Time and a bit of creativity have the ability to do wonderful magical things to ordinary ingredients. Just about every culture I can think of has their own version of rice pudding; one that uses very ordinary ingredients and lifts them them by using a bit of time and elbow grease, ingenuity and either fat, sugar or both, turning what would have been scraps in the cupboard into something that sustains us. From what I can tell, it boils down to the little tweaks and ingredient changes that has differentiated one culture’s version of this recipe from the next. I would also venture to say not only does it vary between cultures, but likewise from family to family within a culture, as it’s one of those dishes that gets passed down through the generations.
In the UK the classic rice pudding recipe tends to pair back to rice, milk, cream and sugar, sometimes with the addition of vanilla or cinnamon and raisins, making it either in a pot on the stove or in the oven. Puerto Rican arroz con dulce often involves soaking the rice overnight, and adding rum soaked raisins as well as coconut milk and cream along with spices like cloves, cinnamon, ginger amongst other ingredients to the dish. Jamaican versions might see allspice as well as toppings like crushed pineapple or cornflakes added. Mexican arroz con leche versions often include an egg or egg yolk for richness and Portuguese versions add lemon zest. Peruvian versions can include condensed milk. Nordic countries might serve it drizzled with more milk or even fruit juice. In a variety of Asian cultures saffron, coconut, banana, pistachios, jaggery or rosewater might be added. It quite literally spans the globe, changing every so slightly as it does.
I came across Arroz con Leche all over New Mexico, how it was made varied slightly from household to household. Like many of the best dishes in the world, it isn’t so much a restaurant dish as it is a family dish, so I would be a bit surprised to find it on a menu. It is however a dish that is infused with simple comforts, and continues to remind me that even when we believe our kitchen cupboards have little to offer on a cold winter night, a little bit of tenderness and care can go a long way.
You can make this dish without the evaporated milk if it’s not your thing. I almost left it out the first time I made it. In the end however I went against my instinct and added it in as an experiment – I’m glad I did. I found it adds to the custardy flavour that I love so much, and also helps cut down the sweetness. That said it’s pretty delicious without too- though I’d cut back on the sugar a bit if omitting.