I don’t cook rice very often, but I used to work at a restaurant that let me take home large amounts of leftover rice, and over the years I have developed a taste for rice pudding. My favourite version is made with a blend of brown and wild rice (which adds a satisfying chew to the dish), and dried saskatoons.
Lately I’ve been wondering if I could make a similar dish with a starch that is more common in my kitchen. Take that fifty pound bag of wheat berries in my closet, for instance. The one that I keep threatening to grind into flour if it doesn’t make itself more useful.
I was wary of trying to adapt wheat to a rice pudding dish. When I first started cooking with wheat berries, I thought I could treat them like rice. I made some disastrous attempts at “risotto-style wheat” and “wheat pilaf.” No matter how long I cooked the berries, they never seemed to burst like wild rice, or release their starch like short-grain rice, or stick to each other like pilaf. They were tasty and enjoyably chewy, with a little pop as you bit through the bran, but they just rolled around on the plate, and didn’t form a cohesive starch like rice.
Lately I’ve been reading about the traditional Ukrainian Christmas dinner, a meal of twelve meatless courses, looking for ideas on winter meals. When reading about the main ingredients in their feast, I kept thinking, “I have that in my pantry… I canned tons of that this fall… I know where to find that…,” items like dried mushrooms and fruit and sauerkraut and potatoes. It sounds like the Ukrainian landscape is very similar to ours, which makes the Ukrainian culinary repertoire a useful resource.
The first course of the dinner is usually a dish called kutia: boiled wheat berries, sweetened with honey, often flavoured with poppyseeds, served cold.
Kutia recipes gave me a method for bursting the kernels of wheat and shortening their cooking time. The key is to dry the wheat in a low oven for an hour. I’m not sure exactly why this works. Maybe drying the berries weakens the cells walls and lets the boiling water penetrate more easily. I don’t know. But after drying for an hour, then soaking overnight, the berries burst after only a couple hours of boiling.
Once the cooking liquid is reduced, the dish has a great texture. I half expected the mixture to be gluey, but it’s surprisingly creamy, with the exploded bran giving a good chew-factor.
At the end of cooking, I added honey, salt, dried cranberries, and a bit of butter. For a looser pudding add cream.
My only qualm is the slightly grey colour of the pudding, a flaw that I’m willing to overlook simply because it’s so tasty.