Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s in The Coal Region, going out to eat anywhere was a special treat. My Nana and Mom cooked almost every meal for us in our little, cramped “miner’s shack” kitchen, and we all gathered ’round every evening for supper and each Sunday for a full dinner while Mom, Pop, Nana, Pappy and I enjoyed each other’s company.
Special occasions, however, like birthdays and anniversaries warranted “dinner out” at one of the local finer eateries in Schuylkill County (usually “The Wedgewood” on Route 61 South, Orwigsburg, PA because my Pop just loved their salad bar with the peel and eat shrimp!).
But every once in awhile, during one of our cherished “Sunday drives”, (all five of us piled in the boat of a Buick, making our way across country roads that wound through towns and patches with names like Rough and Ready, Arnots Addition, Helfenstein, and Primrose), we would stop for dinner at a local eatery.
Said eatery was most likely a classic Coal Region or Dutch country diner, parking lot filled with cars and station wagons. Inside, booths and tables over-flowed with families out for a meal. At the swivel stools that ran along the counter, men in plaid shirts and suspenders sat, cup of coffee and slice of pie in front of them, perusing the local newspaper.
In many instances, art deco designs ablaze with colors of pink, teal, mint, black and white, along with a sea of chrome and stainless steel, filled your field of vision. Vinyl covered chairs and booths ran along the walls and through the center of the establishments, kept spotless by uniformed waitresses who whisked away dirty dishes, wiped down surfaces, and laid out paper place mats accompanied by white paper napkin wrapped packs of spotless eating utensils.
As the waitress saddled up to the table — order pad and pencil in hand — the inevitable Coal Region “What do yous want?” slipped from her lips signaling the time for indecision was over; menus snapped shut, and we enthusiastically placed our orders.
The thick, vinyl covered menus of the diner era of my childhood seemed to inevitably contain two distinct things; juices offered as appetizers (which has fallen out of favor in much of today’s dining scene) and the consistent presence of rice pudding among the dessert offerings.
In “my day”, every meal in a diner or restaurant started with the appetizer of choice for my family; a glass of chilled tomato juice. I drank mine “straight”, but Pop always embellished his with a pinch of salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. (Seems somewhere along the way, I picked up his habit because I drink tomato juice that same way today, no matter where or when I have it.)
After a meal of some classic diner favorite like meatloaf, a hot turkey sandwich, or chicken croquettes (accompanied by filling, mashed potatoes with gravy, and pepper cabbage), the highlight of my day was the rice pudding.
I am hard-pressed when cruising through childhood memories to find a diner meal that did not end with rice pudding. But not just rice pudding — “rice pudding with cream”. Now, what made this a Coal Region/Schuylkill County/Berks County “thing” was that, in the diners we frequented, “cream” did not mean “whipped cream”, but rather a tiny bottle of chilled, heavy cream, served alongside the dish of rice pudding, meant to be drizzled over the top.
As a kid, I just loved that little “jug” of cream; so child-sized, so magical in some way. I think back now and realize I might have been more enamored with the little thingie in which they served the cream than with the rice pudding itself!
Be what it may, that drizzle of cream on my rice pudding was so important, I broke into the tears only a disappointed 8-year-old can deliver the day my rice pudding arrived at some never-before-eaten-at diner loaded down with an offensive blob of whipped cream! There was no little bottle in sight! I mean, what was this??
As the flow of tears ebbed and righteous indignation overcame my grief, this pouting little “coalcracker”, wedged into the corner of the bench-seated booth, was relieved of my heavy emotional burden by my Pop who volunteered to eat the rice pudding for me. Good ole Pop; always the one to save the day.
It’s funny how some memories related to a food dance just below the surface in your mind, ready to jump to center stage at a moments notice. Say, “diner” to me, and the immediate thoughts of tomato juice, rice pudding, and my personal “pudding trauma” spring to mind.
My childhood love of rice pudding never left me and throughout my adult years, I tried my share of recipes in the attempts to find one that reminded me of the “diner” rice puddings I adored. I came close at times but in the mid-80’s was given a recipe by my best friend, Peg (from Ashland, PA), that has now become my absolute first “go to”.
Not overly sweet (you can add 1/4 cup more granulated sugar if you desire), this is a stove top recipe that turns out a smooth, rich pudding thanks to the use of evaporated milk in the recipe (not sweetened condensed milk).
To make tempering the egg mixture easier on my arthritic hands, I love to use my 4 cup Pyrex glass measuring cup in which to beat then temper the mixture; the handled cup makes it easier for me to add the tempered egg mixture back to the saucepan to finish cooking.
I prefer to use Basmati rice for this pudding, but plain long-grain white rice works equally well. I like to add raisins to rice pudding when the mood strikes me, but I add them at the end of cooking; the raisin flavor does not overwhelm the pudding as it can when the raisins are added while cooking and they plump up nicely from the residual heat of the pudding as it sits to cool. I also prefer my rice pudding with a sprinkle of cinnamon at serving time (and if I have it, of course, a little jug of heavy cream to drizzle on top!).
Smooth and Creamy Rice PuddingCourse: DessertsCuisine: Coal Region, PA DutchDifficulty: Easy
A smooth, rich, not overly sweet pudding; add raisins or omit as you prefer.
1/2 cup uncooked basmati or long grain white rice
1 quart whole milk
1 – 12 ounce can evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed)
1/ 2 cup granulated sugar
2 whole large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon salt
Optional 1/3 cup dark raisins
Cinnamon to sprinkle for garnish.
- Rinse rice well by placing in a fine mesh sieve and running under water until water runs clear. Place rice in a 3 quart saucepan, add the 1 quart whole milk and the salt. Place saucepan over medium heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat and retain a slow simmer, stirring frequently, until rice is soft and mixture thickens, about 17 to 18 minutes after it starts to boil.
- While rice is cooking, in a medium bowl or 4 cup glass measuring cup, beat eggs with a whisk. Whisk in sugar, evaporated milk, and vanilla. Set aside.
- When the milk/rice mixture is cooked, remove saucepan from heat. Take 1 cup of the hot rice and milk and add it slowly into the beaten egg mixture, stirring constantly to temper the eggs. Then slowly drizzle the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepan, stirring constantly. Return saucepan to the heat and cook over low until mixture thickens and starts to bubble, stirring constantly
- Remove from heat. If adding raisins, stir them into the pudding bow; the residual heat from the pudding will plump the raisins as the mixture cools. Pour the rice pudding into a 3 quart dish and place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming as it cools.
- Serve warm or chilled in serving glasses/dishes. Sprinkle with cinnamon, to taste, if desired when serving. Also good topped with whipped cream or drizzle some heavy cream on top of each serving.