April 13, 2017

Dear friends,

The burning question in my life since the finale of Top Chef on March 2 is how to get my hands on some of Shirley Chung’s drop-dead delicious rice pudding.

Shirley was not the winner (Brooke Williamson edged her out to become season 14 Top Chef), but Shirley’s pudding was the hit of the finale. It was Padma’s favorite dish of the evening. Tom said it was his favorite Top Chef dessert ever and may have been the best dessert he has tasted, period.

The rice pudding was ultra-creamy, not too sweet, and studded with tropical fruit and other goodies that the judges kept dredging up with their spoons. A scoop of lemon-lime “snow” that Shirley made with liquid nitrogen nestled on top of each portion.

So far neither the recipe or recipe guesstimates have been posted to the Internet. I got tired of waiting and made the pudding myself. Keep in mind that I have no clue what the ingredients are other than rice, so my pudding is definitely not Shirley’s. It is pretty good, though, and meets all the criteria: Intensely creamy — almost mousse-like – and not too sweet, with a variety of add-ins that vary in texture, flavor, temperature and even saltiness.

The add-ins: Cubes of ripe mango, cubes of frozen kiwi, salted whole cashews and sesame brittle.

I used Japanese rice for the pudding because I think it’s the best. It is sold in mainstream stores as “sushi rice,” although it is used for all purposes in Japan. The grains are plump and flavorful, a cross between long-grain and arborio. I made a standard stove-top rice pudding and chilled it until firm, then fluffed it up with a stick blender and folded in unsweetened whipped cream. Note that there is no vanilla in the recipe. The pudding doesn’t need it, and I didn’t want a dominant flavor competing with the add-ins.

All of the add-ins except the brittle are ready-made —just dice up some fruit and open a can of nuts. The sesame brittle takes a bit of time to produce but I think it’s worth it. I toasted sesame seeds and stirred them and some Asian sesame oil into melted sugar in a small saucepan, then poured it onto a buttered platter to cool. The broken shards of brittle, the fruit and the nuts are buried in each portion of rice pudding just before serving.

This dessert would be an unexpected treat after an Asian meal. It is more sophisticated and frankly tastes better than traditional Chinese rice pudding. Until Shirley coughs up her recipe, it may be the best rice pudding you’ve ever had.

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RICE PUDDING MOUSSELINE WITH TROPICAL FRUIT

Pudding:

3 1/2 cups milk
3/4 cup Japanese sushi rice or any firm long-grain white rice (not converted)
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 egg
1 cup whipping cream

Add-Ins:

2 kiwi, peeled and in 1/2-inch dice
Sesame brittle (recipe follows)
12 to18 salted whole cashews
1 or 2 ripe mangos

For the pudding: Heat 1 1/2 cups of milk to a simmer in a medium-size saucepan. Stir in rice and salt. Return to a simmer. Cover and simmer very gently for about 15 minutes, until the milk has been absorbed. Stir in 1 1/2 cups more milk and the sugar. Return to a simmer and cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened and creamy, about 15 minutes.

While pudding simmers, microwave remaining one-half cup milk until lukewarm in a glass measuring cup. Beat in the egg with a fork. Remove pudding from heat and stir a couple tablespoons into the egg mixture, beating rapidly to prevent egg from cooking. Very slowly pour egg mixture into pudding in pan, beating constantly. Return to low heat and cook and stir for 2 minutes. Do not allow pudding to boil. Remove from heat, cover and chill.

Just before serving, beat whipping cream until stiff peaks form. With a spoon or an immersion blender, beat pudding until fluffy. Fold whipped cream into pudding.

For the add-ins: Place diced kiwi on a plate, each cube separate, and freeze uncovered overnight or until solid.

For the brittle, toast 1/4 cup sesame seeds in a dry skillet on a burner, stirring often, until golden brown. Set aside. Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 teaspoon sesame oil in a very small (2-cup) saucepan over low heat. Stir until sugar melts. Continue cooking until mixture is cinnamon-colored. Stir in sesame seeds and immediately pour onto a well-buttered platter, tilting to thin the mixture. Set aside for up to 2 days or so unless very humid. Break into bite-size pieces.

To assemble the pudding: Place two spoonfuls of pudding in the bottoms of six goblets or on-the-rocks glasses. In each glass, layer a couple of pieces of fruit, nuts and brittle with pudding between each addition. Continue until glasses are filled. Decorate tops with more add-ins. Makes six servings.

HELP U COOK

We wash rice in water to remove some of the starch before cooking, to prevent it from becoming glue-like and sticky. Rice should not be washed before using it in pudding, however; because the starches help thicken the mixture.

Another rice pudding tip: Don’t worry if rice pudding seems soupy when you remove it from the burner or oven. Like tapioca, rice requires time to soak up the liquid. The pudding will continue to thicken as it cools.

THE MAILBAG

From Jenny Kuenzi:
My husband’s parents live in Pittsurgh and are turning 90 and 91 years old this month and in July. They are still runing around like they’re our age, but we prefer them not to drive the distance to our home in Green. Therefore, we are traveling to Pittsburgh on a regular basis. I would like to take a complete meal for the four of us (already prepared). What would you suggest in the way of a non-casserole and non-pasta make-a-day-ahead main dish? They like chicken, pork and beef. I realize I will need to to prepare it the day before and keep it cold in a cooler while we travel and then reheat it at their home. They do not have any dietary restrictions other than they do not like heavy cream sauces.

Dear Jenny: I have a few ideas. Big entree salads would be easy to tote — grilled and sliced steak or salmon in one container, the salad in another and dressing in a third. Add some interesting bread for a filling meal.

You’ve probably already thought of soups, but how about a Pittsburgh sandwich specialty such as meatball splash? Tote homemade meatballs, spaghetti sauce and bread, and put together the open-faced meatball sandwiches on the spot. Another idea is to grill or bake meats such as chicken breasts or pork chops, and take a topping — fruity salsa, pesto — on the side. Serve it with a room-temp vegetable such as roasted green beans with lemon, pine nuts and shaved Parmesan.

You should slightly undercook meats you plan to reheat. Cool them quickly and chill, and keep them cold during the trip to your in-laws. They are lucky to have their health — and a thoughtful cook like you.

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