When ready to serve, whip a pint of cream, and fold into the pudding with a spatula or large spoon. Serve with berry sauce.
3.) For an extra-fancy dessert: alternate spoonfuls of pudding, whipped cream, fresh berries & berry sauce in parfait glasses, topping with whipped cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon. So beautiful!