Writer and photographer Saghar Setareh takes readers on a foodie adventure around the eastern Mediterranean.
There is something universal about cooking rice in milk that translates to instant comfort — a soothing embrace that goes beyond borders and cultures and unifies them in silky sweetness. People everywhere make some form of rice pudding. Some more runny, some more dense. Some served cold or at room temperature, some warm. Rice pudding goes by a literal name almost everywhere: shir berenj in Persian, riz bel halib in Arabic, sultac in Turkish, rizogalo in Greek, and budino di riso in Italian.
More than the density or the temperature it’s served at, what makes the rice pudding of each region distinct are the aromatics and spices used. In Iran, rosewater is often used; and when made with saffron, the rice pudding is cooked in water rather than milk and becomes sholeh zard. Sometimes a few cardamom pods are added too; my mother would use only cardamom and almost no sugar and serve the pudding cold with sour- cherry jam. In Lebanon, Syria and other parts of the Levant, rosewater, orange blossom water or both are used. Orange zest, a continuation of orange blossom water, also starts appearing here, with citrus coming forth more often in southern Italy and Spain, as a souvenir of the Arabs who first brought them here. The more we travel west, the more present vanilla becomes.
The following recipe is, by all accounts, just another rice pudding, with an addition of eggs, then baked. I am not sure about its origins, but I have eaten similar cakes both in [Italy’s] Bologna and in the region
When it comes to orange-flavoured cakes that lie halfway between a cake and pudding, I can’t not think of the famous almond and orange cake of the legendary Claudia Roden. She first wrote about it in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, and it has inspired and obsessed many home bakers and cookery writers alike — including me. Two oranges are boiled whole, then blended with ground almonds, eggs and sugar, then baked for about an hour. The cake is an absolute delight that I bake several times each winter in peak citrus season.
More fascinating still is the journey of that cake, which Roden calls a “Judeo–Spanish cake”. Roden, a Jewish Egyptian, says she was given the recipe by her sister-in-law, who in turn learned it from her grandmother — who grew up in Aleppo, Syria, in a family of Sephardic Jews who had immigrated from Spain to avoid persecution.
I would not be surprised if this orange-scented rice pudding cake had a similar journey, travelling full circle, coming back home after a long time away.
Makes a 26cm cake
1.7L full-fat milk
Zest of 1/2 lemon, cut into large strips with a vegetable peeler
300g risotto rice, such as arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Butter, for greasing
5 eggs, separated
50ml orange liqueur (I use Cointreau)
3 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
Zest of 1 orange, plus extra to garnish
40g candied orange zest, diced
Icing sugar, for dusting
In a large saucepan, bring the milk, sugar and lemon zest to a moderate boil. Stir in the rice and salt. Cook over medium heat for 30–40 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is sticky and creamy, stirring occasionally so the rice doesn’t stick. Remember that the mixture will become thicker as it cools. If it looks like the liquid is being absorbed before the rice is completely cooked through, reduce the heat.
Transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool completely.
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Lightly grease a round 26cm cake tin with butter. Line the bottom and sides with baking paper, then rub a bit more butter onto the paper. Remove as many lemon zest pieces from the cooled rice as you can find.
Using a hand whisk, beat the egg yolks with the liqueur, vanilla and orange zest, then add to the rice with the candied orange zest and mix well. Using a clean whisk and a very clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until stiff and smooth, then gently fold them through the batter. Carefully pour the mixture into the cake tin and smooth the top with a knife. Bake for about 1 hour, or until the top is golden.
Remove from the oven, then leave to cool completely in the tin for about an hour before unmoulding. Before serving, dust with icing sugar and garnish with extra orange zest. The cake will keep in an airtight container for a few days, refrigerated if the weather is hot.
Images and text from Pomegranates & Artichokes by Saghar Setareh, Photography by Saghar Setareh. Murdoch Books, $49.99. Learn more here.
Love this recipe? Check out our others here