Where I grew up in Panama, rice pudding was celebratory. When a baby got their first tooth, the grandmother would make a huge batch of it. Next, it was packaged into small bottles to hand out to family and friends. The kicker is that this rice pudding wasn’t really for the baby. Nope! We soaked the raisins in rum so it was for the adults.
Besides the baby’s first tooth, we enjoyed rice pudding on many other occasions. It was a quintessential comfort dessert. I mean, who is going to say no to creamy, sweet rice pudding topped with cinnamon plus the tang of rum? Not me!
Rice was on the table for nearly every meal growing up in Panama. I can think of very few excuses to not have rice. I’d like to say that turning rice into a dessert was only natural, however this sweet little dish has origins from far away. But I digress, in Panama, we made our Arroz con Leche with cinnamon and evaporated milk. There are endless other variations from country to country (just like my savory turnovers, empanadas!)
Rice Pudding Origins
Rice pudding likely originated in Northern Spain and has Moorish origins. Both cinnamon and rice are key ingredients in Arabic cuisine. While this is the base for many versions of the recipe, the rice pudding you order in Spain will likely have orange or lemon peel, another Arab influence. (Lemons actually hail from the Middle East, now you know!) In 711, Muslim forces conquered the Iberian Peninsula and what we know to be present-day Spain was the heartland of Muslim civilization. The Muslims ruled this part of the world until 1492 when Granada was surrendered to the Castilian forces.
Now how did our delicious rice pudding recipe travel all the way to the New World? Most likely, the Spanish colonists brought it to Latin America. Here, it has been modified over and over to suit ingredient availability and local tastes. In many Latin American countries, there will be a combination of milk, coconut milk, evaporated milk, or sweetened condensed. On top of that, every household makes it differently.
Rice Pudding Recipes around the world
In Colombia, you will likely get your arroz con leche with a grated coconut garnish. In Costa Rica, you’ll find butter with hints of nutmeg and in Peru, they use cloves in their rice pudding recipe. Egg yolks are not uncommon in many Latin American variations of the recipe and they certainly add a very creamy, rich texture to the comforting pudding. (Pro tip: egg yolks will save your rice pudding if it’s too runny!)
If you were to enjoy a bowl of rice pudding in India (Kheer), it would likely be flavored with cardamom, rosewater, raisins, and a garnish of crushed pistachios. In Iran, your rice pudding might be a brilliant shade of yellow because they use saffron to flavor it.
How to make arroz con leche
What’s so lovely about making arroz con leche is that you only need a few simple ingredients for it to come together. It’s also a very flexible recipe if you’re vegan or lactose intolerant! My recipe calls for regular milk, but you can use non-dairy milk or even canned coconut milk if you choose. Keep in mind, coconut cream is very rich and shouldn’t be swapped for coconut milk.
As far as rice goes, I recommend using medium grain rice. Short grain rice is too sticky and will naturally make the pudding too thick. In a pinch, you can use Arborio Rice because it absorbs liquids quickly but you need to be prepared to adjust your cooking methods and stay near the pot to add more liquid.
Careful with the amount of sugar you add to your rice pudding. Sugar attracts water molecules so too much of it won’t allow the liquid to absorb into the rice. Unlike other dishes that can be sped up with more heat, arroz con leche requires patience.
Step by step photos:
- Gather all your ingredients and have them measured out and ready to go before beginning the dish.
- Place the rice in a large fine mesh colander and rinse with water until it runs clear.
- Put the raisins in a bowl and pour some rum over them until they are just submerged. This is about ½ cup. Microwave the raisins in the rum for about 30 seconds to warm them up in the rum. This will help them soak up some rum.
- Add the rice, cinnamon sticks and milk in a large soup pot or Dutch oven on medium heat. Stir to keep the rice to keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You can stir a but less often at the beginning and more after about 30 minutes. You will need to simmer for about 45 minutes to one hour until the rice is very soft.
- Once the rice is soft remove the cinnamon sticks.
- Stir in the evaporated milk.
- Pour in the sweetened condensed milk.
- Add the vanilla and a pinch of salt to the pot and stir to combine.
- Strain the rum from the raisins and then add the raisins to the pot and stir to combine. Drink the strained rum or save for a cocktail, cheers!
- Combine all the last ingredients and keep stirring until you have a nice creamy, slightly thick consistency of soft yogurt.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Why is my arroz con leche is too soupy? Keep simmering until thick or egg yolks will save you. Crack an egg and separate the egg yolk from the white in a bowl. Break the yolk with a fork and stir. In a separate bowl, take out about ½ cup of rice pudding and stir until it’s no longer steaming. Quickly mix in the egg yolk to the separated rice pudding until combined. Now, add the mixture to your pot. It should thicken up in 5-7 minutes.
Vegan? You can use a slurry of 1tsp of cornstarch and 1tbsp of water (mixed up in a separate bowl from the pudding.) Stir the cornstarch and water in a separate bowl until well-combined. Add the slurry to the pot and stir until well combined. If the mixture hasn’t thickened in 5 minutes you can repeat the process.
- Can I make my rice pudding in a crockpot? You can! Make sure to check on it every 45 minutes if it’s on high and give it a stir so it does not burn.
- Does it matter if I use golden or regular raisins? Either one works! If you don’t like raisins, feel free to omit them.
- My leftover arroz con leche is really thick the next day. What can I do? Once you take a portion from the refrigerator, microwave it until just warm. Add a little milk, stir in and warm up again. Repeat this until you reach the desired consistency. Leftover arroz con leche is really yummy when warmed up!
Do you want to explore more Latin dessert recipes? One of my favorites is coconut flan that is a baked custard with a caramel sauce. Many family gatherings would likely include tres leches cake. If you are in a hurry, you can pick up some puff pastry at the store to make some pastelitos de guava that are easy to fill and bake.
Arroz con Leche Recipe
Arroz con leche is a traditional Latin American style rice pudding. This dessert recipe is simple to make and feeds a crowd.
Place the rice in a fine mesh strainer and rice until the water runs clear.
In a large pot on medium heat add the milk, cinnamon sticks and rice. You can add the orange rind if you like at this point too. Continue heating and stirring until the rice is soft, approximately 1 hour. You can stir less in the beginning, every few minutes and more or constantly once the rice is soft toward the end.
While the rice is simmering you can soak the raisins in the rum. Pour just enough rum to cover them, about ½ cup. Microwave for 30 seconds to warm them and allow better absorption of the rum. This step is optional.
Once the rice is very soft, remove the cinnamon sticks, orange rinds and pour in the evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk. Add the pinch of salt and vanilla.
If you soaked the raisins in rum, pour them into a strainer. (Save the rum for your next cocktail. Trust me!) Add the raisins to the rice. Continue to cook until it is creamy and has a soft yogurt-like consistency.
Serve in small bowls with a sprinkle of cinnamon and if you like some slivered almonds.
Reheating instructions: Place the desired amount in a bowl and heat in the microwave for 30 seconds. Add a little milk, stir then heat again. Repeat until you have the desired consistency and temperature.