There is no other Indian dessert that gets as much Bollywood billing as kheer. Girl-next-door wants to profess her love to boy-next-door – makes kheer. Mother welcomes son back from the war – makes kheer. New bride wants to impress new mother-in-law – makes kheer. There is no movie situation in which kheer cannot fit in. This is perhaps because no other Indian dessert evokes such an emotion of homemade wholesome goodness. So when girl abroad is feeling nostalgic and wants to demonstrate how non-intimidating Indian cooking can be – she makes kheer.
Well, the last one isn’t part of a movie, but it’s true enough. Kheer, if you want to get boring, is a form of milk pudding. But get a little adventurous and it can be so much more. The variations of flavors are endless – cardamom, raisins, almonds, pistachios, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, rosewater.. Even the forms of kheer vary – it can be made with rice, vermicelli, semolina.. Names – try kheer, phirni, payasam, payesh, sheer khurma.. Depending on which part of the country you’re in, you’ll encounter a different version but with one common denominator – they’re all delicious.
It is believed that phirni, from which kheer is derived, originated in Persia (it was called the food of angels), from where it was brought to India by the Mughals. (The main difference between phirni and kheer is that the former is made with ground rice, while the latter with whole grains.) From the Middle East to East Asia, from Europe to America – you can find a variation of the good old milk and rice pudding in almost every country – food connects us more closely than we pause to think about.
In India, kheer is the great leveler. It is served everywhere – from high-end restaurants, where it may be served with a contemporary twist and flair, to temples, where it is served as prasad – an offering to the Gods; from homes, where it may be served in fancy china bowls, to those, where it may be served in simple clay pots (indeed the traditional way of serving it).
For something that comes with such a rich history and and has such social relevance, you’d think preparing it would be a complicated affair but it can be as simple as boiling milk with rice and sugar. It is something that I’ve made so many times, that I follow instinct more than a recipe; which is why when I made it this time, I had to pay attention, to actually take note of what I was doing in order to have a comprehensible recipe. Since I was paying attention (and not just making it as something that bubbles at the back of the stove, while I concentrated elsewhere), I decided to play around with it a little. What should I add to that already long list of flavorings? Vanilla, which would seem an obvious choice, but is never traditionally added, was my answer.
The real reason (cough) is that I was just dying to use the vanilla beans I’d bought recently. This was my first tryst with vanilla beans (as I’m sure saffron or rose water might be for many), and I’m afraid it’s going to turn into an expensive, full-blown affair. Mine came in a test-tube with a cork sealed with wax. As I cut open the seal, it seemed ceremonial somehow (yes, I get excited about such things; and no, people who know me don’t judge, mostly because I feed them after). No ceremony has had a better offering than that rich, pure fragrance. If somebody could bottle that (and they have tried, but nothing comes close), I’d wear it all the time.
I carefully slit open the bean, gathering up the seeds like so much treasure. Into the milk, they went, happily simmering away (if boiling milk smelled like that always, I’d have made less of a fuss drinking it as a kid – if only my mother knew!) I added the rice, which I like half-ground; not whole (as in kheer), not a paste (as in phirni), but somewhere in the middle. I usually do this with a mortar-and-pestle, but being in Canada, I improvised with an indestructible bowl and the end of a hefty rolling pin. Try it – it’s a great stress reliever!
After I added the sugar (the jar is going to get an additional resident – the used and dried vanilla bean), it was time for the additional flavoring. Spoiled for choice, I opted for three – if you haven’t already guessed from the pictures, they were saffron, rose water and spices (cinnamon and nutmeg). (Green cardamom is a more traditional spice, but since I can’t stand more than a pinch of it, I usually avoid it altogether. Now you know one more useless fact about me.)
As I dug my spoon in, the only thing missing was my mother frowning at me as I plucked out the raisins (another thing I don’t like in my kheer) from the delicious version that she makes.
Recipe adapted from my mother’s kitchen.
To keep the recipe simple, I’ve written it as I made it. For variations, you can refer to the post. Indeed play around with it, and make it your own.
(Please do try the saffron and rose water. If you’re worried about where you would ever use them again (as did I given the cost), I promise to come up with more recipes that use the same.)
5 cups milk
4 tablespoon basmati rice (I haven’t tried it with any other kind, but I wouldn’t fret about it)
6 tablespoon sugar (please add more if you like it sweeter)
1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
1/3 cup slivered pistachios (optional)
A pinch of saffron or
2 tsp rose water or
1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg
1. Soak the rice in warm water for 30 mins. (I half-grind the rice after draining it. You can leave it whole or grind it completely.)
2. Pour the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. If using the vanilla bean (if not, skip this step completely), split it lengthwise and scrape the seeds with a knife into the milk. Add the vanilla bean too. 3. Bring the milk to a gentle boil. Take it off the heat and let it steep for 30 mins.
4. If using the saffron, dissolve it in 1 tablespoon of the warm milk.
5. Remove the vanilla bean (if used) and bring the milk back to a boil. Add drained rice and simmer at a lower heat, stirring occasionally to ensure no lumps form. Continue until the rice is cooked completely and the mixture thickens to your desired consistency (this takes 25-30 mins to reach the consistency I like; also remember, it will continue to thicken as it cools). Add the sugar and mix well.
6. Stir in your desired choice of flavouring. Chill and serve garnished with the slivered nuts. (It is also eaten hot with puris.)
Recipe in short-hand: Boil milk. Add rice. Cook. Mix sugar and flavors.