Variations of rice pudding abound in India, where it is better known as kheer. Each region puts a spin on what often is a dense and cloyingly sweet dish. Some sweeten it with caramel-like jaggery or date molasses. Others favor the gentle flavor of saffron. Still others tint it pink with rose syrup or decorate it lavishly with edible silver or gold leaf.
Most versions are made with milk, but we particularly liked the Keralan approach, which swaps the dairy for coconut milk and seasons it with cardamom. We found that the coconut milk produced a rice pudding lighter than dairy versions, yet equally creamy. We also loved how the tropical flavors of the coconut paired with the floral notes of the cardamom.
At Milk Street, we looked for ways to heighten everything we liked about this dish. A dash of vanilla further played up the tropical coconut, while a bit of orange zest brought a subtle brightness that worked well with the cardamom.
To make the dish even creamier without adding dairy, we let the rice do some of the work. Though kheer traditionally calls for long-grain basmati rice, we found it had a tendency to turn mushy. So we used Arborio, the grain of choice for Italian risotto. As a bonus, its high starch content gave the pudding a velvety texture. When baked in the oven, those starch-laden grains plumped up perfectly in the coconut milk—no stirring required.