Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Masala chai spice themed rice pudding

You might think this topic makes no sense, that it's not even close to being a tea, unless I made it with tea as an ingredient, but I didn't.  That might've worked.  It's not so different than anything including cinnamon and ginger being marketed as "pumpkin spice" related back in the US, but that typically happens in the fall.

I could accept that critique.  This post isn't at all about tea, even though it appears in a tea-themed blog.  It is vaguely related, and I feel like communicating how a masala chai themed rice pudding worked out after making one, and writing about cooking instead, so here it is.

from really making masala chai, in this post

What would the difference be if it were pumpkin pie spice related?  The two sets of spices overlap so much and can vary enough that per my understanding there isn't much difference (which you can check in this first venture into food writing, a post about making a pumpkin pie from scratch).

I made this rice pudding with cinnamon, cardamom, clove, and vanilla.  Ginger would've been ok,  standard for both spice theme sets, but it seemed like clove covered some related flavor-role space, only better for this dish.  Cardamom stood in place of the nutmeg used in pumpkin pies.

Masala chai can include black pepper too, and often enough star anise, but often enough not too.  I only like star anise in savory soups or else it seems like too much for me, with too strong an aftertaste.  That limits it in my cooking to the role it plays in Chinese five spice blends and Vietnamese Pho.

With that context out of the way I'll move on to discussing making this rice pudding version, after some background.

before cooking, the mix

The background, cooking history and philosophy

My Mom made rice pudding, a favorite desert as a child.  That version would've probably used only cinnamon and nutmeg for spicing, besides vanilla.  She slow-cooked it in a crock pot.  It was made based on a standard recipe, using the same ingredients in the same proportion every time, the way normal people prepare foods.

I stopped using recipes in my early 20s, and cooked enough to overcome the missteps that resulted from that.  I guess the idea was to explore cooking by feel, to learn from mistakes, and to experience balancing the inputs more directly, by tasting and adjusting.  It usually worked out, and when it didn't the next version after almost always did.  I cooked everything I could think of:  meats prepared a broad range of ways, traditional American foods, barbecue, soups, or region-specific foods like Cajun, Mexican, and Italian, expanding into doing a lot of baking.  That ranged into ventures as aggressive as making croissants and danishes from scratch, one place I ran into my limitations.  Cakes, pies, tarts, puddings and custards are easy; finely layered forms of pastry not so much.

Rice pudding is easy, you just need to avoid screwing up the proportions.  That's what would happen if someone tried to make it for the first time without any reference to a recipe.  Lets take a look at one, although it's not my Mom's, which I've lost track of.

Old-fashioned Rice Pudding

This recipe was referenced as a Quora answer as the 1975 Betty Crocker version (so it's quite classic):

2/3 cup uncooked regular rice

1 1/3 cups water
2 eggs or 4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or 1 tablespoon grated orange peel
2 cups milk
1/2 cup raisins

Stir together rice and water in saucepan. Heat to boiling, stirring once or twice. Reduce heat; cover and simmer 14 minutes without removing cover or stirring. All water should be absorbed.

Heat oven to 325°. Beat eggs in ungreased 1 1/2-quart casserole. Stir in sugar, salt, vanilla, milk, hot rice and the raisins. Sprinkle with nutmeg. Bake, stirring occasionally, until knife inserted halfway between edge and center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes.

All that really would work.  They don't mention cinnamon at all; kind of strange.  Vanilla seems more appropriate than orange peel, to me, but I guess it could be a matter of taste.  Lets move on to what I just made instead.

A masala chai spice version

I used about 3 cups of cooked rice, and probably around 2 1/2 cups of milk (a lot--too little and the pudding turns out too dense, since even cooked rice will soak up liquid, and the dish is basically a custard).  I added 5 relatively small eggs, a size that just wouldn't come up back in the US, where almost every egg seems to be large.  I'd guess that would be similar to three of those.

palm sugar (credit)

I didn't measure the sugar, and used palm sugar instead, which comes in disks (strange, right?).  I've botched some dishes getting a feel for how those equate to granulated sugar.  I tasted the mixture for sweetness--with raw eggs in it, just madness--and added a bit of granulated sugar at the end to adjust it.  Salt is a critical ingredient, getting the right amount, so little that you barely taste it but enough that is still balances the rest, just as for masala chai.  I added about half a teaspoon.

I can't estimate how much cinnamon, cardamom (ground black pod type), and ground clove I added; some, a good bit, adjusting by tasting after.  Nutmeg really would also work well, and someone else might like ground or even fresh ginger in it, but I'd rather have clove and cardamom fill that range.  Beyond that I added a bit of vanilla (imitation liquid version, maybe two tablespoons), and skipped the raisins, since my Mom didn't add those.  Mashed banana might be nice to add fruit tone but it doesn't match this theme.

I baked it at around 350 for over an hour, starting even hotter initially to speed up heating.  We use Celcius here (in Thailand), so really 200, but then we have a large size version of a toaster oven and temperatures work out differently in those.  Thais tend to not bake; ovens aren't standard.  Slow cooking in a crock pot works really well, we just don't have one.

cooked version; browning the top is optional, but would dress it up

The verdict

It was awesome.  It might seem like splitting spicing input between cinnamon and nutmeg would make roughly the same desert but going heavy on cardamom and adding a good bit of clove for higher end gave it a spice effect you could almost feel more than taste.  I don't mean in the same way spicy Thai food hits your sense of taste like a hammer, or more like a comet-strike if that goes badly, or how Indian food changes your metabolism and the spicing sweats back out of you.  I mean it was tasty in a way that's hard to completely get your sense of taste around; the effect was deeply catchy.

served warm with milk

It would seem natural to add some black tea, wouldn't it?  I'd probably even strongly brew two types of black tea and add both, to give it more complexity.  But I'm not really a "cooking with tea" type of person.  I drink a truly insane amount of tea, maybe only equivalent to a half dozen large cups a day, or 20 small ones, or a mix of sizes, but the number of types really adds up.  I like matcha soft serve ice cream and pretty much leave it at that.  Tea could combine well with lots of foods but I'd sort of rather that in my own diet it didn't.

If I'd made this dish for other people I'd have tried that, for the sake of novelty as much as flavor balance, and eventually I may.  If adding black tea it would make sense to go ahead and put the ginger back in too, but draw the line at black pepper, to keep it sensible.

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