If I had a pound for every person who’s told me they hate rice pudding, I would be a rich woman. It might be the most hated dessert in Britain, and we have our school system to blame for it. The rice pudding that is ubiquitous (and seemingly generation-crossing) in British schools is offensively bland, inexplicably metallic and unbelievably gelatinous. Made with milk powder and water, never introduced even in passing to actual milk, then poured into a quadrant of a battered plastic tray, it is many people’s first dalliance with rice pudding and, understandably, their last.
I’m not sure its original incarnation would do much to persuade the deniers, either: in The Forme of Cury , a collection of recipes dating back to 1380, rice pudding was a savoury dish made with bone broth. It’s not until the 15th century that it was sweetened, when honey and, later, sugar were introduced.
A proper rice pudding is a thing of joy. Soft and sweet, comforting in its milky warmth, it is the ultimate nursery food: not a grim school dinner but a pot sitting happily in a cooling oven, post-Sunday roast, the smell of spice gently wafting across the house.
Rice pudding is a global delicacy. The Greeks add richness with egg yolks, the French fragrant vanilla, the Spanish inject a boozy hit of sherry. The Danish version, risalamande, eaten at Christmas, is flavoured with almond and served with a warm cherry sauce. The Lebanese flavour their rice pudding with a rose or orange blossom-scented syrup and top it with chopped pistachios. The Turkish serve their cinnamon-laden rice pudding cold, in tiny tea-glasses.
But my favourite is the plain old common-or-garden English variety, baked in a single large dish and served, family-style, in the centre of the table. It should be cooked low and slow until the rice is tender, and the milk thick and creamy and pooling. Its charm is in its simplicity. But it feels appropriate for such a global dish to add a little spice; I like bay and fresh nutmeg. Meanwhile, light brown sugar adds a welcome caramel depth over caster.
Finally, there’s the controversy of the skin. There’s only one right answer, I’m afraid: rice pudding is not rice pudding without a skin. I understand that this is the element that puts many off , but done right, it is the highlight. It shouldn’t be an indifferent, slimy film that wraps around your spoon. It should be bronzed and glossy, sitting proudly puffed up above the creamy rice. Get the skin right and your guests will be fighting over it.
I do bristle at one traditional fixture, though: the spoonful of jam, also a remnant of school-style servings. It adds nothing: just another dose of sweetness, another gluey texture, a barely noticeable fruit flavour. I prefer gently poached fruit: apricots steeped in Earl Grey and honey work well, or just-softened blackberries. Here I do plums with an autumnally appropriate injection of spice. Black pepper and star anise give a welcome warmth that contrasts beautifully with the gentle milkiness.
1. Preheat the oven to 140°C.
2. Place all the rice pudding ingredients apart from the butter in a large dish that can be used both in the oven and on the hob, grating the fresh nutmeg over the top. Heat gently over a medium heat, stirring frequently, making sure that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the basin, until the mixture reaches the boil.
3. Dot the surface of the pudding with butter and carefully transfer to the oven for one hour.
4. Make the compote. Slice the plums into small, bitesize segments, removing the stones, and pop them in the pan with the rest of the compote ingredients. Bring to a simmer for ten minutes until the fruit is soft and just beginning to break down.
5. After an hour, the rice pudding should be burnished brown and glossy on top; leave it for 15 minutes before serving. When you break into it, the rice should be swollen, and the milk creamy and pooling, but not runny. Serve at the table, with a generous spoonful of soft, spiced plums.
MAKES 4-6 SERVINGS
TAKES 20 MINUTES
BAKES 1 HOUR
FOR THE PUDDING
• 120G PUDDING RICE
• 70G LIGHT BROWN SUGAR
• 1 LITRE MILK
• 1 TABLESPOON MILK POWDER
• 5 BAY LEAVES
• HALF NUTMEG, FRESHLY GRATED
• 25G BUTTER
FOR THE COMPOTE
• 400G PLUMS
• 75G SOFT BROWN SUGAR
• 100 ML WATER
• 1 SMALL STAR ANISE
• 1 SMALL CINNAMON STICK
• HALF VANILLA POD
Olivia Potts is the winner of the Young British Foodies’ ‘Fresh Voices in Food Writing’ 2017 award.