Monday, July 14, 2014

Creamy rice pudding with caramel & vanilla roasted pears

It happened as I wandered through the Paul Cluver vineyards one Saturday in autumn ... oh, about two years ago.

I had a glass of Pinot in one hand, and was trailing my fingers lightly along the foliage, soaking up the warmth of the fading sun, the earthy scent of decaying leaves and the haunting beauty of neat rows of vines in shades of plum, russet and butterscotch. It was a perfect moment. Not only because I felt grateful, content, full and light but also because I felt clear. Just as the contours and veins on a nearby leaf were illuminated in immaculate, sparkling clarity, my inner contours also felt vivid, sharp, emphatic. I sensed consciousness streaming through me as though I were no more substantial than a breeze, and at the same time infused with brilliance; bright and precise, like cut crystal. The fact of my existence needed no substantiation.

It was at once a hyper-real and dream-like encounter, as though I were experiencing myself in high-resolution for the first time. (What do Paul Cluver put in their Pinot?)

Then I looked down.

I saw my feet, sure. But, after a heartbeat, I didn't, because my subconscious, clearly waiting for this exact moment, superimposed an image of an enoromous belly my belly over my feet, treating me to a portentous vision of my heavily pregnant self.

In that second, the marrow-deep yearning that I had not dared put a name to could no longer be denied.

I wanted to be a mother.

You see, I really had tried — very hard — to deny it, because the prospect of parenthood absolutely terrified me.

For the longest time, I didn't have the slightest maternal urge, and was quite confident that I'd be happy to go through life child free, solvent, unshackled. Then I began to cry during toilet paper commercials. Or whenever I saw anything remotely related to a woman struggling with the decision to have a child, or a caring maternal gesture... Being in the vicinity of a baby made me feel squelchy and light-headed.

(As an aside, I do not subscribe to the notion that women have a 'biological clock' if that were true, we'd all be getting broody at the age of 16 or so, when our bodies are primed for childbirth not in our 30s [!], which seems to be the case more often these days. If there is a clock of any sort, I think it's a cultural construct, but that's a different conversation.)

Still, I tried to tamp down my growing curiosity. I thought about the money, for one. 'DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH CHILDREN COST?!?!' I'd shout-think at myself. 'You'll be broke. You'll never have any time to yourself. You'll be tired constantly. Your marriage will buckle under the pressure. You'll regret it, you'll be unhappy. You'll have to put all your dreams on hold...'

But the feeling kept growing. I developed a lump in my throat whenever I thought of my mother or father holding a baby. My baby. I thought of what a brilliant dad the Guinea Pig would make, and how it would take our incredible, supernatural (that's how it fees sometimes) love for each other and magnify it, grow it, plough it. I thought about all the magic moments from my own childhood, and how much I wanted to experience that all again, only this time from the other end of the equation.

The fact of my desire to be a mother came as a complete surprise, which is why it's taken two years, even after realising it, to work up the courage to make the attempt. What's helped, recently, is finally understanding that living a good life isn't about being happy. It's about embracing purpose, depth, challenge. To keep experiencing new things. Hard things. I want to live a meaningful life, and hopefully 'happiness', whatever that means, will be a side effect. But it's really not the point.

So now that the decision to move forward has been made, I find myself fantasising about what it'll be like. These daydreams frequently involve food. What will be my children's favourite foods? I think back to my most-loved dishes as a young 'un, and remember how easy to please I was (my parents will probably snort when they read this, remembering how notoriously fussy I became in my teens, but I'm referring to the earlier years). Rice pudding was up there, with its comforting starchiness. It tasted like home. It's one of many I can't wait to make it for my own children, and when I do, it will be this recipe, because it is heaven in a bowl, especially on a bitter winter's evening. It's like a hug from the inside.

You can leave out the pears and caramel if you like, it's good on its own (and a great deal simpler), but do try them all together at least once. The pears offer a slightly tart counterpoint to the creamy pudding, and the caramel... Well, I'm sure I don't need to sell you on caramel.

Creamy rice pudding with vanilla roasted pears & caramel
Serves 4
For the vanilla roasted pears: 
¼ cup sugar
½ vanilla bean
4 pears, halved though the stem and cored
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp water
2 tbsp unsalted butter

For the rice pudding:
1 cup arborio rice
1 litre milk, plus extra
½ cup caster sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
½ cup cream
For the caramel:
3 tbsp brown sugar
50g butter
1 tin condensed milk

1. For the pears: Preheat oven to 160°C. Place the sugar in a small bowl. With a thin, sharp knife, split the vanilla bean lengthwise in half and scrape out the seeds. Stir the seeds into the sugar. Arrange the pears in a large baking dish, cut-side up. Drizzle the lemon juice evenly over the fruit, then sprinkle with the sugar. Nestle the vanilla pod among the fruit. Pour the water into the dish. Dot each pear with some butter. Roast the pears for 30 minutes, brushing them occasionally with the pan juices. Turn the pears over and continue roasting, basting once or twice, until tender and caramelized, 25 to 30 minutes longer.
2. For the rice pudding: While the pears are roasting, make the pudding. Place the rice, milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 25–30 minutes or until the rice is tender. Remove from the heat and stir through the cream. If the mixture feels too thick, loosen it with a little milk.
3. For the caramel: While the rice is simmering, make the (cheat's) caramel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the sugar and the condensed milk. Stir, over a medium heat, for anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes, until the mixture turns a deep caramel colour. (Be careful to keep stirring so the sauce doesn't burn.) Remove from heat. 
4. Spoon the hot, creamy rice pudding into bowls, top with the pears and a generous drizzle of caramel. Eat, swoon, be transported back through time and space to the cosy kitchen of your childhood.

*Credit where credit's due: The above dish is a combination/adaptation of this Donna Hay recipe and this creation from Smitten Kitchen.