A blast from the past, riz à l’impératrice (French empress rice, in English) is the most elegant rice pudding you’ll ever meet. The classic dessert isn’t as popular as it once was, but it deserves to live on. Here’s a version that combines some of its essential elements—soft, vanilla-scented rice, a rich Bavarian cream—with modern shapes and playful garnishes like lemon marmalade, candied cherries, or fresh fruit.
- Prepare molds: Grease four to six straight-sided, at least 8-ounce glasses, ramekins, tart rings, cake rings, or coffee mugs. Set aside on a small tray.
- To make the filling: Place raisins and rum in a small bowl and pour ½ cup boiling water on top. Let soak for 30 minutes and then strain. Set aside to cool. (May be made up to 1 week in advance.)
- To make the pastry rounds: Cream butter and sugar. Add flour and heavy cream and stir until incorporated. Shape into a flat disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 1 hour (can be made up to 1 week in advance.) To bake: Roll chilled dough until it's ⅛-inch thick. Using a glass or round cookie cutter, cut at least 6 rounds of dough, 3 to 4 inches in diameter. Chill rounds until firm, at least 15 minutes. Bake cold rounds on a parchment-lined cookie sheet at 350°F for about 8 minutes, or until golden brown. Save remaining pastry dough, wrapped tightly, for another use.
- To make the rice pudding: Place rice in a 2-quart saucepan and add about 2 cups of water. Rinse rice, agitating with fingers or a spoon. Strain rice and place wet rice back in pan. Add 2 cups of fresh water, plus 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Boil for 5 minutes, then strain. Return rice back to pan. Add milk, vanilla pod, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Lower heat to medium and cook rice until it is tender and liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. If liquid boils off before rice is cooked, add water, ½ cup at a time, and continue cooking until rice is completely cooked through. Place rice in a large bowl and set aside to cool.
- To make Bavarian: In a small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over ¼ cup of cold water. Set aside.
- Have ready a small strainer set atop a medium-size bowl.
- Pull vanilla pod out of rice mixture and add it to a 2-quart saucepan along with the 1 cup milk and 1/3 cup sugar. Turn heat to medium. Whisk egg yolks in a medium bowl until homogenized. When milk mixture starts to simmer, turn off flame and pour a little bit of hot milk into the egg yolks while whisking. Add more, a few splashes at a time, until all of the hot milk is mixed into the egg yolks. Add milk and egg mixture back into the saucepan. Turn heat to low or medium-low and stir gently until a puff of steam escapes from the custard. Watch the bottom of the pot carefully; as soon as the mixture steams, it will start to stick slightly to the bottom of the pot. When this happens, immediately pour it into the strainer set atop the medium-size bowl. Give it a stir to help it cool. Add gelatin mixture.
- Let custard and rice cool to room temperature. This can be hastened by placing the bowls in the refrigerator or freezer, being careful not to let either get cold or set.
- When cool, fold rice into custard. Add whipped cream and fold gently until completely incorporated. If using filling, fold rum raisins into rice mixture.
- Spoon mixture into greased molds or cups, tapping each slightly to pop any large air bubbles. Cover molds with plastic wrap and set in refrigerator to chill at least 2 hours or overnight.
- To serve: Run a thin knife around side of each mold to help loosen rice pudding and tip each out onto a round of baked pastry if using, or a plate or wide-mouthed coupe glass. Garnish as desired. Serve cold.
Daniela Galarza is a writer and reporter who covers food, restaurants, cooking, and culture. She used to be a pastry chef. These days she puts her culinary degree to use by making birthday cakes for friends. She lives in New York with her dog Frito.