Last week I was looking for a way to use up extra milk. I could have made yogurt but I wanted a dish that could easily be frozen. Rice pudding came to mind. Fortunately, I had many tempting rice puddings I could choose from.

In France I learned from restaurant chefs to prepare a souffle-like baked rice pudding with the egg whites whipped separately. Even fancier was a rice pudding baked in a caramel-coated dish. I’ve also liked a French rice pudding enriched with egg yolks and butter and topped with poached fruit glazed with jam. The most elaborate rice pudding was a classic molded dessert, riz a l’imperatrice, made with candied fruit, and, like Bavarian cream, enriched with custard and whipped cream and set with gelatin.

I wanted to make a homey rice pudding. There are many variations of this popular pudding made in kitchens around the globe. “Wherever there is rice, there seems to be a simple rice pudding, most often cooked in milk,” write Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, the authors of Seductions of Rice.

Although the milk most commonly used in rice pudding is fresh whole milk, there are other options. Patricia McCausland-Gallo, author of Secrets of Colombian Cooking, makes her arroz con leche with whole milk, sweetened condensed milk and heavy cream. Other Latin American cooks add canned evaporated milk to their rice puddings. Coconut milk is the choice in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Cooks looking for parve or vegan alternatives to dairy milk that are lower in fat than coconut milk use soy milk or rice milk, and these also produce tasty rice puddings.

Vanilla is a favorite flavoring for rice puddings, especially in France. The recipe lends itself beautifully to using vanilla beans, as their fine flavor infuses into the milk. Some add strips of lemon or orange zest to infuse as well, or stir in grated citrus zest when the pudding has finished cooking. Others use sweet spices such as grated nutmeg. In India and in Iran, rosewater and saffron lend an exotic touch to rice puddings.

USING SPICES in their whole form gives rice puddings a delicate flavor and has the advantage of leaving the dessert white. McCausland-Gallo cooks whole cloves and cinnamon sticks in the milk in her Colombian rice pudding. My friend Barbara Hansen, author of Mexican Cookery and of the Mexican food website www.eatmx.com, flavors her Mexican rice pudding with vanilla, strips of lime zest, and cinnamon in two forms – a cinnamon stick that simmers in the milk with the rice and ground cinnamon sprinkled on top at serving time.

I settled on an Indian rice pudding, inspired by the one I had last month at a Sikh temple. For my husband and me, the creamy pudding was the highlight of the delicious vegetarian meal that we enjoyed sitting on a carpet strip on the temple dining-room floor.

When I asked how they make their pudding, I found out that their technique is different from the one I often use. Instead of first cooking the rice in water to soften it rapidly and then heating it in milk, they cook their rice very slowly in whole milk – two or three hours for the large amount that they make – until the rice is tender and the pudding has thickened. Then the pudding is sweetened with sugar, flavored with cardamom and embellished with a small amount of almonds, cashews and raisins.

Although the pudding was rich, its texture was light because it had a relatively low proportion of rice to milk.

It had thickened not only from the natural starch in the rice but also because the milk had reduced in volume.

My challenge was to make a similar pudding at home using my milk, which was nonfat, even though some cooks advise not to use skim milk in this type of pudding.

A friend of mine laughed at the idea of using nonfat milk, saying “You can’t thicken water by reducing it.”

Yet I knew that if the pudding remained soupy, I could add rice flour or cornstarch to thicken it.

In fact, the Indian-style pudding turned out delicious. (The recipe is below.) Instead of using Basmati rice or risotto rice, I used common, inexpensive long-grain rice and was pleased to see how well it worked.

Rice pudding thickens as it cools. If the pudding has cooled to room temperature and you would like to serve it warm, gradually stir in a little hot milk to bring it to the consistency you like. If you’d like to serve it cold and it has become too thick, stir in a little cold milk. Pudding served cold may also need a little more sugar.

Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.

LIGHT AND CREAMY RICE PUDDING

You can substitute chopped, unsalted pistachios or other nuts for the almonds and, if you like, add a spoonful of raisins, dried cherries or other dried fruits. I used nonfat milk but of course you can make this pudding with low-fat or whole milk. You can keep the pudding, covered, up to 2 days in the refrigerator.

Milk heated at length tends to stick. It’s best to use a heavy pan or a good nonstick pan and to stir the mixture often, especially before it has come to a simmer.

If you multiply the recipe to make more servings, use a pan that is wide enough so that the layer of pudding mixture is not too deep; otherwise it will take a long time to thicken.

Makes about 3 small servings

3 cups milk, or up to 4 cups if needed
3 Tbsp. long-grain rice, rinsed in cold water and drained
2 Tbsp. sugar, or more to taste
1⁄8 tsp ground cardamom seeds, or to taste
1 Tbsp. sliced almonds, plus additional sliced almonds for garnish

In a nonstick or heavy medium-size pan of about 3 liters (3 quarts), heat the milk over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until it comes nearly to a simmer. Add the rice and cook, stirring very often and scraping the bottom of the pan, until it comes to a simmer.

Reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, stirring often and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan, until rice is soft but not mushy, about 45 minutes, adding more milk by quarter cups after about 30 minutes if mixture thickens too much before rice has softened.

Stir in 2 Tbsp sugar and heat briefly over low heat, stirring, until it dissolves. Add cardamom and almonds and heat for a few seconds.

Serve pudding warm, room temperature or cold, sprinkled with additional almonds.

SPANISH RICE PUDDINGArroz con leche

This recipe is from Seductions of Rice. Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid call it “classic comfort food from Spain, here presented in its plainest everyday form.”

They advise: “Be sure to use a very light hand with the sprinkled cinnamon, or you risk overpowering the aromas of the rice.”

Their recipe calls for Spanish or Italian medium- grain rice. You could also use risotto rice.

Makes 6 servings

41⁄2 cups whole milk
2.5 cm. (2 inches) cinnamon stick
Zest of 1⁄2 lemon, peeled off in large strips
3⁄4 cup Spanish or Italian medium-grain rice, washed and drained
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3⁄4 cup sugar
Pinch of salt
Dusting of ground cinnamon

Place the milk, cinnamon stick and lemon zest in a large heavy pot. Bring just to a boil, sprinkle in the rice, and bring back almost to a boil. Stir well, lower the heat to very low and simmer for 45 to 50 minutes, until the rice is very soft, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and to break up any lumps. Remove the cinnamon stick.

(The recipe can be prepared several hours ahead to this point and set aside until 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Bring the rice just to a simmer before proceeding.) Stir in the butter, then the sugar and salt. Continue cooking, stirring, for another 5 minutes.

Transfer to a serving bowl or to individual dessert bowls. Serve warm or, our preference, let cool to room temperature. Just before serving, sprinkle on a touch of cinnamon.

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