I want you to join me in a trip back in time to ‘Little Italy,’ where I lived with my family. Our Little Italy was in the United States, on the north side of Syracuse, New York, and was on the second floor of Highland Street.
The family home was simple and quiet as you looked up from the street, but as you made the difficult journey up the driveway, through the side door and up the very narrow and steep stairs into the second floor flat, the home came alive. This is where the sounds of Italian music, the smells of sauce filled the hallway, and site of Italian cookies where everywhere you looked.
Entering the second floor flat was exciting and a bit of an obstacle course. You would first enter the kitchen. My great aunt’s kitchen was essentially a long narrow closet, and, when empty, seemed almost insignificant. But on special visits there was such life, love, and organized chaos you felt like you were entering a sporting event as you looked for your seats. The room was filled with hugs, and kisses, as you were smushed and lathered with lip stick and perfume from the styles and shelves of yesteryear from anyone helping in the kitchen.
Once the six of us finally made it through the commotion, we found ourselves overlooking the dining room table adorned with food, meat, fish, pasta, decorations, cookies, cakes, custards, candy, presents, tableware, and a large colorful bowl with filled with my favorite dessert made by the hands of my great aunt Emily: rice pudding. This was only a tease, as no one was eating anything for at least two hours, but there it sat, always in the same bowl and always in the same place.
Next stop was the living room where grandpa Toscano and his brothers were sitting on the couch smoking cigars, having drinks, and telling stories loudly in Italian and English as they began the hugging and kissing all over again. This greeting was different and included a squeeze of the cheeks, a slap on the face, and a knuckle rub on the top of my head. Once my brother and sisters had filed in, the physical activities began starting with my great uncle Pete, the former marine who served in WWII. He did finger-tip pushups with us all piled on top of his back, all while smoking a non-filtered cigarette off in the side of his pursed lips.
A small table in the center of the room was plated with cookies, candies, coffee and chocolates, and the room was filled with Italian music and loud conversations humming with laughter.
After about an hour and a half, dinner began, and the food was always fantastic, everything perfect. Sitting at the kids’ table was a reminder we had not made the club yet, but we were positioned close enough to the adult table so that we never really missed a thing. As dinner wound down, the children were allowed to enter the smoke-filled adult dining area and the music, loud conversation and laughter. Making the dining room even more crowded was the old white New York New York upright piano with gold trim and a few too many years of professional neglect. As the ladies bring out espresso in the little cups, the piano keys were exposed and great uncle Herb would begin to play. The selection was limited, but the dining room was now filled with every soul in the house ready to laugh and sing.
While the music played, my great aunts would begin to cover the table with desserts, and I mean desserts. The family would now begin to position their seating around the table, sitting on non-matching chairs taken from every area of the house as we made it close our favorite plate, like spectators preparing for the main event. While every family member had their eye on something, I had already worked things out with my sweet great aunt Emily, so as the family were all begging and pointing to something they wanted, she was already spooning me a generous portion of pudding topped with homemade whipped cream sprinkled with cinnamon, and adorned with a Victorian style spoon tucked at the side.
I can remember the smell of sugar, cream, vanilla, and custard. The rice was shiny and gold, with flecks of vanilla bean throughout the pudding. Often the first bite was the best, but the pudding tasting better with every spoonful. I never rushed a swallow, as I knew great aunt Emily was there for a guaranteed refill, and this enjoyment of pure deliciousness would only come twice a year.
What I would give to sit around that table in little Italy again, with all those loving people, in a time and an era that is long gone. Almost all my greats have since passed. All the stories, laughter and music, now gone and living only in my memory. The details slowly fade, but the smell and taste of my great aunt Emily’s rice pudding remains to this day one of my favorite childhood memories. Please enjoy this wonderful recipe and maybe you too will enjoy the love and spirit of my family at your table.
Great Aunt Emily’s Rice Pudding
- 1.4 liters (6 cups) whole milk
- 150 grams (3/4) cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 315 grams (1 1/2 cups) Arborio rice
- Pinch of nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
- 237 ml (1 cup) heavy cream for pudding mixture
- 1/4 cup chopped assorted almonds and walnuts for garnish when serving
- 237 ml (1 cup) heavy cream for whipped cream for garnish when serving
- 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon mixed with 1/2 tablespoon sugar, for garnish
- Mix milk, 100 grams (1/2 cup) of the sugar, salt, rice, nutmeg, and vanilla in a saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a low boil, stirring occasionally. Partially cover the pan, lower heat, and simmer, stirring frequently until the mixture thickens and covers the back end of the spoon with a thick liquid.
- While pudding is heating, whip the 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks and 25 grams (2 tablespoons) of the remaining sugar together. When the pudding is thick, remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Then, while stirring the warm pudding constantly, very slowly add the creamed egg mixture. Once all the egg mixture is added, keep stirring the pudding for a few minutes to make sure all the egg is fully incorporated with the pudding.
- Return the pudding to low heat. Reheat, stirring constantly, allowing it to thicken once again as the rice absorbs the egg mixture and gives off more starch; this should take 3 to 6 minutes.
- Once thickened well, remove from the heat and let cool for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. While the pudding is cooling, whip the cream and remaining 25 grams (2 tablespoons) sugar until stiff.
- When the pudding mixture has cooled to room temperature, gently fold in the whipped cream, being careful to allow the volume to stay intact, adding a silky smooth texture and feel to the pudding.
- Place in a serving dish and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours. Once cooled, dress with a sprinkle of cinnamon and nuts. Serve in small dishes, adding another sprinkle of cinnamon and nuts, with a spoonful of whipped cream and a cinnamon stick if desired.