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Arroz con leche: A sweet bowl of love and fate

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My grandmother’s famous arroz con leche is a staple of my childhood and an anchor to my Mexican culture. The approximate recipe was handed down to me when I was 10 years old. I say approximate because my grandmother never actually measures things, at least not in the traditional sense: she says she uses her heart to measure.

This practice used to be completely incomprehensible to me. I am someone who evens out every cup of sugar with a flat butter knife and pours exact half-teaspoons of vanilla extract down to the last drop to have a chance at recreating the same flavors I previously savored.

As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve started to appreciate the tiny differences in each batch of my grandmother’s arroz con leche. The surprise of my spoon hitting a tiny stick of cinnamon that she forgot to take out no longer comes with a tinge of disappointment.

I used to wish that the cinnamon stick wasn’t there so that that space could be filled with more delicious, sweet rice. Now, I find it almost endearing. Knowing that my grandmother took the time to break up long sticks of cinnamon into small pieces to infuse the warm, sweet, woody flavor more evenly into the rice makes the dessert all the more delicious — her benevolent soul is the star of the dessert. Varying sweetness levels somehow always aligns with my tastebuds’ cravings each time I receive a new batch. And the earthy cinnamon flavor always balances the sugar out perfectly. It’s almost as though love and fate are the main ingredients being stirred together in her stainless steel pot.

Not only is my grandmother’s arroz con leche an extension of her large heart and kind demeanor — it’s the biggest bridge that overcame the hardships in our ability to communicate. My grandmother grew up in a small town in Mexico and moved to the U.S. after she married my grandfather and had her second child, my mom.

Although my grandfather speaks English very well, it’s been difficult for my grandmother to learn the language. And, before middle school, the only Spanish words and phrases I really knew were, “hello, how are you, I’m good, please and thank you.” So, the main form of connection and communication between me and my grandmother became hugs, smiles and creating and sharing food.

I would stand on her black and white step stool, hover above the stove and use her slightly stained wooden spoons to stir whatever concoctions my grandmother threw into her pots and pans. Since arroz con leche was my favorite thing she made, it became our most frequently shared culinary endeavor.

I missed a lot of years of truly being able to talk to and understand my grandmother. During these years, food was our main connection.

As I studied Spanish in school and asked my mom and grandparents to teach me more of the language, I’ve expanded the forms in which I can communicate with my grandmother. 

We still make arroz con leche together, but now we add stories to the sweet mixture of love and fate. I’m able to talk to her about almost anything, but stories she has from her childhood are my favorite topic. Hearing about the first time she had a chocolate-covered cherry, how she got to keep the horse none of her brothers wanted and how much fun she and her siblings had when they tried to pull each other off trees, play loteria and run around the farm — these stories bring smiles to both of our faces. I hope others can experience something similar while using this recipe as an approximation for their own arroz con leche.

And while this recipe can be made alone, the secret ingredient to make it really delicious is the company of a loved one.

Abuela’s Arroz con Leche

Ingredients:

1 cup of rice

2 cups of water

1 inch of a cinnamon stick

4 cups of whole milk

3 tbsp. of brown sugar

3/4 cup white sugar

1 tsp. vanilla

Ground cinnamon (for garnish)

Instructions:

  1. Rinse the rice in a strainer until the water runs clear
  2. Put the rice, water and cinnamon into a medium sized pot over medium-low heat
  3. Cook the rice for approximately 15 minutes, or until the rice is half-cooked, stirring occasionally
  4. Add the brown sugar
  5. Raise stove to medium heat and continue cooking until the rice is almost dry, stirring occasionally
  6. Add the whole milk and white sugar
  7. Cook the rice for about 30 minutes, or until the mixture thickens
  8. Turn off the stove and stir in the vanilla
  9. Spoon into bowls, sprinkle with cinnamon, let cool, serve and enjoy

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Elizabeth van Blommestein is a high schooler taking part in The Daily's Winter Journalism Workshop.