Almost without fail, January — which is always too cold, too dull, and too overdue for an antidote for holiday excess — puts me in the mood for rice pudding and this year was no different. I played around with it all month. I made my standard. I made a “creamiest” version I found online that landed me with an undercooked eggy puddle and a wobbly belly. I made a baked version that never came together. And I caved to my husband’s repeated request for chocolate rice pudding which is something you will never see on this site because it was, hands down, the most revolting looking dish I’ve yet to ladle into a bowl. (I added 3 ounces of bittersweet chocolate added to my old favorite, and nixed the almond. See? Now I’ve saved myself a photography challenge!)
But it took me until February got me daydreaming of warmer climates to figure out what I’d really been looking for: arroz con leche. Now, here’s the thing — I did it wrong. I mean, it’s inevitable that it will seem wrong to someone who grew up eating it. There are as many versions of arroz con leche as there are Spanish-speaking grandmas who stir it up, and rarely are two versions alike. That’s the best part.
Here’s what they have in common: Most are thinner than you may expect from rice pudding, not overly sweet and generally just scented with cinnamon and lemon or orange zest (though I’ve seen lime used too). Many use a can of sweetened condensed milk, some us evaporated milk as well. Raisins are optional but common. Some use an egg or even two, many do not. Vanilla is sometimes used, often skipped. There are Dominican version, Peruvian version, Cuban versions, Colombian versions, Spanish versions and guys, all I want to do right now is go visit each of them, audition them on their home turf. Road trip, anyone?
Alas, I am in New York City where more (!) snow (!) is predicted and lazing about is the order of the day. I’m trying to make the most of it, I really am and this pudding, it helps.
Arroz Con Leche
Adapted from Ingrid Hoffmann
Do you like Cozy Shack rice pudding? Has the rice pudding you fell in love with at New Jersey diners and New York delis been elusive to you at home? Well, step right up! (Can you see me in my cape and top hat, waving you into the circus tent? No? Sigh.) Look no further! All of your rice pudding dreams will come true right before your very eyes!
Ahem, more soberly: I made a few changes to the original ingredients, adding salt and swapping large peels for finely grated zest. Some fun ideas for next time: Swapping out some of the milk for an equivalent amount of coconut milk. Swapping a jar of store-bought dulce de leche for the sweetened condensed milk.
Original recipe says it serves 4, I say 8, easily
1 cup long-grain white rice
2 cinnamon sticks (I had very large canela sticks — see bottom for more info — so I only used one)
2 strips of lemon or orange zest (can use a peeler to get a larger piece)
3 whole cloves or a tiny pinch of ground cloves
4 cups water
3 cups whole milk (updated to note that many people, including my mother, successfully made this with lower fat milks)
1 (12-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (I realized after the fact that my can had been 14 ounces, had no averse effect)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
1/2 cup raisins (optional)
Soak the rice, cinnamon sticks, lemon or orange zest and whole or powdered cloves in the water in a heavy saucepan for 1 hour.
After soaking, bring the rice mixture to a boil on high heat, uncovered. When it starts to boil (about 5 minutes), lower the heat to medium and cook for 10 to 12 more minutes or until water is almost evaporated.
While rice is cooking, beat the egg in a bowl. Add the milk and stir well to mix. Add the egg mixture, condensed milk, salt, vanilla extract and raisins, if using, to the rice and cook over medium-low heat, stirring carefully, until it thickens slightly or until desired consistency about 25 to 35 minutes (see notes that follow).
(About cooking time: Many reviewers said 25 to 35 minutes was way too much cooking time for them, and that 15 to 20 minutes would have been better. I was all ready to pull my pot off early, but actually needed almost 30 minutes. Still, want to give you a heads up that yours might be done sooner.)
(About “desired consistency”: I cooked mine until all but 10 percent of the liquid had been absorbed, which yielded a creamy, not-too-thick pudding. If you like your arroz con leche thinner, pull it off the stove when more liquid is left. This pudding does most of its thickening as it cools, but the end result should still be thinner than traditional rice pudding.)
Remove citrus zest and cinnamon sticks. Let cool uncovered, then chill the rest of the way in the fridge.
Mexican cinnamon: A long time ago, I bought a jar of canela (Mexican “soft cinnamon”) sticks from Rancho Gordo and this was the perfect time to bust it out. The cinnamon flavor is just a little different than we’re used to, a little less loud and one note, a little dynamic. It smells exactly like a cross between a cinnamon stick and apple cider. Seriously! When simmered with the pudding for almost an hour, the pudding had an almost spicy edge to it and an unmistakable flavor I associate only with arroz con leche.