Our story begins, as so many of them do, at a not-altogether chance encounter with a family member on the afternoon of Christmas Eve last.
"Open your mouth, Meatball, I made Anna's rice pudding," commanded Cousin Jennifer, pointing a half-filled spoon at my person and approaching from a distance of seven or so feet. "It's not any good but I want your opinion anyway. I've been waiting for you to show up."
I have never known Jennifer, daughter to Cousins John and Susie, to be the bossy type and so her aggression was unanticipated. Even Aunt Laura, her grandmother, whom we both were visiting on this holiday and whose diminished health leaves her senses somewhat compromised, looked surprised.
More shocking still is that Jennifer had "made" anything at all. So far as I am aware my cousin's stovetop is little more than overflow storage space in her small apartment-size kitchen. A story circulates that she once cleared off a burner in order to bring a bit of water to a boil, for tea I was told, but no evidence of this exists, and nobody believes the account anyway.
And yet, here we were, in Laura's living room, surrounded by other family, not to mention all the beautiful Christmas cookies and candies lined along a sideboard and available for all to enjoy.
Now, I love my cousin very much; let's be clear on this. Her spirit is generous, her heart full. Being spoon-fed by her hand, if only for a taste or two, was more an intimate familial moment than a culinary one, defined not by the quality of Jennifer's cooking but by her desire to share the experience with, of all the many fine people in her orbit, me.
"Well?" she said watching as the first bit of pudding made its way around the inside of my mouth. "It's terrible, right."
It was nothing of the kind and I said as much.
"Tastes like Anna's rice pudding, all right. You did good, Jen."
Just then a second spoonful arrived at my lips.
"But?" Jennifer challenged as I accepted a second taste of her experiment. "C'mon, just say it."
For someone with so little knowledge of things culinary my cousin proved to know more than I had credited her with. Her rice pudding might have tasted like Aunt Anna's but the texture... Well, it was all wrong—and she knew it.
"Okay, it's maybe just a little bit dense," I offered delicately. "But only a little, can hardly notice."
This was a yellow cream-colored lie, of course. On the density scale Jennifer's pudding was in the eighty percentile whereas our aunt's might sit more in the forty range. She simply had overcooked the pudding, that's all. At least in my view.
"For a first time out you did real good," I said encouragingly. "Maybe just cook it a little less next time, or at a lower flame. More importantly, don't give up. You can do this."
Arriving back home to Maine after the long holidays I received a text from Jennifer about an unrelated topic, which prompted me to scroll through past messages we had shared throughout the year. I stopped cold at this picture of her with Aunt Anna. They were in Anna's kitchen some months ago and had decided to say hello to me by sending this photo. "Wish you were here" was their message.
I am not readily moved to emotion and yet this simple, out-of-focus, poorly lighted, not in the least remarkable picture pretty much left me helpless. Certainly its message did. And so I went to my kitchen and did the one thing that I knew would bring the three of us together again: I called my aunt, got her recipe and made her rice pudding.
What else could I do?
Anna's Rice Pudding
Serves 4-6 people
1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup rice
Pinch of salt
8 ounces heavy cream
3 egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup raisins
Add the milk, rice and salt to a saucepan and turn the heat to medium; stir frequently so that the rice doesn't stick to the bottom.
In a bowl beat the egg yolks and incorporate with half of the cream.
Remove from heat and stir in the sugar and the rest of the cream (the cream that was NOT added to the egg yolks).
Add the egg yolks and cream and incorporate.
Cover the bottom of a serving tray with the raisins and pour the pudding over it.
Allow to cool, sprinkle with cinnamon and serve.