Arroz Doce (Sweet Rice)

One of the years I was living in Bar Harbor I had the worst landlord. Well, no, I had two of the worst; it's difficult to say who was worse. But she owned the first place I had ever rented. Every year for Thanksgiving (or was it Christmas?) she cooked the food of a different nation. She complained to me that she had run out of cuisines, and might have to start repeating. I am fairly certain that this list did not include Portuguese cooking. Just like the 1972 edition of The Joy of Cooking doesn't have Eggplant Parmesan, the most recent edition probably doesn't have Portuguese sweet rice. Not that I'm pretending to purvey "authentic" food from the far corners of the Earth. I only mean that so far as I know there is not a Portuguese dish that has become hip and iconic in the U.S., simultaneously symbolizing the nation and being its own thing.

One does not combine milk with lemon, or anything else acidic, unless one is making buttermilk. This doesn't mean lemony creamy things are completely out--there is hollandaise (which uses lemon more for its chemical properties than its flavor) that combines lemon with butter and egg yolks. Egg yolks don't mind. There is lemon-cream sauce, although I have not tried it (I assume that since it takes tomatoes without curdling it can handle lemon, but maybe not). There is lemon curd, of course, which has nothing to do with dairy, and the filling for lemon bars, which is basically lemon curd.

But apparently it's possible to get the scent and flavor of lemon without the acidity. (What do lemons taste like without citric acid? Damned good, but I don't know.) It's called lemon extract, and I had no idea it existed until my girlfriend informed me that it lent the thick, creamy confection I was eating its lemony flavor.

"You use both the juice and the zest, or just juice?'

She gave me a bewildered, somewhat offended look. "Lemon juice? No no, we use lemon extract."

I was not convinced. Surely lemon extract could not duplicate the bright, fresh flavor of lemon zest and juice? I guess. But it would curdle the milk. And it might actually be better than fresh lemons. I do love extracts. More accurately, I love the smell of extracts. Lemon extract, almond extract, rose water. Almond extract makes a pie of grapes taste like cherries, makes sugar cookies amazing, and completes frangipane. Rose water gives lemonade a lovely fragrance and a needed bitterness. Lemon extract makes sweet rice something other than yet another rice pudding. Although the egg yolks already make it thicker (more or less solid) and more yellow than most. The color creates an interesting illusion of lemon. At least, when I tried it I assumed the color was from the lemon I tasted, not egg yolks.

I can't remember the recipe we used from a cookbook. So here is an intentionally confusing approximation:




15 September 2011