The award for the toughest job during the upcoming Beijing Olympics does not go to 41-year-old swimmer Dara Torres, who has a good 15 years on most of her competitors. It does it go to the track and field athletes, who face the challenge of inhaling the city’s heavily polluted air. No, this honor goes to the executive chef of the Olympic Village, tasked with nourishing and satisfying ravenous athletes, whose vastly different palates hail from all over the globe. "One size fits all" definitely doesn’t apply here, with regards to both flavor preference and menu interpretation.
Say, for example, the chef scrawls "pudding" on the menu (O.K., I realize that there is not just one menu or one dining option for the many athletes with diverse nutritional needs. Each team probably brings their own chef with them. I’m just making a point here, so bear with me. Thanks.) So, where was I? Ah yes, pudding. If pudding makes an appearance on the menu board, Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, might picture something rich, creamy, and chocolate for dessert, much like the little cups that his mom used to pack inside his Aquaman lunchbox. Australian gymnast Lauren Mitchell, on the other hand, would perhaps look forward to being served a savory cake-like main course, which had been steamed or boiled, just like her aunt makes back home. Someone is going to be disappointed.
Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo Moreira, famished from a tough practice, might be very upset if the "pudding" that he envisions doesn’t turn out to be his native Arroz con coco, or rice with coconut milk, similar to the recipe below. One bite of this surprisingly light but luscious dessert, and you’ll understand why. By simmering the rice in lightly spiced and sweetened coconut milk, the grains absorb the coconut flavor, making it more pronounced. Toasted coconut flakes, rice, and a smooth custard give this dessert multiple textures. The crispy candied coconut topping is fantastic on its own, so make extra! Here are a few extra tips for this creamy coconut comfort food:
- Feel free to add or omit spices, depending on your personal taste. In addition to cinnamon or cardamom, small amounts of ginger, allspice, or nutmeg might be added. For a milder cinnamon taste, add a cinnamon stick to the mixture while it simmers, and then omit it prior to serving.
- I usually find the large flake coconut in the produce section, as opposed to in the baking aisle, but it can also be found in with the natural or organic foods. If you can’t find the large flake coconut, then just use regular unsweetened coconut. The regular coconut will crisp up much faster though, so keep an eye on it!
- The pudding may be prepared up to 8 hours in advance. Serve the pudding warm, at room temperature, or even cold. The crispy coconut may be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Store at room temperature, tightly covered.
- Arborio rice, which is used for preparing risotto, may be substituted for the jasmine rice.
Toasted Coconut Rice Pudding
For the coconut topping
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups large flake coconut
For the pudding
3 (14-ounce) cans light unsweetened coconut milk
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly toasted
2/3 cup jasmine rice
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
Prepare the coconut topping: Preheat the oven to 300F degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg white, sugar, vanilla, and salt to blend. Add the coconut to the bowl and toss until evenly coated. Spread the coconut onto the prepared baking sheet and bake until it is light golden and crisp, stirring frequently, 18-20 minutes. Cool completely on the baking sheet.
Prepare the pudding: In a large saucepan, combine the coconut milk, sugar, coconut, rice, cardamom, salt, and vanilla bean paste, if using. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover, and then cook until the pudding has thickened, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan frequently, about 45 minutes. Stir in the vanilla extract, if using.
Divide the pudding among ramekins or dessert glasses and sprinkle with the crispy coconut topping. Serve warm or at room temperature.