Woah Nellie! Lemon Rice Pudding beats out Stuffed Calf’s Heart

by Mary Jo David

Are you “Team Tapioca” or “Team Rice Pudding”? If you’re the latter, you’re in luck. Lemon Rice Pudding is the recipe selected for this month’s 100-year-old recipe test from Nellie Maxwell’s Kitchen Cabinet column back in December 1922.

While I’m actually more of a “Team Tapioca” person, rice pudding does occupy an important place in my heart because it always reminds me of my maternal grandmother. Rice pudding was one of her favorites, and even after she could no longer count on her eyesight, she could whip up this dish solely by memory and feel. While I was hoping to venture into a more savory dish this month, maybe even a main dish, I decided to forgo my choices of mutton or stuffed calf’s heart (let’s be real, this one was never going to be selected!) in favor of a trip back in time with Lemon Rice Pudding.

To her credit, Nellie started out on the right foot with this recipe, remembering to include quantities for the milk, rice, eggs and lemon zest. But she left the sugar quantity up to the reader, so I went with 1/3 cup.

When today’s cooks set out to make rice pudding, we are faced with many more types of rice to pick from than our counterpart cooks from the 1920s. Should we use short-, medium-, or long-grain rice? What about basmati, jasmine, or bomba rice? (Ok, I admit I only included “bomba” because it’s fun to say!) And what about—gasp—instant rice?! After some online searching, I found the folks at Mahatma® Rice recommend basmati rice for rice pudding. But then I realized I only had long-grain and brown rice in the cupboard, so I went with long grain.

I was at a loss for how to cook the rice—Nellie simply suggests cooking the rice in the milk until tender. I’ve cooked plenty of rice in my time, but in water, not milk. I had visions of a glumpy mess burning and sticking to the pan. I did more Googling, only to find that when cooking in milk, some people prefer boiling and then simmering the rice and others just simmer for an extended period of time. I went with bringing the rice and milk to a boil over medium heat, then covering it and simmering it for about 25 minutes.

In these hypervigilant times, when cooks are constantly reminded of the risks of food poisoning and cross contamination, I couldn’t help but be concerned about Nellie’s instruction for adding the egg yolks after the rice pudding was done cooking on the stovetop. Would the amount of time spent browning the meringue in the oven be long enough to ward off the threat of salmonella from raw egg yolk? I decided not to chance it, so when the rice seemed tender, I added about 1/4 cup of milk to the beaten egg yolks and stirred that combination into the cooked rice mixture, heating on low for about five more minutes.

After heaping (Nellie’s word, not mine) the cooked rice into a baking dish, Nellie directs us to use the remaining egg whites and some sugar to make a meringue for the top of the pudding, then bake the assembled concoction for a short time to brown the meringue.

Meringue! This was almost enough to stop me from making this recipe. Some of you may remember my meringue flop from the September 2022 issue of SCN. But I’m happy to say it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve learned since the last disaster (but no thanks to Nellie, who never shared this secret) that, when making meringue, it’s important to add the sugar gradually to the egg whites while they are still foamy and before they have peaked. As a result, the meringue turned out pretty as a picture this time—although I still have my doubts that meringue works as a topping for rice pudding.

My resident taste tester and I both tried the pudding while still warm from the oven and again the next day after it was in the fridge. The pudding was very tasty—warm or cold. I noted that the lemon flavor from the zest was a bit stronger the second day but not too strong. The rice would probably have benefited from cooking a bit longer with maybe a little more milk, but it really was quite delicious as-is.

I did note that some liquid collected in the bottom of the casserole dish after the pudding cooled, but you can easily spoon around that when serving. And although the meringue held up and did make the dessert look more attractive, it would really be fine to serve the rice pudding without the meringue.

All in all, I can say Nellie’s Lemon Rice Pudding recipe has successfully withstood the test of time.

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