By Mark Wieser
I have never understood the way rice is served in so many American restaurants and homes. It is as if it is added for decoration, dry, as if great care has been taken that not a single grain stick to another. I seem to remember the ‘50’s was all about creating the perfect rice – one that was non-sticky. We never ate it that way—served so singularly and plain. What’s the point other than filling a void on one’s plate much like a lettuce leaf is often used as a bed for some other concoction.
Sweet Rice or German Milchreis is more like a milk pudding—sweet, delicious, and typically topped generously with cinnamon. At least that is the way I remember it best. My mother did not make it regularly, but often enough to always make it a welcomed addition to any meal. It even graced our Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas tables. It was always appreciated. We never called it anything other than rice. This was always how we ate it and we never thought about it any differently.
In many parts of the word, this dish is called rice pudding. It’s been around for centuries and many believe it was first served in China. Others that it originated in India. In either case, it was never called rice pudding, but a sweet rice porridge that was mixed with water, milk or cream and sweetened to taste before boiling or baking. Some cultures add dried fruits—even raisins or apricot. Thank goodness my mother didn’t! I probably would not have eaten it.
The Oxford Companion to Food will reveal that this pudding was the descendant of earlier rice pottages, which date back to the time of the Romans, who remarkably never ate such a dish, but rather considered it a medicine to settle upset stomachs. Recipes for baked rice puddings began to appear in the early 17th century and the nutmeg topping first suggested survives to this day. In all probabilities, rice pudding was served by all of Fredericksburg’s first settlers.
Rice was one of the foods that was practically unattainable for our German cousins during the Second World War. We were unaware of this and included five pounds of rice in one of our care packages we sent to them at the end of the war in late 1945.The reply we received brought tears to my mother’s eyes. They had written that finding the rice was so welcoming and precious that they didn’t know if they should save it for Christmas or cook it right away. They had had no rice since the beginning of the war in 1939.
I usually ate one item on my plate at a time—never a bit of this and then of that. I saved my rice until last. It was like a desert! I really liked it in a bowl and usually added more sugar and milk or cream. I would even eat it cold should I find some left in the ice box. (We always called our refrigerator an ice box. I suppose because that was what my parents had when they first started out in the ‘20s.)
Several countries have their own version of Sweet Rice, including Spain, Portugal, Turkey, as well as the USA. The version served here is like the German version, but unlike in Germany, the American dish is typically meant as a dessert. Here in Fredericksburg the tradition was serving it as a part of the main meal. It was generously topped with sugar and cinnamon—what more could I have asked for? Unfortunately, that is hardly done any more today and few, if any, take the time to enjoy this treasure.
It will require:
1 cup white medium-grain rice
¼ cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
4 cups milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
cinnamon to taste
Mix the rice, sugar, and salt in a large sauce pan.
Stir in the milk and add the vanilla extract to the mixture.
Place over a medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring often.
Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the rice is soft and the milk begins to thicken.
Top with cinnamon and sprinkle with sugar and serve hot.