Rizogalo: Rice Pudding, Greek Style

The Greeks have their own, particular way of doing things: eating, speaking, dancing with chairs balanced on their chins, dressing, getting excited when anything that can be broken is smashed onto the floor.

I like to call it Greek style. Or Greek-style, depending upon the activity.

Whatever they are doing, it is often loud and (sometimes irritatingly) proud. This brashness isn’t particularly different from any other once-great culture who happened to spend centuries getting kicked around by other Empires-du-jour. It’s just the culture I am surrounded by for thirty hours every week at work.

Five or six days a week, I see the Greek men who proudly show off my place of business to their dinner guests as if it were their own home. I count the little Greek flags pinned to their lapels, I bring them more food than anyone could possibly eat because, as one Greek said to me years ago when I quietly suggested he might be ordering too much food for his guests:

“Of course it’s too much. I want these people overwhelmed. I can’t have them saying they never got enough to eat.”

Well, okay then. When I went upstairs to order the 27,000,000 plates of mezethes he demanded, I realized something: This guy may have been one of the richest men in San Francisco– a self-made, honest-to-God Greek Tycoon, but he was also a child of the Great Depression who grew into an early manhood under the oppressive thumb of Nazi occupation and its resulting near-starvation– a time when people survived on little more than boiled weeds (horta)– a dish we also serve, but was conspicuously absent from his order.

The Greeks– at least the old ones– know about starvation. To let anyone who comes under their roof go hungry is to shame an entire culture. It would break the laws of philoxenia (hospitality) or, worse– it would break the heart of their dear, sainted yia-yia.

Perhaps that last statement was a little melodramatic, but it’s the Greeks we’re talking about here. I mean, they invented drama. I can’t say I blame them for overdoing it on the food.

The odd thing I find about Greek people versus Greek food is that, where the Greeks themselves can be frequently over the top in their hand gestures, speaking voices, clothing and just about everything else, Greek food is refreshingly, wonderfully simple. It is what it is, which is often straightforward, fresh, and unadorned. And totally delicious.

Maybe they avoid high numbers of ingredients for any given dish because they know they’re going to wind up cooking enough of it to feed Alexander the Great’s army.

Rizogalo

Greek rice pudding is just one of those delightfully straightforward, simple dishes.

However simple it may be to make, it is not so simple for non-Greek people to pronounce. And I feel strongly that this dessert must be pronounced correctly before one should be allowed to eat it. Otherwise, one is just eating some rice pudding that any other culture might make. And then it wouldn’t be Greek, so what would be the point?

It didn’t take me long grasp the need to tackle the difficulties of mastering Greek pronunciation. In fact, it was this particular dessert that made me realize that, if I was going to be working in a Greek restaurant, I was going to have to start saying things correctly in order to be taken seriously.

One evening as I delivered dessert menus to a sweet, elderly, Old Country Greek couple, I mentioned that our Ree-zo-Gah-low was delicious. The woman blanched and said to me, “You are not Greek!” and then, took my arm and uttered the correct way to say it, pulling town as if to tear my limb from its socket at the correct moment of emphasis.

“Ri-Zho-gha-loh!”

She then let go of my arm, ordered some Greek coffee and asked, “If you are not Greek– and you are not Greek, where are your people from, because you look like you could be Greek.”

“Well, my dad’s family is Sicilian,” I answered, not wanting to explain that my father is, in fact, only half Sicilian.

“Sicilian?” she said as she looked at her husband. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”

To which he replied, “Una faccia, una razza.” One face, one race.

His wife beamed. She took my same arm, but this time, she patted it. She gave me a barely perceptible nod and then said, “You’re okay. We like you, but learn to pronounce Greek!”

Serves 4 to 6 old greek men.

Ingredients:

4 ½ cups whole milk

3/4 cups arborio rice, washed

1 cinnamon stick

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon of vanilla extract (or more to taste)

1/2- 3/4 cups of granulated sugar, depending upon your love of sweetness

Powdered cinnamon for garnish.

Preparation:

1. In a medium saucepan (why is it that I feel as though I begin everything with “In a medium saucepan”?), pour the milk and add the cinnamon stick. Bring to a boil, then let simmer over low heat for about 5 minutes. Add rice and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently (think of it as a very loose risotto– you want to release the rice starch).

2. Temper your awaiting, lightly beaten egg yolks with some of the hot milk, then add the yolk/milk mixture to the simmering rice. Stir in sugar. Stir everything. Stir Crazy, for all I care. Continue to cook until the you can draw a line in the custardy sauce on the back of a wooden spoon (see: above photo). Add Vanilla extract. If you like your rice pudding loose and very creamy, stop cooking now. If you like it firmer and drier, continue to cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

3. Pour out into a large bowl to cool. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

4. To serve, spoon the pudding into little yogurt glasses you bought for breakfast ’round the corner at that little grocery store in the Marais and then took home with you because they remind you of someone from a Greek family who makes you very, very happy whenever you think about him. Garnish with cinnamon.

5. Eat.

6. Repeat until everyone you have ever come in contact with has been fed.

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32 Responses to Rizogalo: Rice Pudding, Greek Style

  1. ksoohoo says:

    This is probably the same reason why my grandmother often insists on ordering for 4 people when it’s just the two of us having lunch together.

    Charming entry, as ever. I may have to try this soon. And I miss you guys!

    xoxo

  2. kittybrat says:

    Darling,
    I love you!
    Thanks for the perfect recipe for Wednesday’s anniversary party (they’ve been married 60 years… lots of people to feed).
    Peace,
    Cat

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Well, my goodness, thank you!

      Hmmm… let’s see… 60th anniversary, rice pudding, party… I think perhaps, if it’s within your party budget, you might want to replace the cinnamon with a garnish of crushed diamonds. It would only be fitting, you know.

  3. Alice Medrich says:

    Nobody writes a recipe like you do Michael. I read and learn. XO A

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Thank you, Alice. I see recipes as part of the story. I like to see if people are paying attention– I’m delighted to know that you are.

      And I’m just as delighted to know that you have finally started your blog!

      XOM

      • Thank you Michael. I noticed how that could work, I mean seeing if people were paying attention. And so I just had to try it myself… try to remember (when you read my attempt) that emulation is a form of praise. XO and Shamelessly, A

        • michaelprocopio says:

          I love your shamelessness. And I am flattered beyond words, so I’ll just shut up now and say “Thank you.”

          xoM

  4. Deb says:

    very, very excited to get some great Greek food, and this is making my mouth water. i shall finish my 7# leg of lamb meal (coming shortly) with this..unless I make it sooner, which will most likely happen this Tuesday…mmm, mmm, good!

    • michaelprocopio says:

      7th? Se-venth? In what span of time? I am hoping it isn’t all at one sitting.

      • I assume 7# = not “seventh” but “seven-pound”.

        Most excellent post. I love rice pudding, but have never successfully made a non-yucky batch. I will try this today and let you know how it goes, IF James is willing to walk to the store and buy milk, because it’s 101 F (the F is for “FUCKING DEGREES”), and I’m not leaving the house unless it’s literally on fire.

  5. What an awesome recipe…never thought “greek-style” could be so good…!

  6. Susan says:

    I love the simplicity of your recipe. It sounds like the rice pudding I ate and enjoyed at the cafeteria at NYU. It must be the broken cinnamon stick that makes it Greek.

    I’m going to make it for sure!

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Susan– That’s one of the things I love about it, too. I’ve only recently discovered my love of rice pudding. The one we make at work is similar to this one, but I’ve always been put off by the texture of it– too dry. And when it is scooped out, it looks like cafeteria-style macaroni salad. Hmm… wait a second… that might appeal to you, given your fond memories of NYU food.

  7. Heguiberto says:

    yumm I love ‘Arroz Doce’ as we call it in Brazil. I have not had it in ages. I am going to try your recipe soon.
    Cheers,
    Heguiberto

    • michaelprocopio says:

      I’d love to see your recipe for Arroz Doce, too. Speaking of seeing, it was lovely to see you in person the other evening.

      Cheers,

      Michael

  8. ann west says:

    What a wonderful post. Now I must find 4-6 old greek men to serve this for!
    thanks – ann

    • michaelprocopio says:

      Let me know how your search turns out. Hint: You can generally find them hanging about Greek Orthodox churches on Sundays or at clearance sales. If all else fails, just start wearing a Greek flag on all of your outfits– they’ll crawl out of the woodwork.

  9. Jewels says:

    Hi Micheal!
    I am so happy to discover your blog!
    I am married to a half Greek and couldn’t find my father in law’s recipe for his rice pudding and yours sounds alot like his! I am going to try to make it tonight!
    P.S. I am a former pastry chef (Trained in San Fran); born and raised and living still in Montreal. You make me smile:) Thanks!

  10. Paris says:

    Yo man, Rizogalo rules (loud ‘n proud). We like to eat (more loud ‘n proud) and we still are the most beautiful people (most loud, proud ‘n shit), so loose the eggs, add more vanila, add more cinamon, add some loud family-like-gathering noises (ah, you guys don’t know that shit :p) and enjoy some greek rizogalo.
    Was wondering though, how can one make it different? How do other cultures do this shit?

    Geia mas,
    P.

    • How can you make it different? I don’t know. How about adding some ground Ottoman? And the addition of egg is something I got from an actual Greek who is proud of what she eats, but in a refreshingly quiet fashion.

  11. Ali says:

    So I arrived a year or so late to this particular party, but I had to say–*reading* this recipe was as much fun as cooking it has been!

    Thanks for having just the solution I needed on a grim, snowy night in NYC!

    • Ali– I’m delighted I could provide the solution! This rizogalo recipe is probably the most-made dessert in my house. It satisfies so many needs at so many different times. At least it does for me.

  12. Amy says:

    This is gonna help me a lot on my country fair thanks

  13. fruitandcake says:

    Dear Michael, hi. I’m Maria, Greek, currently living in Senegal. Today, I cooked rizogalo for a Canadian friend. Later, I wanted to post it in my food recipe blog. In my google research I came across your post and…tears came into my eyes. Thank you for the love you are using in your words. Love for the Greek recipes. This kind of passion, coming from a non-Greek, I find it overwhelming. I can’t thank you enough. Take care.

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