Rice pudding can be viewed in many different lights. About every worldly cuisine has its own version and on a recent visit to the Venezuelan Cruzao Arepa Bar, a popular dessert menu item Arroz con leche (Rice with milk), is a fine example. Fascinatingly enough (to me anyway!) the original recipe to Rice Pudding has been rumoured to date back some 2000 years to Orissa in India, where it is been almost synonymous as two varieties: Kheer and Firni. My understanding is that while the recipe for Kheer uses whole rice, where Firni differs is in its use of ground rice that is cooked with milk until it is the thick consistency of pudding.
The decision to make Firni was on a whim, mainly because I have had an Italian Terracotta cooking pot hiding in the nether regions of the kitchen cupboard for a long time now, but have never used it. The use of clay containers to house yoghurt or milk based desserts is very common in India for a couple of reasons. Firstly they produce a multitude of clay containers as the process dates back further than Rice Pudding itself and secondly the clay surface will continue to draw out liquid from the cooked dish after you rest it – this results in a thicker yoghurt and in this case Firni. Most homes will not have a terracotta pot so the alternative is to use a glass serving dish. You may need to dry the Firni for a little longer to ensure maximum absorption of the water. The entire process, was a long labour of love, two hours long to be precise. But the end result was worth it. Just a taste of the finished product took me back to my hometown in Kolkata again driven by the delicate flavours of the spices combined with the subtlety of the ground rice.
The aforementioned two hours is significant to this dish. I did make a big serve so I cannot be certain that a smaller serving would consume any less time. This dessert, however, if it is to reach its utmost best takes away time that you do not mind losing as the reward is irreplaceable. My suggestion is to do this on a late night (when you can stay awake) and where you will not be interrupted by other duties. You almost need to be chained to the stove for this production time as a burnt Firni is not favourable. Stirring the pot will become second nature and you must do so with a spatula. Best one I can recommend is the silicone ones that are cheap as chips and this will ensure that you do not violently scrape the bottom of the pot in your stirring frenzy of two hours. Depending on how effective your non-stick cooking utensil is, you will still find that some of the mixture will catch, using a silicone spatula will keep your Firni gleaning with white and saffron hues rather that have flecks of burnt black residue folded through.
Ingredients, to make at least 2 Litres of Firni
160g x Coarse Ground Rice (Indian Grocers stock this quite frequently)
3Ltrs x Full Cream Milk
2tsp x Ground Cardamom Powder (seeds only)
1 x pinch of Saffron threads (soaking in 2 Tbsp of warm milk, optional)
100g x Slivered Almonds
400g x Caster Sugar
2-3tsp Kewra Water (Essence of the flower of Pandanus plants, also available at Indian Grocers)
100g x Pistachios, chopped
Extra Saffron Threads for Garnish
You will need a large pot at least 4L to cook in so that you do not spill as you stir.
Place 2 ½ litres of the milk in the pot and place it on low to medium heat.
Combine the remaining milk in a small bowl with the rice and 1 tsp of the Cardamom powder.
Stir the remaining tsp of Cardamom powder through the warming milk.
Heat the milk gently allowing to just reach the boil then add the rice mixture.
Continue stirring until the mixture starts to thicken slightly.
Add in the sugar, almonds and saffron, if using, fold through.
Stir well to dissolve the sugar and allow to thicken more.
When the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon remove it from the heat.
Drizzle in the Kewra water and gently stir to combine.
Transfer to the terracotta pot immediately and allow to cool.
Top with the garnishes of chopped pistachio and saffron strands.
Cover with lid or cling wrap and place in the fridge overnight to set.
Tip: Ramekins for individual serves works a treat as everyone gets their own bowl of dessert. Firni is best at room temperature so take it out of the fridge an hour before serving. Enjoy!