One of the things I’ve sorely missed over the past twelve months since Covid clipped my wings, are the frequent spells I used to spend off the mother island with travel to foreign pastures. I don’t suffer from ‘island fever’, and it’s always a pleasure to spend time on Mallorca surrounded by everything familiar, but the unfamiliar, especially in the ‘postre’ department is always a welcome distraction from the norm. Invariably, whilst away from the island on holiday or otherwise, dining out is one of the scheduled highlights, and in my case (Other Half included) looking forward to patisserie and desserts features high on our list of guilty pleasures.
Once you have sampled the delicious delights of a ‘konditorei’ in the grandeur of Vienna, feasted on ‘Sacher Torte’ and melt in the mouth ‘Apfelstrudel’, or grazed through the ‘patisseries’ of Paris, Rome and Venice, you will totally understand the Europeans’ love for sweet desserts and anything that involves death by chocolate!
San Sebastian in Northern Spain is another destination for delectable desserts, heavily influenced by their French neighbours, producing a variety of gorgeous and imaginative creations, including their famous caramelized cheese cake and ‘Pastel Vasco’, a light puff pastry tart filled with an almond flavoured creamy custard.
Sadly, by comparison, the pastry displays in ‘panaderias’ here on the island lack that certain European, epicurean empathy, and often merely display a plethora of fancy puff pastry shapes filled with sickly cream. Disappointing for any connoisseur of cake!
Across Spain and the Balearics, the ‘postres’ as they call them, are notably never that spectacular, as the mainland along with Mallorca doesn’t really do ‘puds’. Sadly, the majority of ‘just deserts’ on offer in eateries are invariably simple and often uninspiring. Of course there are many noted restaurants across the island (if you hunt them out) which break the said mould and offer far more imaginative desserts; but generally, ‘ postre’ usually means a silky caramel flan or a speciality they actually call ‘pudding’ which is a bit like a flan only it’s made with the ubiquitous ‘ensaïmada’ and served as a thick slice, drizzled with caramel. Baked apple often makes a regular appearance, alongside ‘tarta de requesón’ – Mallorcan cheescake, or at a push a ‘brazo gitano’ which translates as a gypsy’s arm, and is basically a Spanish Swiss roll! Another popular ‘postre’ choice and my own personal favourite is ‘arroz con leche’ commonly known as a rice pudding.
But I’m certainly not complaining. To me, ‘arroz con leche’ instantly ignites fond memories of my very first visit to Spanish shores, where the chilled, creamy nutmeg laced pudding immediately hijacked my taste buds whilst giving a nod towards home, and Mum’s oven baked pudding, which in my childhood always followed the traditional Sunday roast.
As much as I tried, I could never emulate that delectable dreamy dish which Mum simmered slowly at the bottom of the oven, generously developing its signature buttery golden skin which bubbled to pudding perfection atop its creamy interior. My own failed attempts always lacked something no matter how hard I tried - mainly failing to achieve that golden mantle which Mum had perfected over the years. Baked rice puddings are a bit like that!
I remember my very first attempt at cooking a rice pudding back in my days as an enthusiastic student. Four of us rented a cousin’s caravan at St Osyths for a week of reckless raving by the coast, just shy of Clacton on Sea. None of us could cook, and we hadn’t really factored in that consideration when discussing domestic arrangements. Students can actually survive on a diet of crisps and lager without involving any culinary expertise whatsoever!
Students also don’t use ovens (which was just as well because there wasn’t one in the caravan), and everything is invariably cooked ‘on top’ and knocked up in one pot, hence my brilliant idea of suggesting a Spanish boiled rice pudding. I mean, how difficult could that be? Rice, milk . . . Boom! A nutritional treat which would slip down like nectar. Easy peasy! But like all seemingly simple dishes – not as easy as it appears!!!
The caravan crew were all in agreement, so a quick sojourn to the on-site shop delivered the required ingredients - a jumbo bag of rice, a bag of sugar and a pint of milk. I tipped the entire bag of rice into a large saucepan, added a few spoonfuls of sugar along with the pint of milk and gave it a good stir over a low heat.
Surprise! The rice quickly absorbed the milk so we sent out for another pint. . . then another. . . then another! I was totally naïve, and amazed how rapidly rice could absorb and expand at such an alarming rate. It soon filled the entire saucepan.
“How much rice pudding are you making?” asked my comrades in arroz. I had absolutely no idea! I transferred half the rice into a second saucepan, then added another pint of milk. I very quickly had another pan of rice, full to the brim and contently bubbling away. I halved the rice again and added more milk.
This process continued and became more like a science experiment as I kept dividing the expanding rice into other containers while adding more and more milk, eventually getting through around three gallons. Surprisingly, I finally had an interesting dish of ‘arroz con leche’ which actually wasn’t that bad. The downside was I also had five other saucepans full of a rice stodge which we eventually sliced when it cooled, and used as a substitute for bread in our inventive, designer sandwiches.
Another caveat with students is that they never waste food! We even fried slices in butter which was quite innovative, and seemed wildly exotic when topped with an egg and a slathering of tomato ketchup. No doubt not something Nigella Lawson would have been impressed with, but then they didn’t stock ground unicorn horn or mermaid sprinkles in our caravan shop which might possibly have given our rice pud a little more ‘je ne sais quoi’.
With the passing of years, I have grown to favour the cold, creamy Spanish version over all other rice puddings, sprinkled delicately with nutmeg and served simply to end any Mediterranean meal with a tumbling of berries and a scattering of toasted almonds.
I still tend to use too much rice even though I follow an authentic, traditional recipe (stolen from a Mallorcan friend’s grandmother). But at the end of the day if you’ve made too much you simply add a little more milk and you have enough dessert for the next day!
In Northern Spain they add raisins and sometimes sprinkle the surface with sugar before caramelising the dish under a grill or using a blowtorch. You can even fill a pre-baked pastry case after brushing the base with melted chocolate and serve the rice pudding as a cold tart topped with strawberries! Now why didn’t we think of that one back in the caravan?
Here is the perfect recipe I follow these days for a silky Spanish ‘Arroz con Leche’ that never fails: Serves 6 very generously. Place 1 cup of Bomba rice (or a similar round short grain rice) in a saucepan and barely cover with water. Cook over a medium heat whilst stirring continually until all the liquid has been absorbed. Add one wide and long slither of both orange and lemon peel, one cinnamon stick, one pinch of salt and one cup of whole milk stirring frequently (almost constantly) until milk is absorbed.
Continue adding milk, half a cup at a time until almost one litre is used, or the pudding is of a creamy consistency to your liking. Traditionally it should be a little mushy. Make it nice and slowly like you would a risotto and don’t be tempted to rush. It’s the stirring that makes it creamy. I usually cook something else while this is going on so I’m not just staring at the saucepan for ages. Sweeten carefully with caster sugar to taste or lace with honey. Enjoy warm or cold.
As the pudding cools it will thicken slightly so you can add more milk or cream as you desire to achieve a nice consistency. You don’t want it clumpy. Serve in fancy glasses or ramekin style bowls to impress, and dust with a little grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Rice ‘n ’easy does it every time. Serve warm or refrigerate and serve chilled. Enjoy!