When rice first arrived in Greece in the 4th century B.C., a result of Alexander the Great’s campaigns in India, it was initially used as a form of medicine, usually to cure an upset stomach. With these medicinal roots, it’s no wonder that ryzogalo (ρυζόγαλο, ρύζι + γάλα, with ryzi meaning “rice” and gala meaning “milk”), or rice pudding, is so comforting.
But the soothing mix of milk and rice is by no means unique to Greece: Almost every culture around the globe has its own take on rice pudding, with countless variations in flavors – including cardamom, saffron, rosewater, almonds and pistachios – ingredients and methods. Generally speaking, though, this type of pudding is more often sweet than savory, and is usually baked or boiled.
Sweet rice puddings are common in India, for instance, where they are usually called kheer or phirni (the main difference being that the former is made with whole rice and the latter with ground rice). Phirni is said to originate in Persia, where it’s called ferni or fereni, a smooth dessert likewise made with rice flour. In China, eight treasure rice pudding (ba bao fun), which is topped with eight different kinds of dried or candied fruits and nuts, is a traditional Lunar New Year dessert. In Scandinavian countries, rice pudding served with a knob of butter and sprinkled with plenty of cinnamon sugar is a popular Christmas treat.
Arroz con leche (“rice with milk”) is the Spanish version, although there are many variations (some of which resemble Greek rice pudding). The recipe traveled with the Spaniards when they colonized Latin America, where even more variations evolved over time. Like, for instance, the Venezuelan arroz con coco (“rice with coconut”), the most important dessert during Semana Santa (Holy Week), in the lead up to Easter. Coconut milk is combined with condensed milk to make the pudding, which is then set in the fridge and sprinkled with coconut flakes and cinnamon.
In Greece, rice pudding is found in several variations across the country. It is commonly made with what we call glacé or Carolina rice (short-grain white rice and medium-grain white rice, respectively, although both are high in starch, which helps thicken the pudding). Most recipes now include cornstarch to facilitate and expedite the thickening process and to make the pudding more custard-like, but traditionally it wasn’t used. Some add eggs yolks while others don’t.
Ryzogalo is often flavored with mastiha, lemon or orange zest, krokos kozanis (Greek saffron) or simply vanilla. But it’s always topped with cinnamon and is usually served chilled. Many have it for breakfast (mostly an old-school habit) instead of dessert. Baked ryzogalo, which is made with eggs, is also popular. It’s very similar to the non-baked version, except for the final step, in which the pudding mixture is poured into a baking dish and baked for about 10 minutes until it’s browned on top. It can be served plain but is also delicious with a traditional orange or bergamot spoon sweet.
In my recipe I make it without cornstarch because I like to thicken it the old-fashioned way, just with rice and egg yolks. I like to flavor my ryzogalo with both saffron and mastiha, and I also add some lemon zest to add a pop of freshness to its flavor.
Saffron and Mastiha Ryzogalo (Greek Rice Pudding)
200 gr short-grain white rice
500 ml water
600 ml fresh full fat milk
Pinch of Greek saffron threads/filaments or powder
1 tsp powdered mastiha (or vanilla)
2 egg yolks at room temperature
160 gr natural cane sugar
Zest from two small organic, unwaxed lemons
Powdered cinnamon to serve
Put the rice and water in a saucepan and place it on medium heat. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat and simmer with the lid closed for about 7 minutes, until the water is fully absorbed. The rice should not be fully done at this point.
Pour in the milk and gently stir, keeping it on very low heat. Add in the mastiha and saffron and keep stirring continuously until it thickens, this will take over 10-15 minutes.
Beat the egg yolks and sugar until fluffy, creamy and light in color (I suggest using an electric mixer since you will still be stirring the rice). Mix in the zest of one lemon and set aside.
When the rice mix has thickened, add in the egg and sugar mixture and stir vigorously for about a minute until well combined. Remove from heat, mix in the rest of the lemon zest (alternatively you can add it on top of each bowl) and then place into individual bowls. Allow them to cool down before you chill them in the fridge. Once they have firmed up further, serve them sprinkled with cinnamon.
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