In a hole-in-the-wall bookstore in Mérida, Yucatan, I once found a curious little cookbook written long ago by a town historian. It was a gold mine of traditional recipes from another era. My favorite was a simple rice pudding with achiote seeds (also called "annatto") and chocolate. "This is history in a pudding," I said to myself as I read the recipe. Someone in colonial times had the brilliant idea of uniting an ancient Maya chocolate drink dyed with the classic coloring of the New World tropics and a homespun Mediterranean sweet.
It has been a part of my repertoire for many years, but I'm not sure the town historian would recognize what I have done with his quiet, simple model. The original had no spices, except for cinnamon, while my version is rich with spices to suit my mood. But no matter what I do with this rich, sultry, red-tawny dish, I always pledge my Latin American allegiance with a can of our indispensable condensed milk. And I always follow my own idea of what a good rice pudding should taste and feel like - perfumed and sensuous, with the grains of rice almost melting into the matrix of the scented milk. For this, I start by cooking the rice in achiote-infused water so that it will soften nicely and take up the orange color of the seeds before I add the milk. My final touch is another bit of New World culinary history: the irresistible note of pure vanilla bean. This is a generous recipe, ideal for entertaining a crowd.
1 cup whole achiote (annatto) seeds
10 cups water
1 cup short-grain rice, preferably Spanish
1 tablespoon aniseeds
12 allspice berries
4 (3-inch) sticks true cinnamon (soft Ceylon cinnamon, sold as canela in Hispanic markets)
1 dried arbol or serrano chile
2 teaspoons salt
4 cups fresh whole milk
2 (14-ounce) cans condensed milk
3 ounces El Rey Bucare dark chocolate (58.5% cacao), Valrhona Pur Caraibe dark chocolate (66% cacao), or other fruity dark chocolate, finely chopped
2 plump Mexican vanilla beans
Ground true cinnamon (soft Ceylon cinnamon, sold as canela in Hispanic markets) for dusting
1. Place the achiote in a medium-sized saucepan and cover with the water. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and set aside. (You can save the achiote seeds and reuse them for another purpose by again steeping in hot liquid.)
2. Meanwhile, rinse the rice under cold running water until the water runs clear. Set aside to drain well in a sieve or colander. Tie the aniseeds, allspice, cinnamon sticks, and dried chile in a piece of cheesecloth.
3. Pour the reserved achiote water into a heavy-bottomed 5- or 6-quart saucepan. Add the drained rice, spice bouquet, and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, until the rice is soft, 20 to 25 minutes.
4. Stir in the whole milk and condensed milk. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 5 minutes. Add the chocolate, stirring with a wooden spoon to mix evenly as it melts. Cook, uncovered, for another 40 minutes, stirring occasionally; it should be very creamy but not dry. Halfway through the cooking, split the vanilla beans lengthwise with a small sharp knife and scrape the seeds into the mixture. Add the scraped beans and stir to mix well.
5. When the pudding is done but still a little loose-textured, remove and discard the spice bouquet and vanilla beans. Pour into a serving dish, dust lightly with the ground cinnamon, and serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: Products using porcelana cacao beans are available from chocolate makers Domori, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona.
Adapted from The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural & Natural History of Cacao with Recipes by Maricel E. Presilla (Ten Speed Press, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Maricel E. Presilla.
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