Gelato di riso (Rice Gelato)

After months of planning, a decent amount of stress, and lots of giddy anticipation, we made it to Rome on September 25th. The whole trip takes up pages and pages in my travel journal—therefore, over the next couple of posts, I will highlight certain aspects of our adventure as they relate to the food we loved there. After all, this is a food blog.

One of my now-standard responses to, “What was your favorite part of the trip?” is, “We ate gelato almost every day.” It’s true—there was one, maybe two, days that we did not indulge in a couple of scoops. We didn’t feel the least bit guilty though—we walked about 10 miles per day!

The first thing we did after dropping off our bags at our apartment in Rome was go searching for gelato. We walked across the bridge in the afternoon sun and stopped at the tiny shop my mom had raved about. I tried her favorite raspberry-sage gelato, which was delicious. We ate our scoops on a bench nearby, dappled light dancing across our faces through the leaves of the big trees that line the river.

Over the course of the trip, we ate dripping scoops on cobbled street corners, cones topped with little waffle cookies and a drizzle of chocolate; we ate plain scoops in small cups on benches as tiny cars whizzed past; we enjoyed it as we walked past doorways apparently built for hobbits next to ancient stones embedded in modern construction. I quickly realized that my favorite flavor was nocciola (hazelnut), and ordered it almost everywhere we went. I sincerely wish I was enjoying a scoop of nocciola right now!

During our second day in Florence, we went on a gelato tour with a local resident named Laura. It was a lovely tour—very small, joined by only one other couple. At the first two stops, I tried fior di latte with sesame and honey, sacher torte, the richest and saltiest scoop of pistachio I’ve ever tasted, and a lightly wine-flavored one called “Mona Lisa.” Throughout the tour, Laura had much to say about the city’s history and, of course, about gelato.

There are many conflicting stories about gelato’s origin story. Some say it was first invented in France, some say Italy, and some give credit to the ancient Chinese (although their version isn’t categorized as gelato, they are credited with inventing a frozen rice-and-milk-based frozen dessert). As we walked across uneven stones placed there by long-gone Italians, Laura told us the story of Buontalenti, a sculptor who was friendly with the all-powerful Medici family. According to her, Buontalenti was in charge of organizing a feast for the Medici and a stroke of inspiration led him to mix together the basic ingredients for gelato. Laura claimed it was this rice gelato that he made, though the most prevalent theory describes the flavor as being zabaglione, a gelato lightly flavored with honey and wine. Regardless, gelato di riso is an ancient tradition, one especially beloved in Florence.

At our third and final stop on our gelato tour at the famous Vivoli, Laura recommended trying the original gelato di riso. After getting through the crowd of people standing in light tinged pale green by stained glass windows, we ordered quickly lest we incur the wrath of the lightning-speed servers. I didn’t know what to expect and was therefore pleasantly surprised to taste a lightly floral, creamy gelato with satisfyingly frozen and chewy grains of rice dotted throughout. Despite the fact that I could barely fit another bite into my stomach after two full helpings already, I continued to taste spoonfuls of the intriguing flavor.

It may not be the most enticing idea (unless you’re obsessed with rice pudding), but I urge you to give this gelato a chance so that you, too, can taste a bit of history. Plus, it has a lot less cream and egg yolks than normal ice cream, and less even than other gelato, so it won’t be a costly experiment. I recommend eating it a couple of hours after you make it, or else you’ll have to leave it out to defrost for at least 30 minutes. It’s the best and creamiest the day it’s made, and will continue to get icier the longer you leave it.

Gelato di riso
Makes a little less than 1 quart

60g (1/4 cup) arborio rice (or other risotto rice)
500ml (2 cups) cold whole milk
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
100g (scant 1/2 cup) sugar
200ml (generous 3/4 cup) milk, warmed
1 tsp orange or lemon zest
125ml (1/2 cup) heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Soak the rice for 30 minutes in cold water. Drain and place in a small pot with the cold milk and pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until the rice is very soft, about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally, making sure the milk doesn’t burn or the rice doesn’t stick. Transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy. Warm the 200ml of milk until you see small bubbles popping up around the edges. Slowly whisk 1/2 cup of the milk into the egg yolks, whisking quickly the entire time in order to avoid getting cooked egg. Whisk the rest of the milk into the egg yolks and then transfer the entire mixture back into the pot.* Cook over medium-low heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until the mixture thickens. When you drag your finger over the back of the spoon, a trail should remain behind. (That said, this custard won’t be as thick as traditional ice cream custard due to the low volume of egg yolks and the lack of cream.)

*If you’re nervous about making custard, feel free to do this next step over a pot of simmering water. It will ensure the custard cooks more slowly and evenly, and is harder to get wrong. You will simply skip the step of transferring the eggs and milk back into the pot, and instead use a large bowl.

When it’s thickened enough, stir the custard into the rice mixture, along with the zest and vanilla. Chill in the fridge for at least two hours.

Whisk the cream into soft peaks. Gently fold into the chilled rice mixture and then chill the whole thing for another 30 minutes.

Churn in your ice cream maker for about 18–20 minutes, or as per your ice cream maker’s instructions.

Serve immediately for softer gelato or allow to freeze for a few hours before eating (in my opinion, that’s when you get optimal gelato texture). If you want to eat it the following day, allow it to sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before scooping (it will get quite icy).

Enjoy!

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