The sultanas and pine nuts in this dish indicate a Middle Eastern influence. Venice, where this dish is almost an obsession, was the first Christian state to trade with the Ottoman Empire, continuing centuries of lucratively being the gateway to western Europe for spices, sugar, dye and other expensive exotica. This bears a clear resemblance to British rice pudding and to a similar dish served in Bruges (Bruges and Venice were trading partners, the former the principal outlet for Venetian trade in our neck of the woods). Venice as a trading centre has declined since the fifteenth century, but its culinary glories are largely intact.
This dish ideally should use carnaroli rice if you can find it, otherwise substitute arborio or at a real pinch Patna.
You can prepare this dish a day ahead and either serve cold or reheat in individual buttered moulds.
Put the milk in a trustworthy pan and bring to a slow boil over a low flame. While this is happening carefully split the vanilla pod lengthways and with the tip of the knife scrape the seeds out. Whisk these into the heating milk and add the emptied pod. Put the sultanas to soak in the brandy or grappa.
When the milk reaches boiling, add the cream and the rice then turn the flame up to medium. Cook, stirring almost continuously, for 20 minutes. Then add the sugar, a pinch of salt, the cinnamon and the nutmeg. Turn the heat down to low, then stir and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for a further 20 minutes.
Now add the pine nuts, the soaked sultanas and the grated zest of the lemon. Mix thoroughly and allow to cool off the heat. If not using soon transfer to a container and refrigerate.
Preheat the oven to its maximum. To serve, transfer to a buttered gratin dish and bake until browning, bubbling and rising – about 20 minutes.
Delicious as this rice is, it needs something more (like the spoon of jam in English rice pudding). My favourite would be the Caramelised Orange Salad overleaf.
© 1996 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.