Kheer or milchreis, riz au lait, arroz de leite, budino di riso, arroz con dulce or just rice pudding. Whatever you may call it, fact is almost every country has their own particular version of this creamy, dreamy, sweet rice dessert.
The North Indian type, kheer has accompanied me since my childhood. My nani, my aunts and my mother each had their own particular way of making kheer and each one was a tad different - almost like their own signature dish. I could always tell who had made the particular kheer I was eating. My mum, for example, used plump big yellow raisins and instead of almonds used cashews. One of my aunt added finely grated cinnamon while the other highlighted her kheer with a dash of rosewater. It was my nani's kheer however that always stood out - it was the queen of kheers if you might.
Simply because she added a lovely sprinkling of saffron not only to induce the vibrant yellow but to give it that delicious delicate aroma. She always said saffron was a spice meant to be shared only with the loved ones and that is why every time we came to visit her she made sure she bestowed her love with plenty of saffron in her kheer.
Visiting nani always made me jokingly and lovingly sing a Hindi rhyme with my brother. Roughly translated it went "I'm going to my grandmother's house and when I return I shall be nice and plump!" And every time she set a bowlful of her still warm kesar kheer on the table I would wink at my brother and hum that rhyme.
I was about 6-7 months into my relationship with Tom when we decided to make a trip to California to visit my parents, brother, cousins and aunt in San Francisco. It was time to introduce "the man" in my life to my family. I had my fair share of anxiety. I mean it was going to be a clash of cultures. Germany meets India - in the USA!
A few weeks before I had met up with Tom's parents, who were a fairly quiet, serene and easy going folk. The meal we had together was one of the most quiet and uneventful meals I had ever sat down to. In my family it was quite the opposite. We all talk at once and fairly loud so that we can drown out the discussion of the others. Food will be passed around and important decisions made between tandoori chicken and palak paneer. It's how we tick and I love it.
The day came and as we drove up to my aunt's house in SF I was getting more excited - not only because I had not seen some in over a year, some in 5 years but also because a decision could be made between that palak paneer and chicken that might change my life. For better or for worse.
My family were there - seven people standing in the driveway waving and cheering, my brother with a video camera in his hand. I sank a little deeper into our rented car. As we pulled up, my brother went straight to Tom's side, still filming and commentating about who was currently in the picture. Tom just looked like a meek little cat who had been caught with a bag of cat food. As I hugged my clan - there's a lot of hugging in my family - Tom was still stuck in the car. Finally as Tom came out everyone gathered around him, shaking hands and - yes - hugging him. I had to stand back and laugh at the scene. My brother, still with the trusted camera, was catching it all on film. Tom turned to me with adjuration and curiosity all at once in his eyes.
We spent several hours with each other that day and after the initial uproar Tom seemed to feel very comfortable. Then dinner came around and as I have often said on this blog, my family is very food oriented. Food is always being discussed, the next meal is planned during the current one and we love grocery shopping. My mum and aunt had cooked up a feast for a German Kaiser, because I am sure that is what Tom felt when he was asked to take a seat on the opposite head from my father. After dinner we all moved into the family room where we made ourselves comfortable. My mum and aunt brought delicate bowls filled with kheer. I could not help snickering. I knew what it was but Tom did not.
"This smells great!" Tom said as he spooned a fairly large spoonful into his mouth followed directly by another. Then he slowed down and turned to me,
"What is this?" he whispered.
"It's Milchreis (rice pudding)" I said cracking up.
See Tom dislikes rice pudding. He will eat it when he is served it but will never ask for it in particular. He's liked a few of my rice pudding versions I've made but it's not something that he eats with gusto.
So, as his face dropped and his mouth full of rice pudding, his eyes narrowed down onto me "How could you?" and all I could do was crack up even more. As we were speaking in German the rest of the family could not understand what we were saying.
My aunt asked, "What's so funny?"
"Oh nothing Tom was just telling me how much he loves your kheer, masi!"
"Really? Oh - Come Tom take more there is plenty!" she said flattered and full of enthusiasm, filling Tom's bowl again.
I was under the table in fits.
It's become a joke in my family. A few years later we did tell them what really happened on that day and now my mum will tease Tom and say "Come Tom I have made some kheer for you!"
However, truth be told Tom does like the Indian kheer a lot better than it's German counterpart. He says the spices and the blend of flavors suits his palate more. Then one day I made him my grandmother's kheer. Saffron, plump yellow raisins, almonds and pistachio, spiced with cardamom and finely grated cinnamon. It was back in 2007 the year she passed away and in my way I wanted to pay tribute to her. Soeren who is the exact opposite of his father could barely wait to get a bowlful.
"You know, you do not have to do this!" I told Tom as I set a small portion in front of him.
"It's for your nani!" he said and ate the bowl.
He liked this. He honestly liked it and to date it's the only type of kheer he will request I make when he is craving the incredible and delicate flavors. It's the saffron I say! It's her spice that bestows love on everyone that enjoys it.
Saffron in India is used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes. Often when cherished or important guests come to dinner the Indian housewife will show her hospitality and, in certain effect, will flaunt their prosperity by using this precious spice generously.
Exactly that is what this spice is: the most precious and the most expensive in the world. The first mention of this delicate spice is dated back as far as 1500 BC in the Bible and in several classical writings. Saffron is derived from the Arab word zafaran, which means yellow. Other derivations come from the Ancient French - safran, Medieval Latin – safranum and Middle English – safroun.
Saffron is harvested from the fall-flowering plant Crocus sativus, which is a member of the Iris family. Native to Asia Minor, it has been cultivated for thousands of years and used in medicines, perfumes, dyes, and of course, as an exquisite flavoring for foods and beverages.
The Saffron filaments, or threads, are actually the dried stigmas of the saffron flower, Crocus Sativus. Each flower contains only three stigmas, which must be hand-picked from each flower. More than 75,000 of these flowers are needed to produce just one pound of Saffron filaments, making it the world’s most precious spice.
Saffron is available as threads and ground, I strongly recommend always to go for the threads. They will retain their flavor longer and you will be certain to have purchased pure saffron. Often ground saffron is not as strong in it’s aroma and tends to loose flavor over time. Furthermore, ground saffron is easily degraded by adding fillers and other imitations.
One does not need much Saffron for it to go a long way and it is often found in tiny packets/boxes. And yet, these seemingly tiny amounts will give you pleasure in more than one dish.
Saffron threads should be lightly crushed before using, then steeped in the cooking liquid for more flavor. The rule: the longer you steep the saffron threads, the stronger the flavor and color of your dish. For ground saffron, lightly toast and grind the threads yourself.
Saffron is readily available in most large grocery stores and Asian/Middle Eastern shops. I remember once in Dubai – I was looking for Kashmiri saffron but was unable to find it in the supermarket. I found it strange as the supermarket was very well stocked with all sorts of spices. After asking the lady at the cashier, she paged the manager and I was led to a room where the saffron was locked in a safe! So, if you cannot find it in your store ask the manager maybe it’s locked somewhere safe too!
Saffron should be stored in air-tight containers in a cool and dark place. Like other spices, saffron is sensitive to light. My nani wrapped the box in a small piece of newspaper to protect it from light and from aging quickly. Usually saffron will keep it’s flavor for up to six months then slowly begin to loose it as it ages.
In my humble opinion I find the Kashmiri and the Iranian saffron the finest of all. Both are uniquely distinctive in terms of aroma and color. Other countries like Spain, Greece, Turkey and Morocco also produce saffron.
Whenever I miss my nani I can’t help but take out my pot and set out the spices and other ingredients, then in quiet contemplation begin stirring and steeping. I am lucky, as my mother regularly sends me Iranian/Kashmiri saffron, Iranian pistachios and golden Iranian raisins and all these are just the perfect ingredients to make a delectable and elegant dessert. My nani’s beautiful Kesar di Kheer – Saffron Rice Pudding.
This is an old recipe with deep meaning for me. And it’s not easy for me to share it – it’s the truth. I’m giving away a deep part of me with this recipe. But when Bee and Jai of Jugalbandi told me what their theme for the Monthly Mingle would be I instantly thought of the Kesar di Kheer my nani made. It fits perfectly into the Heirloom theme they chose this month.
Kesar di Kheer – Saffron Rice Pudding
[Printable version of recipe here.]
200g long grain rice, I prefer to use Aroborio rice as it holds up its shape better
100g fine grained sugar
720 ml milk
pinch of saffron, threads
2-3 tablespoons ghee or clarified butter
3-4 cardamom pods
half a stick cinnamon
50g almonds + more for decoration, skinless and sliced
50g pistachios + more for decoration, coarsely chopped
30g golden raisins
- Steep the saffron threads in a tablespoon warm milk.
- In a large saucepan melt the ghee/clarified butter. Add the rice and sauté till slightly transparent. Slightly crack the cardamom pods, throw into the saucepan along with the cinnamon stick and continue to sauté for another minute or so.
- Pour in half of the milk and bring to a boil. Gently simmer until some of the milk has been soaked into the rice, stirring occasionally to avoid the rice from sticking to the bottom of the saucepan. Then add the saffron milk and gently stir to incorporate. Finally add sugar, raisins, almonds and pistachios. Pour the remaining milk and simmer on a low until the rice is plump and cooked and the liquid had evaporated. Stir occasionally.
- Divide into bowls and sprinkle with chopped pistachios and sliced almonds. Serve warm.
Food Guide tips:
The vivid and glossy yellow this rice pudding has is a pure pleasure to the eyes. The sophisticated and distinctive aromas of the spices will bring a spectacular bouquet to the nose and a comforting spoonful an ardent craving to the stomach. To me this Kheer is so much more than just a dish – it’s an awesome, sometimes sad memory of my grandmother. It’s a dish I run to when I seek solace and comfort. To me this kheer epitomizes my nani in all it’s bold, delicate and spectacular glory.
I hope you enjoy it too.
Look forward to seeing all your heirloom recipes at this month’s Heirloom Monthly Mingle.
You might like these family recipes from WFLH:
|Mum's Creamy Black Lentils - Kaali Maa Di Dal||Punjabi Aloo Gobi – Spiced Cauliflower and Potatoes||Egg Curry in a Creamy Coconut Gravy|
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