In the series Hungry Hearts: In Praise of Emotional Eating, Antonia Richmond will tell the stories behind the signature recipes in our lives — the no-fail options seasoned with nostalgia and topped with comfort, where the memory is as good as the food itself.
Aran Goyoaga is a food stylist, photographer, and author whose ability to capture the profound beauty of food is unparalleled. Long before I knew her, I read her blog, Cannelle et Vanille, and was captivated by her stories about the changing Seattle seasons and the food she cooked in response; each post a thoughtful meditation, both verbal and visual, on the natural world around her. I work with Aran now and she is one of the most gracious, down-to-earth, funny women I know. Even so, I sometimes feel overwhelmed in her presence; the singular aesthetic vision she brings to everything she does—whether she is styling a rustic tart on a wooden table, or taking a photograph of fallen roses, on the edge of decay—is so full of emotion, so utterly beautiful, it makes me feel like I might burst into tears.
Recently, I asked Aran if there was one recipe in her vast repertoire that she turned to again and again, and for the story behind it. Here, she shares the story of a beloved food that’s provided comfort to her family for generations.
Arroz con leche defines my childhood in so many ways. It is the simplest rice pudding recipe you will ever find with very few ingredients, but it does require some attention and time nursing it at the stove.
Arroz con leche is one of the pillars of Basque cuisine and a dessert you can find in both upscale or rustic restaurants. My grandparents owned a pastry shop across the street from the flat where I grew up. The milk for the pastry shop came from the small, family-run dairy only a couple of kilometers away. The raw milk was delivered daily in large metal containers and it was my grandmother Miren’s job to pasteurize it to get it ready for custards, tart fillings, brioche and everything else that was being made that day. Any leftovers were turned into arroz con leche for the whole family. Arroz con leche is so simple with only five ingredients: milk, rice, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Sometimes my grandmother added vanilla and lemon zest but her cinnamon version was the one that I remember the most. She sprinkled the tops of the arroz con leche with ground cinnamon and topped them with Maria cookies.
I make it for my children now and they have the same reaction as I did at their age. I don’t make it as often as my grandmother made it for us, but the excitement is the same. It is celebratory for sure. The only difference is that I now make it with milk alternatives because neither my son nor I tolerate dairy very well. My current recipe is made with oat milk, which is naturally sweet and compares really well to cow’s milk.
It is such an emotional recipe for me. It ties me to my roots, to my family and makes my grandmother Miren ever-present in my life. I always have her close to me, but the smell of cinnamon and vanilla immediately transport me to my youth, my grandmother’s scent, her soft skin and so many warm memories. It’s funny how even as a young child I could recognize these feelings, even when she was alive and well. I have always known she was a special human, and that everything she made for us was filled with joy and love.
Arroz con leche
Recipe by Aran Goyoaga
If you can tolerate cow’s milk, you can use whole milk instead of oat milk. The vanilla bean and lemon zest are optional but always so beautiful. My grandmother used to make this often with just cinnamon stick and it was equally divine.
2 quarts oat milk
1 cinnamon stick
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Arborio rice
1 cup strawberries, hulled and sliced for topping (optional)
Ground cinnamon, optional
1. Combine the milk, cinnamon stick, vanilla bean and seeds, and salt in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Using a vegetable peeler, cut 4 strips of lemon zest and add them to the pan.
2. When the milk comes to a low simmer, reduce heat to low and add the sugar and rice. Continue cooking the arroz con leche over low heat for 60 to 70 minutes, stirring frequently. A few notes: Make sure the milk doesn’t boil too briskly. If you see the milk bubbling up more than a simmer, reduce heat even lower. Stirring is very important because it helps the rice release starch and thicken the arroz con leche. As the arroz con leche thickens, towards the end of the hour, the rice might start sticking to the bottom of the pan so make sure you are stirring it often and paying attention.
3. Once the arroz con leche is creamy and thickened, ladle into six bowls. It can be served war, at room temperature or chilled. Top with strawberries or simply sprinkle ground cinnamon on top.
Aran’s new book, Cannelle et Vanille: Nourishing, Gluten-Free Recipes for Every Meal and Mood, will be released this fall.