Sugar, Spice… Rice

Rice pudding wouldn’t be my last meal, put it that way.  So I was surprised to find myself craving it particularly as I don’t really have any previous experience of making it.  And although my Dad likes to make a traditional rice-based porridge for Christmas Eve, I can only ever manage a mouthful of the rich, sticky-sweet goop. 

I think my craving can probably be traced to all the reading up I’ve been doing on Indian cooking recently- I keep coming across the famous rice pudding, Kheer.   I find that there’s an unexpected crossover between many Swedish and Indian puddings,  as they both rely heavily on spices like cardamon, saffron and, of course, cinnamon.   For example, Swedish ‘vetebröd’ ( literally ‘wheat-bread’) is the cardamon-packed basis for the cinnamon buns and other varieties of sweet, bready cakes that we couldn’t do without.

So this rice pudding is really an homage to those spices and that unlikely cultural meeting of flavours.   I felt it needed something else, though, so made some cherry compote to accompany it.  Leftovers of which work particularly well with Greek yoghurt or bircher muesli for breakfast.  Or slathered on croissants, of course.  

Scandi Rice Pudding
(serves 2)

You will need:

For the rice pudding: 
300ml whole milk
40 g shortgrain or pudding rice
pinch of salt
1 small egg
25g dark brown sugar (muscovado)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of cinnamon
20g raisins
handful flaked almonds
2 cardamon pods

For the cherry compote:
250g cherries
juice of half a lemon
splash of brandy


1.  First off, get started on the cherry compote.  You need to get rid of all the cherry pips- a tedious and messy business.  Turn on the radio and get started. Remember, cherry juice stains like a mother, so don’t forget an apron. 

2.  Put the pitted cherries into a saucepan and turn on a low heat.  Add the lemon juice and leave to quietly bubble away for about 20 minutes.

3.  Meanwhile, get started with the rice pudding.  Use a wide pan to maximise the surface area.  Add the milk, rice, pinch of salt and slightly crushed cardamon pods and bring to a simmer slowly.  Turn down the heat and leave for about 20 minutes, until the rice is tender, stirring frequently.

4.  Your cherries should be cooked through by now, so it’s time to add the sugar.  Pour the contents of the pan into a measuring jug to get an idea of how much cooked fruit you have.  You want to add 3/4 of the same amount of sugar (so the ratio of cherries to sugar is 4:3).  So if you have about a cup of cooked cherries, add 3/4 of a cup of sugar. 

5.  Return to the heat and let simmer for a further 20 minutes or so, until you have a thick, jammy consistency.  The best way to test if it is ready is to put a spoonful on a plate, leave for a minute and then see if it ‘wrinkles’ when pushed with a finger.   Add a splash of brandy, if desired (and when isn’t it?) and stir before transferring to a bowl if eating straight away, or a sterilised jar.  Store in the fridge for up to a week.

6.  While you are waiting for the jam to come together, return to the rice pudding.  In a separate bowl, stir together the egg, sugar and vanilla.  Take the pan of milky rice off the heat and add a large spoonful of this to the egg mixture and stir vigorously.  Add all of the contents of the bowl to the pan and stir to incorporate.

7.  Put back onto a very low heat and add a pinch of the cinnamon, the raisins and finally the flaked almonds.  It should be properly thick and oozing by now.

8.  Serve in a bowl with a scoopful of the cherry compote, then sit back and enjoy. 

Dolma and aprakh

My grandmother turned 80 recently.  She had been pretty low-key about the whole thing, repeatedly maintaining that she didn’t really want a big do.  However, when I arrived at her flat the day before the party, it was plain that she was incredibly excited and couldn’t sit still for all the things she wanted to prepare.  Including, of course, the food. My grandmother is a phenomenal cook, with an extensive repertoire of traditional Swedish dishes.  I am currently working on typing out her collection of recipes (hand-written note cards and magazine snippets from the 50s and 60s).  I try and get through as many as possible whenever I visit her and ultimately hope to put them all together as a booklet for everyone in the family and as a bit of an homage to her.  But there are 100s of recipes and so far I’ve only finished the egg-based ones and made a tiny dent in the meats. 
These photos are mostly from the night before the party which I spent with my Middle Eastern family, helping to prepare some of the food.   My aunt Lotta’s partner, Adel, and his family are Assyrian or Syrian Swedes.  This is a pretty complicated ethnic group, so much so that to this day I can’t really tell you which country they are originally from.  You can read all about them here.  But, to attempt to explain (and frankly to help me get my head around it), the Assyrian or Syriac community is part of a diaspora of Christians who can be traced why back to Mesopotamian times.  There are a number of reasons why they fled this part of the Middle East in the 20th century, mostly unpleasant (genocide and massacre featuring high on the list).  They went all over- Chicago and Detroit were big ‘uns and some even set up home as far away as Australia.  One of the places with the largest Assyrian/Syriac population? Södertälje, a small town about 40 minutes by train from Stockholm and my maternal grandmother’s home.  I have absolutely no idea why.  What I have learnt over the years is that their food is fantastic and that they take entertaining seriously.

Dolma: rolled and ready to go
So with their help my grandmother’s do was guaranteed to be a great bash.   The food was a real meeting of cultures with more traditional Swedish dishes (see my, erm, expertly decorated seafood mousses), pies, a savoury cheesecake, breads, roe sauces and cakes.   And we were up half the night making what my cousins call aprakh but is more often called dolma here in the UK.  There was also a fragrant, fresh tabuleh, which was made predominantly from finely chopped parsley, rather than quite so heavy on the couscous/bulgur as I’m used to having it.  

Beautifully decorated seafood mousse
Cheese cake
The rolling of the dolma was the most painstaking part of the job.  First, we mixed the mince with uncooked rice, spices and herbs (including wonderful home-dried mint), garlic, tomato and citric acid.  The tinniest scoopfuls (really no more than a teaspoon) of this mixture then filled each vine leaf before being rolled, tightly, tightly into cigar-like shapes.  Under the watchful eye of Adel’s mother, I managed to get the hang of it after a while.  However, I was nowhere near as fast as the experts, who could finish a dolma in about two seconds flat.  Once rolled, they are then pilled high into a large saucepan, lined with raw meat or uncooked vegetables (so the dolma doesn’t burn and stick to the bottom of the pan) along with vegetables stuffed with any leftover mince-rice mixture (see the tomatoes in these pics).  The pan is then filled with stock or water and the dolma are left to simmer for hours until done.  A painstaking process, but absolutely worth it.

The mince and rice mixture

In the hands of a pro
During the course of the evening, I was plied with all manner of delicious specialities (breads, cheeses, teas and cakes) as more and more family members turned up to help out and have a natter. At one point (somewhere around midnight), we ran out of vine leaves so simply walked a few doors down to a neighbour’s house, who handily had some in her freezer.  I rolled back to my grandmother’s flat sometime around 2am, feeling a bit like a rebellious teenager past her curfew.  But I think I probably had a more memorable night. 

Chilli for chilly times

The Ultimate Vegetable Chilli
I’m loving making this at the moment.  It has been thrown together on several occasions to feed hungry musicians rehearing in our flat and provides a warming, healthy bowl of goodness when it is cold and dark and dank outside.  Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients.  They are all easy to come by and the recipe really doesn’t require much effort, just a bit of chopping.   This makes for an absolutely huge pot of chilli, so it’s really good for feeding a big group of people or left overs can be frozen.  It is packed with nutrients from all the veg and protein from the beans, so it’s perfect if you have overdone it a bit this season and want something to set you on the right track in the New Year.   I also defy anyone who eats this to tell me they miss the meat.  You won’t.   
You will need:

Olive oil
2 onions, chopped
3 mixed peppers
1 large carrot
1 courgette
1 aubergine
1 apple
1 tin of lentils (or about 300g dried lentils)
1 tin kidney beans
1 tin cannellini beans
2 tins chopped tomatoes
350 ml water from a recently boiled kettle.
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp chili
1 tsp salt
Get out a large saucepan and put on a medium heat, adding a glug of olive oil.  Fry the onions until soft, stirring regularly.
Add the chopped up peppers, carrot, courgette, aubergine and apple, stir regularly for about 10 minutes until the vegetables have started colour and cook.
Add the chopped tomatoes and boiling water, giving it a good stir.  Mix together all of the spices and herbs before adding to the pot.  Finally, add the drained beans and lentils, reduce the heat and let simmer gently for about 20-25 minutes. 
Season to taste before serving with rice, guacamole, lime wedges and chopped coriander.