Food

Rice Pudding Gets a Fried Twist for Dessert

Maggie Hennessy

Culinary inspiration shouldn’t only come from rosy taste memories. Take rice pudding. Depending on whom you ask, this humble dish of rice cooked in sweetened cream until soft and thick may recall a simple, satisfying dessert or a lumpy, sad gruel à la Oliver Twist. For one chef, the loathsome rice pudding of his childhood became an unlikely muse for a whimsical dessert arancini that channels the nostalgic flavors of breakfast cereal.

Equal parts breakfast pottage and dessert, rice pudding owes its dual identity to a globe-trotting history dating back to ancient Asia, where it likely originated as congee (China) or kheer or rice kanji (India). A less prevailing theory suggests it was invented in Persia, where it was known as shir berenj, or “milk rice.”

“If you think about cultures with ancient sugar and rice cultures, it’s not hard to jump to the conclusion that rice pudding originated in India,” says Cameron Jacobs, domestic promotion manager at USA Rice.

Rice pudding eventually migrated west to Europe, where adaptations incorporated honey and cinnamon, and it took on the thicker, custard-like form.

Some time later, a young Cameron Grant, a 2016 Chef to Watch, first tasted rice pudding at his elementary school in Edinburgh, Scotland. “I hated it,” the Chicago chef remembers. “I was forced to eat it in school, and you had to finish everything you were given.”

He didn’t change his tune until years later, when his work in professional kitchens and penchant for Italian cookery took him to Italy’s Piemonte region, where he learned how to make proper risotto.

“We made risotto at the Italian restaurant I worked in prior to going to Italy, but learning the way they make it over there was mind-blowing—a real game changer,” Grant says. Among the tricks of the trade he collected was stirring in cream in the early stages of cooking so it absorbs into the individual rice kernels and adds richness.

Now as chef/partner of the Piemontese-inspired Osteria Langhe, Grant draws all kinds of sweet and savory inspiration from the humble rice dish as he morphs it into dessert arancini.

“Arancini is such a classic street food in Italy,” he says. “Turning it into a dessert seemed like a whimsical place to be.”

Grant cooks carnaroli rice with moscato, cream, sugar, and vanilla until the rice is al dente and creamy, swirling in a blob of mascarpone at the end for added richness. He chills the rice, then forms it into balls, rolling them in panko crumbs and deep-frying until golden. The finished arancini are arranged atop honey-frosted corn flakes and drizzled with Italian acacia honey (recipe).

“Since rice can be like a cereal, pairing it with sweetened corn flakes just made sense,” Grant says. “Ultimately, this dessert is all about texture and that satisfying crunch.”

Maggie Hennessy’s go-to rice dish is curry fried rice with tofu and tender greens.

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