Monday, March 31, 2008

Where a rice pudding is ceremony and blessing

Few other Bengali desserts are more homey and ceremonial than payesh, or rice pudding. Payesh is something Bengali mothers cook on their sons’ birthdays; the son eats it as an offering from his mother or a food blessed by her.

Payesh, when perfectly made, is wonderfully creamy, smooth and custard-like, yet eggless. Today, my mother made a batch, complete with a sprinkling of chopped cashew nuts and plump raisins and flavored with bay leaves and cardamom.

I had asked her to teach me how to make it, but she made it when I was sleeping on a Sunday morning. Obviously, she didn’t have the heart to wake me up from my weekend slumber. Today was not my birthday, but I wanted to learn how to make it and eat it, too. I couldn’t watch her make it; here is the recipe as I heard it later. So, this is untested in a lab kitchen, but if you trust my mother, as I do, then go ahead and make it. Remember that the secret to great payesh is constant stirring and adding the sugar after the rice is tender.

1 quart (about 1 liter) whole milk
1 cup water
1/3rd cup sugar
3 bay leaves
1/4th cup flavorful (e.g., basmati) rice
1/4th cup cashew nut roughly chopped
1/4th cup raisins
6 small cardamoms, crushed

  1. Put half of the milk, bay leaves, rice, water, cashew nut, and raisins in a pot and bring to boil.
  2. Cook stirring until the rice is cooked, about 15 minutes, on low heat.
  3. Put the rest of the milk and sugar, and continue stirring until the milk thickens, about 15 minutes, on low heat.
  4. Add the cardamom, stir, and turn off the heat. Serve warm or chilled, garnished with a spring of mint or a swirl of thick honey.

Note: Grate nutmeg on top for a more complex flavor.