The first time I tasted rose water in a milky pudding, as a child in Turkey, I was overwhelmed by its intensity. Always the curious eater, I tried again, wondering whether I could ever like this flavor, and then again — and again and again. Rose water has this effect on you. Its concentrated, bold aroma, evoking the serenity of churches or mosques, does require some getting used to, but when you do, you will never stop longing for it. In this dessert, I infuse sweet dates with rose water’s heady aroma and add them to a rice pudding made with Chinese black rice. This soft-textured rice was once eaten only by the emperors of China. Lotus Foods offers a delicious heirloom variety under the trademarked label Forbidden Rice. It makes for a stunning dessert as it turns a deep burgundy hue when cooked. Choose firmer dates such as Deglet Noor for this dessert, as you don’t want them to become mushy in the pudding.
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup Chinese black rice
1/4 cup finely chopped pitted dates (about 6)
2 dates, pitted and cut into thin strips
3 teaspoons rose water
Rice Pudding, and to finish
1 1/4 cups half-and-half
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 (1-inch) piece cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 To prepare the rice, bring the water and rice to a boil in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Decrease the temperature to maintain a simmer, cover, and cook until the rice is tender yet still slightly chewy, about 30 minutes. Some water will remain (do not drain).
2 While the rice is cooking, prepare the date topping. Place the chopped dates in a small bowl and drizzle with 2 teaspoons of the rose water. Add the date strips to a different small bowl and drizzle with the remaining 1 teaspoon rose water. Stir the dates in both bowls and set aside, stirring once or twice more.
3 To finish, add the half-and-half, sugar, salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the lemon zest, cinnamon stick, and vanilla to the rice. Return to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring several times. Decrease the heat to maintain a gentle bubble and cook, uncovered, for 15 more minutes, stirring every few minutes or so. The consistency should be creamy yet soupy — the mixture will thicken as it cools. Remove the saucepan from the heat and remove the cinnamon stick. Stir in the chopped dates and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest.
4 Divide the rice pudding among small individual dessert bowls or cups. Garnish with a few of the rose water-infused date strips, and serve warm or at room temperature.
_To get a head start: The rice pudding can be made 1 day ahead. Transfer the pudding to a medium bowl and allow to cool to room temperature, stirring a few times. Cover and chill. The rice will continue to absorb liquid — you may need to add a bit of chilled milk or half-and-half just before serving to loosen it. Keep the infused date strips separate, covered with plastic wrap, and garnish the pudding just before serving.
To lighten it up: Use whole milk instead of half-and-half for an everyday treat._
Reprinted with permission from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals: Mediterranean Whole Grain Recipes for Barley, Farro, Kamut, Polenta, Wheat Berries & More by Maria Speck. Text copyright © 2011 by Maria Speck; photographs copyright © 2011 by Sara Remington. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Maria Speck grew up in Greece and Germany before moving to the United States as a young adult. She is a writer and journalist, and has contributed to Gourmet, Saveur, and Gastronomica, as well as Marie Claire and Elle. Her popular cooking classes in Cambridge, Massachusetts, focus on the flavors and cooking styles of the Mediterranean and on creating innovative and delicious meals with whole grains.