You know what’s a good word? Transubstantiation. Sure, there’s a religious connotation to the word, but have you thought about it in regards to cooking? The definition of transubstantiation is (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), “the changing of one substance into another”. The process of cooking gets pretty darn close to the definition of transubstantiation, even if cooking is a process that combines different individual parts to produce a finished final product (which exists as the sum of its parts).
But when it comes to making your favourite, most simple dishes, I think transubstantiation could be an excellent word to apply to the process. Take for instance, one of my favourite (and simple!) desserts: the humble rice pudding. It’s essentially three main ingredients, heavy cream, long grain rice, and a good kick of sugar. Simple ingredients that through the process of cooking ‘low and slow’ on the stovetop will transubstantiate into one of the most comforting treats someone can indulge in on cold wintry evenings. There’s almost a magical and mystical element to making such a comforting food from scratch in your own kitchen from such simple and unassuming ingredients. (Especially after thinking about such a rhetorically loaded and heady word as transubstantiation.) But it’s also the same kind of feeling that also harkens back to our collective experiences and shared human history of being a species that cooks—the only animal on the planet that takes simple ingredients and transforming them into something entirely different, and delicious, and nutritious via cooking.
And rice pudding is a dessert that definitely has roots that reach far into our collective past as a food-preparing species. According to Solomon H. Katz, the editor in chief for the Scribner’s Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (2003), and Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food (1999), rice puddings wouldn’t have been unfamiliar to the ancient Romans. Davidson even suggests that the ancient Romans who were wealthy enough to afford the imported grain necessary to make the dish likely ate it as a remedy for upset stomachs. (Which is interesting since rice pudding is still considered an easy-to-digest and stomach-settling, comforting treat for people these days, too.)
According to Davidson, in the 17th century, recorded recipes for baked rice puddings began to appear in cookbooks and recipe collections. (I’ve never made a baked rice pudding—my mother always made it in a sturdy pot on the stovetop, and that’s how I made it this past weekend, too.) Often these 17th century recipes called for an egg to be added to the ingredients, which is now uncommon, but the addition of spices like cinnamon and nutmeg are a holdover from these earlier recipes and which still persists in rice pudding’s modern incarnations.
Rice pudding is a type of food that is not at all exclusive to the Western world. It has shown up in different cultures around the world, in various forms. It’s generally believed that rice originally started as a cultivated grain in China, India, and Southeast Asia. Author Kenneth F. Kipple of A Moveable Feast: Ten Millennia of Food Globalization (2007), asserts that as a domesticated crop, rice’s cultivation process began in these regions as early as 10,000 years ago. Subsequently, there are rice pudding dishes from a number of different cultures that are from these regions—each with their own specific differences, yet persistent similarities which can be used to connect these dishes as being varieties of a general rice pudding category. Davidson describes kheer (the Indian name for sweet milk puddings made with rice or very fine noodles) and sheer birinj (a Persian variety of kheer) as similar dishes that are related to rice pudding. These dishes can have added ingredients for flavouring like cardamom, cinnamon, almonds and pistachios, all of which would work well in a typical, modern Western-style rice pudding, too. Western-style rice puddings often feature flavourings such as raisins, currants, vanilla or almond extracts, and cinnamon and nutmeg which possess comparable flavour profiles when added to sweetened rice porridges and desserts.
The recipe my family uses when we make rice pudding is not from the 17th century, but it is very likely quite close to the recipes found in Europe at the time. (Or at least, it’s fairly evident that the recipe we use was generally derived from these recipes.) The actual recipe itself consists of notes hastily scrawled on a notecard that is beginning to show its age with curling corners, creases from accidental folding, and even a bit of vanilla extract smudged on one of its edges. Mum’s had this recipe card for seemingly forever—or at least from before I was born, and the ingredient measurements make for a large pot of rice pudding. The number of servings that can come from this recipe is fairly nebulous, and entirely dependent on how much you and your dinner guests enjoy old-fashioned rice pudding.
As has been described, a rice pudding recipe can be altered to suit your tastes. You can add currants, raisins, and other dried fruits if you like (personally, I don’t like raisins in my rice pudding), and you can reduce or increase the amount of spices added to the pot as you see fit (or even add different spices to the mix, and turn your rice pudding into something more savoury than sweet). It is entirely up to you how you want to prepare and personalise your rice pudding, but I think as long as you follow a basic recipe that primarily consists of rich cream, long grain rice, and a bit of sugar for sweetness, you’re on the right track to a delicious treat. The trick to a good stovetop rice pudding (of nearly any variant and variety) is to cook it for a long time on a low heat, stirring regularly to keep the pudding from adhering to the bottom of your pot. It’s that ‘low and slow’ cooking process that turns (or transubstantiates) simple ingredients into something comforting and delicious.