Food: Ambrosial delights

Rice puddings are delicious hot or cold, and the best can be as good as what comes out of a tin. Photograph by Jason Lowe

When I was a child, TV ads filled me with a near-obsessive desire for whatever food was being flaunted - from Toast Toppers to the latest Mr Kipling fancy. Eschewing my mother's rice pudding, I decided there was only one worth eating, and that was tinned Ambrosia. Even now when I make creamed rice at home, the benchmark is a brightly coloured tin with Devon cows on it.

It took a painfully long period of trial and error to achieve a rice pudding that came up to scratch, where the grains are surrounded by a liquid halfway between whipped cream and custard. There is a big difference between a rice pudding that is nice eaten cold and one that is nice eaten hot. Baked rice pudding is perfect for eating 30 minutes out of the oven - having cooled enough to be able to taste the vanilla, and with its pool of limpid ivory-coloured cream beneath the skin. Chilled, though, it turns to stodge. Nice stodge, but of the kind that seems most attractive at midnight.

Ambrosial cold rice is harder to achieve. I eventually settled on a three- stage affair: first, the rice is cooked with milk and sugar in a very low oven. When cooled, it is combined with an egg custard, then, finally, lightly whipped cream is stirred in. I prefer using risotto rice, which is bred to hold its shape at the same time as oozing its creamy starch into the milk. I have also just tasted a new selection of Indian puddings from Waitrose, two of which are made with basmati rice. The cold creamed rice, or kheer, is flavoured with cardamom, saffron and nutmeg and scattered with almonds and pistachios, and is pretty good. I would also recommend the phirni - a pale orange pap of ground rice and mango puree that slips down a treat.

Normandy markets do a roaring trade in baked rice puddings, laid out with teaspoons for tasting and displayed next to snippets of bread spread with rillettes. The first one I tasted was sold as a cooked-for-two-hours pudding, with a fine golden skin concealing a loose creamy rice underneath. Another slipped up to two-and-a-half hours, and on from this there was a row of bowls tightly sealed with a film of plastic that I almost passed by. According to the vendor, its secret was rice, sugar, milk, cinnamon, "et cuit pour sept heures" (cooked for seven hours) - during which time the skin had wrinkled and folded in on itself after a nighttime of rising and falling like a tent side in high winds.

It was more a matter of curiosity that led me to lug a leaden bowlful of it around for the rest of the morning, turning out as it did to be disappointingly solid and sticky. On a romantic level it's comforting to think that Normandy dairy farmers, having exceeded their quota, can put a few seven-hour rice puddings on to bake and wake up to a profit in the morning. More realistically, perfection arrives in about three- and-a-half hours - if you take Ambrosia creamed rice as your benchmark.

Normandy Rice Pudding, serves 4

It is something of a marvel that this contains only rice, vanilla, milk and sugar. Some like an added spoonful of jam while others prize the skin. I like a little whipped cream on mine. You do need to use a really rich milk. If in doubt substitute a cupful of double cream for an equal quantity of milk.

1 vanilla pod, slit

90g pudding rice

90g golden caster sugar

1 litre full-cream milk

Heat the oven to 250F/130C/gas mark 1/2. Open out the vanilla pod and run a knife along its length to scrape out the seeds. Place these together with the rice, sugar and a little milk in a smallish casserole, and mess them up to distribute the seeds. Add the rest of the milk and stir, place the vanilla pod in the centre and cook in the oven for three- and-a-half to four hours, by which time it should be sealed with a thin golden skin. Underneath, it should be slightly runny, but after 30 minutes this will have settled and, stirred up with the rice at the bottom, it should be the right consistency. It's perfectly nice eaten cold, but avoid chilling it.

Ambrosial Creamed Rice, serves 4-6

This is cold, creamy and rather austere, which is what I like about it. At this time of year, it would be nice with a salad of fresh oranges in a syrup made from Seville oranges.

Rice

140g risotto rice

450ml milk

25g unsalted butter

50g caster sugar

15 cardamom pods

Custard

3 medium egg yolks

70g caster sugar

300ml milk

150ml double cream

Heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Bring a small pan of water to the boil, add the rice and boil it for five minutes, then drain. Bring the milk, butter and sugar to the boil in a small flameproof casserole on top of the stove. Add the cardamom and the rice. Bring the milk back to a simmer, cover the casserole with a circle of buttered paper parchment, and put on the lid. Place the rice in the preheated oven and immediately turn it down to 275F/140C/gas mark 1. Cook for 40 minutes, by which time the milk should have been absorbed. Carefully pick out and discard the cardamom pods and leave the rice to cool.

In the meantime, make the custard. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a bowl until the mixture is pale. Bring the milk to the boil in a small saucepan, whisk it onto the egg yolks and return the mixture to the saucepan. Heat the custard very gently until it just thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Do not allow it to boil. Strain it into a jug or a bowl, cover the surface with film and leave to cool. Once both the custard and the rice are cool, combine them. Lightly whip the cream and fold this in. Chill the mixture for several hours or overnight.

Baked Couscous Pudding with Raisins, serves 6

Not in fact a rice pudding, but if you happen to be in a compulsive mood of a Sunday, it can achieve in just half-an-hour what its languorous cousins will take several hours to do. And its texture is heart-stoppingly good. If you like, add a vanilla pod or a cinnamon stick to the pudding while it bakes.

70g couscous

100g caster sugar

600ml milk

300ml double cream

50g raisins

freshly grated nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 325F/170C/ gas mark 3. Place the couscous, sugar and milk in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add the cream and raisins (and a pinch of salt if you like), bring back to the boil and then transfer to a gratin or other ovenproof dish. Grate lots and lots of fresh nutmeg over the surface and bake for 35 minutes until the pudding is thick and creamy underneath its golden skin. I like it best about 30 minutes out of the oven - it's still good cold but it firms up as it cools

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