Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about language. I’m going through training* to teach English as a foreign language right now, so for the first time, I’m looking at English through the eyes of someone trying to learn it from square one. I’ve always considered myself someone with a brain for language — English grammar was my favorite subject as a kid; I’ve been studying French for 20+ years; and I’ve spent my career writing and editing. Getting to learn Spanish while living in a Spanish-speaking country has been an unexpected linguistic adventure, and I’ve become fascinated with how the three languages in my life intersect — and also how they diverge.
For instance, as mentioned here before, the Spanish have sobremesa, a word translating to something like “table talk,” which in English sounds like a ‘90s conversation game for yuppie dinner parties. Why isn’t there a better word for this in English — surely we like to linger at the table, chatting, digesting and imbibing, too? Oh, hang on — that’s right. America invented the TV dinner. Speaking of which, I learned years ago that the phrase “couch potato” has no real equivalent in French. Nadège, my teacher, racked her brain to come up with something similar, but then just shrugged and said that lying on the couch for 8 hours simply isn’t something the French do. (This was before le Netflix, mind you.)
But what in god’s name does this have to do with arroz con leche, you’re thinking. Plenty! Because just as culture doesn’t always easily translate from one language to the next, neither does food. And something horrible happened to arroz con leche when it traveled across the Atlantic and became “rice pudding.” To say nothing of the general unappealing-ness of the word pudding (go on — say it a few times to yourself and then tell me if you still want to eat it), the English translation has completely robbed this dessert of its milk. But arroz con leche is as much about the milk as it is about the rice.
Before you come correcting me with exceptions that disprove my theory, let me say right now that I realize rice pudding is the world’s dessert, and it differs from country to country, continent to continent. There’s no “right” or “authentic” way to make rice pudding, so thick, globby ones may be perfectly “correct” in certain locales. But in the two culinary/linguistic traditions I know best outside of American English, the dessert differs fundamentally in one really important way: la leche! (Or le lait if we’re talking riz au lait.) And if you’re going to call it arroz con leche, ¡ay, dios mío!, then don’t actually make rice pudding.
Order a rice pudding in the States, and you’re going to get a dish of something that looks like congealed cottage cheese or poorly steamed rice — lumpy and gluey, topped with a few raisins and a smattering of pre-ground cinnamon shaken on as an afterthought. While doing some research for this post, I even came across an article in the Washington Post from 1997 in which the writer decides to try her hand at making a homemade rice pudding that rivals her favorite brand, Kozy’s. After cooking a few old-timey recipes, her taste-testers landed on a winner precisely because it was “a thick, chewy pudding.” What. The. Hell.
Here in Spain, arroz con leche is nothing like the sweetened scoops of paste you’ll find in American cafeterias and diners coast to coast. It’s soupy and smooth, long-simmered over low heat so the milk turns silky — something more akin to condensed milk** — and deeply flavored with citrus peel, whole vanilla beans and cinnamon sticks. When making arroz con leche, your goal isn’t to get the rice to absorb all the liquid (which makes it swell into those thick, chewy lumps). You’re simmering the two main ingredients together, striving to preserve some of their unique identities while at the same time coaxing them into a harmony of a dessert much greater than the sum of its humble parts.
Last thing: the surest sign you’ve made a batch of rice pudding, and not arroz con leche, is that you can eat it with a fork. Arroz con leche is strictly spoon territory.
My recipe is below, but I’m curious — how do you like your arroz con leche or rice pudding? How is it prepared most often where you live? Let me know!
Arroz Con Leche
Note: Many arroz con leche recipes call for the addition of egg yolks for extra richness, but I find the eggy-ness off-putting. It’s also traditional to add condensed milk, which adds decadence to an already rich dish. My preferred everyday version is more minimalist — milk, cream, rice, citrus and spices. (If you have whole cardamom pods, drop a few of those in, too.) Garnish with a dusting of freshly ground cinnamon and grated lemon zest, or top with fresh fruit or compote.
- 130 grams of rice (choose a round, short-grain variety like bomba or Arborio)
- 1 liter whole milk
- 400 milliliters cream
- 1 wide strip of lemon or orange peel
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 vanilla bean
- 200 grams sugar
- Combine all ingredients except the sugar in a nonreactive saucepan over medium heat.
- Cook for one hour, stirring often and lowering heat if necessary to prevent scorching, until the grains are soft and the milk has reduced somewhat.
- Add the sugar and continue to cook for an additional 15 minutes or so, until sugar is dissolved and mixture has thickened slightly. It should still be soupy, of course. (It’ll thicken up a bit more as it cools.)
- Chill for a few hours before serving.
*Hence the radio silence here on the blog. This course is an obscene amount of work. Thanks for still being out there, readers!
**In fact, many recipes for arroz con leche even call for the addition of condensed milk. The milk is important, people!