I don't like rice pudding. Not at all. And I'm not just talking about the weird gloopy stuff you buy in cans or pots, the kind that my boyfriend loves to devour after dinner topped with some tinned pineapple from the tin that I'm eating instead of his horribly ricey concoction. Even the proper homemade stuff. I didn't actually try it until a couple of years ago, when I made a recipe that - on paper - sounded delicious, full of milk and sugar and cardamom and cloves and cinnamon, topped with gorgeous juicy roasted plums. But I totally hated it. The reason? Not, perhaps, what you'd expect. I didn't find it too stodgy. I didn't hate the formation of a slight skin of milk over the top. It wasn't too gloopy for me, or texturally unpleasant.
No. The reason I hated it was simple: it was too similar to porridge.
It looked like porridge. It should have tasted like porridge. But instead it was sickeningly sweet, jarringly so, and too creamy. I couldn't eat much of it. The whole experience just seemed wrong; everything was telling me to expect a bowl full of soothing, bland, mushy oats, totally untempered by sugar of any kind and lent sweetness simply from their fruity topping. Instead it was cavity-inducing and weird.
I haven't tried it since. Maybe it sounds like I don't have much of a good reason, but to be honest I'd much rather use whatever luscious rice pudding toppings are out there (I've seen some fantastic recipes involving caramelised mango...) to decorate my bowl of porridge, and feel a lot less guilty about it seeing as there's no sugar involved. And it's not dessert. Rice for dessert is kind of odd.
Rice pudding, to me, looks far too much like either risotto or porridge, and because it is neither it delivers an unpleasantly surprising eating experience. What can I say? It just doesn't do it for me. Give me a good crumble or treacle tart any day.
However, when I came across a recipe in this month's delicious magazine for torta di riso al profumo d'arancio by Gennaro Contaldo (of 'Two Greedy Italians' fame, with Antonio Carluccio), I was intrigued. The picture looked wonderfully inviting, in a sticky, carbohydrate-dense sort of way. The English translation of its name is 'orange rice cake', which is sadly lacking in elegance compared to the Italian.
I've read about and seen similar cakes before, on both my literal and literary culinary journeys around Italy. They're typical of northern Italy, where rice is a staple crop. I had a wonderful time staying in Vercelli last April eyeing up the countless varieties of rice on offer at the local delis, and it turns out I needn't have bothered, because the hotel where I stayed gave away free bags of branded rice as a farewell gift to every guest. How amazing is that? As if you'd ever find an English hotel doing something similar. What would we give away? Branded bacon sandwiches? Takeaway tubs of shepherd's pie?
This cake uses the now ubiquitous arborio variety of rice. You essentially make a cross between a rice pudding and a risotto, simmering the risotto rice in milk that's infused with citrus zest, vanilla and sugar, before thickening it with egg yolks and lightening it with egg whites and baking it in the oven.
This cake could also be called 'Sicily meets Tuscany'. I have some gorgeous Sicilian blood oranges sitting in my fridge from a couple of weeks ago, and decided to use their zest and juice in this cake, even though it's of northern Italian origin. Still, my fusion of north and south worked exceptionally well, if the taste of the result is anything to go by. I simmered the rice in milk permeated with the fragrant orange zest (along with a vanilla pod), until it became plump, sweet and gorgeous. In went some raisins, which I think are essential and provide a wonderful contrast both in texture and flavour. Next time I'll use more, and probably add some candied peel as well.
Then egg yolks, whisked with blood orange juice to a light orange cream. The original recipe says Grand Marnier, but I had none and the juice worked fine - though I did add a splash of Drambuie, for good measure. This goes into the rice to bind it together. Finally, egg whites, beaten to stiff peaks. They're folded through the mixture to make it fluffy and mousse-like, and it all goes into a tin and into the oven.
I have to say, despite my hatred of rice pudding, that the cooked rice - having soaked up its milky bath of delights - looked so delicious. Perhaps I may be coming round to the idea. But I doubt it, because when you can take rice pudding to another level completely by baking it in cake form, why on earth would you want to eat it any other way?
This cake is intriguing and delicate. It's sweet and subtle. It's delicious and fragrant. It's satisfying and sticky.
You end up with a very well-risen creation, burnished and crinkly on top where a skin has formed, and with a fluffy crust around the edges like a cheesecake. In fact, it looks very similar to a cheesecake when turned out of the tin. Cut into it, however, and you find a slightly molten centre, still partially liquid from the milky rice, while the outer parts are firm and slightly chewy. Needless to say, it's a very moist, sticky cake - there is, after all, over a litre of milk in it.
Although you can clearly see it's made of rice, this is definitely more cake than rice pudding. It has a wonderfully satisfying cakey texture, with a slight bite to it. Even better, it is decadently rich and creamy, suffused with the perfume of vanilla, orange juice and orange zest. I can't quite describe the flavour, but it reminds me a lot of eating proper French custard - that thick, gorgeous creme patisserie that you find in little pastry fruit tartlets; rich, creamy, with a delicate hint of sweet fragrant flavour. It's quite subtle and not too sweet either; too much sugar I think would just destroy its nuanced flavour. I love the juicy crunch of the raisins, which really enliven the whole creation, though I can't wait to try candied peel as well to continue the Sicilian theme.
I served this simply, dusted with a thick layer of icing sugar (essential, I think, as the cake itself isn't very sweet) and accompanied by slices of blood orange. The fruit goes really well with the cake - as it's quite creamily bland (in a good way), the zestiness of fresh orange slices really works a treat with the thick mass of baked rice.
Please don't be sceptical that I'm giving you risotto baked into a cake. This is really, really lovely. It would make a perfect mid-afternoon snack with a cup of coffee, and also makes an unusual dessert - though, being predominantly rice, it is quite filling, so plan your preceding courses carefully!
If you're a rice pudding hater, don't worry. This is not rice pudding. It is torta di riso al profumo d'arancio, and mamma mia, is it good. It's nursery food, dressed up with Italian elegance and style, made exotic and sexy.
And if you don't think rice is sexy, try bathing it in milk fragrant with sweet vanilla and orange zest. You might just change your mind.
Vanilla and blood orange rice cake (serves 6-8):
(Recipe adapted from delicious. magazine, May 2012 issue)
1.1 litres milk (I used semi-skimmed)
1 vanilla pod, split
Zest of 1 blood orange
130g caster sugar
200g arborio rice
50ml blood orange juice
2 tsp Drambuie or Grand Marnier (optional)
3 large eggs, separated
Icing sugar, to serve
Blood oranges, to serve
Put the milk, sugar, orange zest and vanilla pod in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the rice and simmer for 25 minutes until the rice has absorbed most of the milk, and is cooked but still slightly al dente. Leave to cool - while it cools, the rice should absorb the rest of the milk, turning into a thick, creamy mass. Add the raisins.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/160C fan oven. Grease and line a 20-23cm springform cake tin.
In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with the orange juice and liqueur (if using) until thick and creamy. Stir into the cooled rice. Whip the egg whites to stiff peaks, then fold a third of them into the rice mixture to loosen it. Once loosened, fold in the rest of the egg whites.
Pour into the prepared tin and bake for 60-75 minutes, until the centre is quite firm to the touch and a skewer comes out mostly clean. Halfway through the cooking time, cover the cake with foil to stop the top browning too much.
Leave to cool, then serve at room temperature dusted with icing sugar and garnished with sliced blood oranges.