The Secrets to Celebrity Chef Amanda Freitag’s Rice Pudding
Cookbook author and “Chopped” judge Amanda Freitag offers a few tips and tricks to get perfect rice pudding every time.
Amanda Freitag was raised on diner rice pudding.
Growing up in New Jersey, the renowned chef, cookbook author and judge on Food Network’s hit show Chopped, looked forward to heaping bowls of the cinnamon and whipped cream-topped dessert every time her family ate at their local greasy spoon.
“One of our favorite things to do was to go to the diner,” says Freitag. “I know [rice pudding’s] origins are probably Greek, but to me it’s something that reminds me of growing up in Jersey.”
Rice pudding is such a comfort food for Freitag that she craves it most when she’s feeling under the weather. In the notes for her rice pudding recipe (below) featured in her book The Chef Next Door, she writes “I was once very ill with the flu and was fortunate to have my parents taking care of me. They were so concerned that I wasn’t eating and begged me to eat something…anything. The only thing I craved was rice pudding.” Her dad dutifully brought her “10 different kinds of rice pudding,” including everything from Kozy Shack to her beloved diner rice pudding.
While developing her signature recipe for the dessert, a version of which she put on the menu during her time at the helm of New York’s legendary Empire Diner, Freitag kept the version from her childhood in mind. (Watch her make it on Instagram.)
“The rice pudding at the Jersey diner was like a taste memory that I wanted to recreate and obviously step it up a little bit,” she says.
While Freitag’s recipe might give you twinges of nostalgia for the rice pudding of your own childhood, she contends that there are countless ways to update—or even hack—it so that a spoonful will provide just as much enjoyment now as it did back then.
Rice is, of course, the star ingredient in this decadent dessert and there’s quite a bit of room to experiment with different varieties of the grain. “Honestly, you can play around with any rice and just work your ratio of liquid up and down,” she says. However, Freitag does recommend skipping brown rice or wild rice, which won’t create the desired creamy texture.
In her standard recipe, she uses a “Jasmine rice, because I think it’s a little more flavorful, but I recently made it with just regular short grain rice and it works,” says Freitag.
Also, don’t forget about the leftover rice in your fridge. Recently, faced with an excess amount of takeout that she didn’t want to go to waste, Freitag decided to give it a shot in her rice pudding. To her delight, it tasted great.
Much of the texture and flavor of rice pudding comes from the addition of milk and cream. Though her recipe calls for standard cow’s milk and heavy cream, she’s equally enthusiastic about swapping them out for dairy free options. Try nut or oat or coconut milks.
“Coconut milk is a great flavor profile to change it up,” says Freitag. When she was recently stocking her pantry, “I bought a couple cans of coconut milk because they last. That makes it really delicious and creamy.”
Whatever you use, keep in mind that you’re looking for a texture that isn’t too tight and one that “won’t run all over the place.” Somewhere in between is the goal.
And what if you find yourself low on or without heavy cream to add that final boost of creaminess? The chef recently discovered that ice cream also can be used in a pinch—any variety that doesn’t have chunky or fudgy additions will do.
“I was out of heavy cream, so I went into my freezer and I had vanilla ice cream, and I stirred in an exact amount of what the recipe called for heavy cream,” she says. “It was delicious.”
Cinnamon is the go-to spice for many diners serving rice pudding, but Freitag’s recipe only includes a dusting of it at the very end. While cooking the rice, she instead opts for using cardamom, one of her favorite spices. “I just wanted to step it up with the cardamom flavor,” says Freitag.
She’s also a fan of amping up the vanilla flavor. “The last time I made it, I used vanilla extract, a vanilla bean and vanilla ice cream,” she says. If you want to use a vanilla bean in lieu of or in addition to the extract, be sure to split the bean in half lengthwise and add it in at the same time as the recipe instructs that you add the cardamom, so its flavor can fully infuse into the rice.
Freitag also recommends trying out other baking spices, like nutmeg or allspice. “Dried spices I would say go in about halfway through, so they have a chance to bloom,” says Freitag.
“At the end, when the rice is cooked and you have all your dairy in there, you can stir in [ingredients] and taste it,” she says. “Do you like it? Do you want more? It’s almost like you’re seasoning it.”
Maple syrup is one of her favorite toppings for the dessert. And if you’ve used almond milk to make the dish, Freitag recommends topping it with, naturally, chopped almonds. When coconut milk is the base, stir in some toasted coconut or pineapple and mango chunks. Brown sugar and cinnamon work particularly well with oat milk.
Dried fruits like cranberries, cherries and dates make great additions, too, but Freitag says “the jury is out on whether people like raisins in their rice pudding.” So, if you want something sweet, go for chocolate chips instead. Prefer a bright pop of flavor? Orange, lemon or lime zest work wonders.
For a lighter, fluffier rice pudding, try folding in some whipped cream after the pudding has chilled. Freitag served it that way at the Empire Diner layered like a parfait with crushed shortbread cookies and a sizable dollop of whipped cream on top—comfort food indeed!
Recipe from The Chef Next Door by Amanda Freitag
- 1 cup Jasmine rice
- 10 Cardamom pods, optional (or substitute 2 cinnamon sticks)
- .5 cup Sugar
- .25 tsp Salt
- 4 cups Milk, plus .5 cup to finish
- 2 tsp Vanilla extract
- .25 cup Heavy cream
Add just enough water (approximately 2 cups) to cover the rice in a medium saucepot and bring to a simmer, cooking until completely tender.
Add the cardamom, sugar, salt and 4 cups of milk to the cooked rice. Simmer over low heat, occasionally stirring to prevent the rice from sticking, until all the milk is absorbed, about 40 minutes.
Finish the pudding by adding the remaining half cup of milk and the vanilla and cream.
Transfer the pudding to a glass bowl and chill in the refrigerator before serving.
If you want to serve individual servings, transfer the pudding into ceramic ramekins or glass dishes before placing in the fridge.
No matter what container you store the pudding in while cooling, make sure you place a piece of plastic wrap flush on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming.
Serve with whipped cream or a dusting of cinnamon.
Makes 4-6 servings