I just wiped the dust off my old Classic French Cooking notebook — the rickety old binder they gave me when I started class at The French Culinary Institute (now known as the International Culinary Center) 10 years ago. I still have it. The pages are yellowing, and the recipes are a little stodgy, but I'd figured it was worth keeping. I hoped that someday it would prove to be useful, and I was right.
Rice pudding is easy to love. Comforting, creamy, and satisfying — it always hits the spot. After I graduated from college, rice pudding was the one thing I always made sure to have in the fridge. It was the only thing that could soothe my new-New Yorker's-frayed nerves.
But fennel is a little trickier. Its anise flavor, albeit mild, can be somewhat hard to tame. Braising it in a little cream and garlic is my go-to method, but I couldn't quite imagine that sitting atop a bowl of sweet custard.
So out came the old Classic French Cooking. In the second class, we covered a cooking method called "glacer," or glazing, and I wondered if that could be my ticket to fennel-rice pudding magic. According to the book, this is a method "similar to cooking à l'étuve (steamed), but a small amount of sugar is added, and the cooking liquid is reduced so the butter and sugar form a shiny, slightly sweet coating on the vegetables." You can keep the coating colorless (glacer à blanc) or caramelize the sugar (glacer à brun). I figured caramelization was the way to go for a dessert. I added a little extra butter and sugar and a pinch of salt, and then set off to "glacer" my fennel.
It turns out that my culinary education was absolutely worth the expense. After steaming the vegetables in a bit of water, I turned up the heat and let the ingredients melt and meld. The sugar caramelized and the fennel yielded completely. The once-crunchy vegetable turned into beautiful, shiny golden nuggets of candied fennel heaven — the perfect addition to a decadent rice pudding.
Fennel Rice Pudding
2 large egg yolks
Sugar, for caramelizing (optional)
To a large skillet, add the fennel, butter, sugar, salt, and 2/3 cup water. Bring to a simmer on medium and cover partially with a lid. Cook until the fennel has softened, about 10 minutes. Remove the lid and increase the heat to medium high. Cook, stirring often, until the water has evaporated and the butter and sugar have turned golden-brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer the fennel to a plate to cool.
In a large saucepan, combine the milk, rice, brown sugar, and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Immediately decrease the heat to medium to maintain a low simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat.
Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Add about 1/2 cup of the hot milk mixture to the yolks while whisking. Repeat this process until most of the hot milk mixture is in the bowl. Pour the yolk mixture back into the pot and set it over low heat. Cook, stirring, until the pudding has thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Pour the pudding into to a clean bowl. Let the pudding cool slightly; it will thicken up a little more as it sits.
To serve, either top individual servings of the pudding with the candied fennel or stir the fennel into the pudding, top with 2 teaspoons sugar each, and use a mini blowtorch to caramelize the tops, if desired.
Serve warm or cover and chill until ready to serve. Keep leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days.