I must admit Arroz con Leche or Rice Pudding is not one of my favorite desserts. With that said, I have had two very profound moments involving Arroz con Leche. First is in Mendoza, Argentina about six years ago. My husband, his parents and I were staying at a bed and breakfast/winery owned by a friend of the family. For dinner the owner and her mom, Cookie, invited us over to share in an incredible meal. Cookie was a remarkable older woman, the kind that you aspire to be. She was funny, lively, and had a laugh that rung over the table and brought a smile to your face. For dessert she had made a pear poached in Malbec topped with custard. It was heavenly and all I could do was hope that it would not be my only time experiencing this dish. With that in mind I asked Cookie for the recipe. She instantly got this look of worry on her face because she didn’t know how to write in English. I asked for them in Spanish hoping that when I got home a friend could help me translate them. Looking only slightly relieved, she then started to share with me other dishes such as dulce de leche and of course Arroz Con Leche.
Arroz Con Leche happened to be her favorite and if I was going to have one of her recipes it had to be that one. She shared with me what made it special and why she cooked it for her family and what her family thought of the dish. She spoke of her mom and aunts and their love for Arroz con Leche. Since it is a favorite of my dear husband and Cookie was so passionate about it, I asked for that recipe as well. When we parted that night, she was still quite concerned about getting me the recipes and I assured her they would be ok in Spanish.
The next morning I woke up to a bundle of recipes on my doorstep. Cookie had awoken early and sat with the front desk manager who could write in English and he had helped her transcribe the recipes before the end of his shift. I was truly touched. I couldn’t believe that she had gone through that much work to share with me her prized recipes. Now, every time I look at those hand written recipes I smile and think of Cookie, her passion, and of her stories.
Fast forward seven years to my current home away from home in Bra, Italy. A few of us, deeply missing Mexican food, decided to make a few dishes for Cinco De Mayo. Of course Arroz Con Leche had to be on the menu. After a trip to Torino to a speciality store for chiles and one full day of prep, May 5th had arrived. We were putting on our final touches, discussing how the different regions in Mexico had their own flair, and reminiscing about past meals. As someone pulled out the Arroz con Leche everyone stories switched to that dish.
For some it reminded them of a dear aunt who made it and for others it was their mom. We discussed cinnamon and how much to put in it and if it should be sprinkled on top. We talked about vanilla or the “red gold” as some called it. We debated about the amount of milk and whether or not to add cream as well. Everyone had their iconic version of this dish, the way they remembered a family member making it. The rest of the kitchen huddled around the giant bowl just waiting for a taste. As I sat and watched this and the smiles on everyone’s face, I thought of Cookie and her equal love for this dish. I thought about how no matter where we come from, what our food identities are, there are certain things that are universal. One of those is passion and another is family. Food just happens to be one thread that ties it all together.
Arroz con Leche
1 large bag of white Rice
1 can sweetened condensed milk
2 sticks of cinnamon
Additional ground cinnamon
½ c of sugar (or more depending on your preference)
1 t vanilla
1-2 liters of milk (you can also use some cream)
Place the rice, sweetened condensed milk, cinnamon sticks, sugar, and vanilla in a large pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Simmer on low until rice is tender, being careful not to overcook the rice. Taste and if needed add more sugar.
Remove from heat and let cool overnight. Add milk and/or cream until the mixture is almost souply (or not, it’s up to you). Serve cold with additional cinnamon sprinkled on top (or not, it’s up to you).