Wednesday, October 15, 2008

To Vienna with Love

This three-layer rice pudding, fruit, and French Meringue number may look like just another old-school European dessert but I am here to tell you that it is a thousand things but it is not old hat. I promise you, once you prepare this dessert you will remember what the great ones are like: Surprising, bouncy, complex, a little sweet, a spot tart, altogether something big and multi-chaptered that never lets you down. It is a lot like life should be, this Austrian Rice Pudding.

When I read this recipe, I exhaled. Finally. Something other than pumpkin and pecan pie for this season of color and depth. It had all the right elements: Creamy pudding, ripe juicy apples and cinnamon to make the scent of the house rise with the fall evening, and meringue to add a light, whimsical flair and a little height never hurt. I have the book Le Cordon Bleu at Home to thank tonight.

Someone once wrote that a cookbook which yielded one great recipe to use for a lifetime was worth the cost of ownership. I scoffed a little at the time I came across that gem of logic. I feel they should yield many. Should they not? In this life where these scores of heavy, textbook-like volumes will be moved from one of our homes to another, should they not be worth their weight and then some?

As I look over the shelves of books here, the stacks by the bed and in the living room and kitchen, I feel frustrated with some and still thrilled by others. I am pleased to still be finding new recipes which will be precious for the remainder of my lifetime in some of the original books my Mom gave me when I was a teenager. Some of the smallest, most unsuspecting volumes have had the most beloved ideas. Some of the most hailed chef's books failed to translate into anything but green mush in my kitchens over the years.

Last week, at the book sale, I bought Le Cordon Bleu at home for $3, I think. If nothing else, it was a beautiful book which would be as useful on a coffee table as employed in a kitchen if it failed in its initial task. And it does fail. A little. Not in overt ways. But it makes the mistake of assumption which in recipes invariably leads to the sin of omission. And the sin of not tempering eggs (Blushing Rule #10: Unless you have a culinary degree, always temper your egg yolks before adding them to a boiling pot.). The people who wrote this text are cream of the crop, no pun intended. They probably trust that I can prevent those yolks from becoming "grainy", or in my simple terms "cooked" to egg lumps in the rice pudding. I don't trust that. I removed their assumptions about me, accepted their complement, and went on to complete the Austrian Rice Pudding. Which I will adore forever. Maybe you can now, too.

Austrian Rice Pudding
Serves 6
Adapted from Le Cordon Bleu at Home

2 1/4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup short grain rice (arborio, sushi, etc.)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large apples (Granny Smith or Golden Delicious), peeled, cored, and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
3 large eggs, separated
1/4 cup confectioners sugar
Unsalted butter, softened, for greasing baking dish

Grease the baking dish with the softened butter.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk and vanilla extract and bring to a boil. Add the rice and return the mixture to a boil. Immediately reduce heat to a simmer to prevent boiling over. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the milk is absorbed by rice and the mixture is quite thick, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the apple puree: In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat the butter until melted. Add the apples, cinnamon, and 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples have darkened and softened through, about 20 minutes (if a piece mashes without resistance under a fork, they are done). Allow to cool five minutes. Place in a food processor and puree to the consistency you prefer. I like my mine very close to smooth.

Stir the remaining 1/3 cup granulated sugar into the milk/rice mixture and simmer another 5 minutes. Remove pan from the heat. Temper the egg yolks: Stir a spoonful of the hot rice mixture into the egg yolks and whisk vigorously. Pour the egg yolk mixture into the hot milk/ rice mixture and mix vigorously until combined. Spread the mixture over the gratin dish and let cool one hour in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the gratin dish from the fridge and cover the rice pudding with the apple puree.

Make the French meringue: In the bowl of an electric mixer fitter with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites just until stiff peaks form. Gradually beat in the confectioners sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form once again and the meringue is glossy and smooth.

With a big spatula, cover the gratin dish layers with all the meringue, spreading out gently.

Place in the oven and bake until the meringue top is golden brown, about 15 minutes, checking after ten and rotating to ensure even browning.

Once the milk and vanilla has boiled, add the rice.

Bring to a boil once more and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Peel the apples.

Chop the apples, smaller is better.

Place the apples in the pan with the melted butter, add 1/3 cup granulated sugar, and the cinnamon.

Cook until golden and completely softened when pierced with a fork.

Transfer the apples to the food processor and pulse to your desired smoothness.

Place the rice mixture in the buttered gratin dish and refrigerate until cool.
Then, cover with the apple puree:

Beat the egg whites until stiff.

Add the confectioners sugar and beat again until stiff peaks return. Now, using a large spatula, transfer all of the meringue to the top of the layers in the gratin dish. Place in a 450 degree oven and bake until golden brown, checking after ten minutes and rotating as needed.

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