I was browsing around our local dollar store a couple of weeks ago when I strolled by the refrigerated foods section. My eyes landed on the tempting selections of puddings and gelatin dessert cups: tapioca pudding, flan and gelatina de mosaico (a kind of Jell-O salad made with colorful gelatin pieces in jiggly cream). I bought two tapioca cups but ended up eating them myself. While my daughter likes the flavor of tapioca pudding, she can’t get past the texture, which seems too much like clusters of frog eggs. She calls it Baby Yoda food (a reference to an egg-loving character from Disney’s Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian.”)
The next week, to appease my persnickety daughter, I went back and bought a few cups of arroz con leche or “rice with milk,” although it’s closer to the mark to call it rice pudding. It turned out to be our favorite of everything we tried. It’s lightly sweet and comfortingly creamy with a pleasing bit of rice texture, topped with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Someone who has grown up eating arroz con leche will immediately point out that American rice pudding isn’t the same as arroz con leche. American rice pudding is perfectly delicious and I would scarf down a cup right now if I didn’t need both hands to type this, but it doesn’t have the same richness of arroz con leche, which is traditionally made with both fresh and canned milk and flavored with lots of cinnamon.
Because it’s too embarrassing to fill my cart with 30 cups of arroz con leche, I decided to try to make it at home. The first thing I discovered is that there are a lot of ways to make arroz con leche. Some instructions say to cook the rice in water first, then add milk, while some recipes call for cooking the rice directly in the milk. Some flavor the water with citrus rinds and some use only cinnamon sticks. Some use only whole milk, some use evaporated milk and some use sweetened condensed milk, while other recipes call for all three. Some recipes are more like rice soup and others are thicker and keep a slight chewiness in the rice. Many recipes also call for raisins, which I love but are, strangely, not universally popular. (“Grape boogers,” my friend calls them. There’s no accounting for taste.)
Although arroz con leche can be enjoyed warm from the pot, I recommend chilling it overnight to help it thicken. And don’t be shy about the cinnamon and vanilla because the rice really soaks up the flavor like a thirsty starch-sponge. However, the thing that puts homemade arroz con leche a step above the dollar store dessert cups is the addition of fragrant orange zest. I also earnestly desired to add raisins but after a heated conversation with my anti-raisin daughter, I opted to omit them. If you side with the raisin-haters but would still like an extra something in your pudding, substitute almond slivers or chopped pistachios for raisins. (In fact, you could take the whole operation in a different direction and add cardamom and rosewater for an East Indian rice pudding called kheer.)
I tried the cook-the-rice-in-water-first method and I liked the flavor and texture. Boil 3 cups of water in a large pan with three cinnamon sticks, ½ teaspoon salt and the skin of 1 orange, torn into large chunks. Before you peel the orange, run it over a grater to get 1 or 2 teaspoons of fresh zest, then toss the rest of the peel into the pot. When the water comes to a roiling boil, add 1 heaping cup of rice and turn the heat to low. Some recipes are insistent about the variety of rice — long grain, short grain, Arborio or what have you — but I used basmati because that’s what’s in the jar on my counter. (Basmati has a popcornlike aroma that some folks don’t like but I’m all for it.) I should also add that many recipes stress that the rice must be rinsed before boiling to remove the starch but, really, isn’t starch the whole point? You want to keep as much starch as possible to get a satisfyingly thick consistency.
Let the rice cook on medium heat, uncovered, for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently so the rice won’t burn or stick to the bottom. This open-pot method of cooking the rice may seem counterintuitive but just go with it.
While the rice is cooking, warm up (but do not boil) 3 cups whole milk, 1 can of evaporated milk and 1 can of sweetened condensed milk along with ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, the reserved orange zest and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract. Cut back on the vanilla if you want but my philosophy is to add two or three times the amount of vanilla that the recipe suggests. I’m a renegade like that. And yes, I acknowledge that vanilla is expensive and I go through it like water but my deep, dark secret is that sometimes I use fake vanilla. The Real Vanilla Enforcement Squad hasn’t yet shown up to my house to demand compliance, so I think we’re safe on that count.
When the rice is soft but not squishy and the water has been absorbed, remove the cinnamon sticks and any chunks of orange peel. (Rice will stick to the orange peel and you can have a fine time scalding your fingers in an attempt to get it off or you can save your fingers and write off those few grains of rice.) Pour the milk mixture over the rice mixture. Simmer, uncovered, on low for about 30 minutes but keep an eagle eye on that pot because the rice will try its hardest to get stuck to the bottom. Stir the rice frequently to avoid burning and to reincorporate any milk-skin that forms on the top.
When it’s become reasonably thickish, turn off the heat and let the pudding cool. This is the time to add the raisins or nuts, if that’s your jam. Ladle the pudding into ramekins or parfait cups to create individual servings or put the whole pot in the fridge to cool overnight. It won’t solidify but the rice will continue to absorb liquid for the next several hours, giving it a richer, creamier mouthfeel. If you can’t wait that long and you keep opening the fridge to take surreptitious bites, have no shame. Call it an early start to your Cinco de Mayo celebrations.
Arroz con Leche with Orange
3 cups water
3 cinnamon sticks
½ teaspoon salt
Peel from 1 orange, torn into large chunks
1 cup rice
3 cups whole milk
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1-2 teaspoons fresh orange zest
Boil 3 cups of water in a large pan with cinnamon sticks, ½ teaspoon salt and the orange rind. Add rice and turn the heat to low. Cook rice on medium heat, uncovered, for about 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently. Meanwhile, warm (but do not boil) whole milk, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk and add cinnamon, reserved orange zest and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract.
When the rice is tender, remove the orange rind and cinnamon sticks. Pour the milk mixture over the rice mixture. Simmer, uncovered, on low for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently. When thickened, remove from heat to cool. Store in the refrigerator.