Three Platings of Farro Pudding
25 Feb 2007

Is it just me, of have you also noticed farro popping up on all sorts of menus lately. Maybe it's just a Seattle thing, but it seems that all the cool chef's are doing it, much to my delight. I love the nubby little Italian grain, and have had it in savory dishes in at least three or four restaurants in the last month, usually cooked up as a risotto-like accompaniment to a hearty game meat, but on occasion, as the focal point of the dish. Most memorably was Madison Park Cafe chef Amanda Zimlich's gorgeously rich Shiitake mushroom & farro risotto with wild onions, roasted root veggies and a sinful amount of Washington grown truffles. All these savory farro dishes left me satisfied, but also pondering a sweeter version. The grain holds up beautifully being slow cooked, releasing just the right amount of starch and getting soft but not mushy and maintains a full, nutty flavor... perfect for a whole-grain "rice" pudding. After searching through a whole stack of cookbooks in search of the perfect recipe to start from, I narrowed it down to The Sweet Life's Coconut-cardamon rice pudding and the Risotto Pudding Brûlée in Donna Hay's Entertaining. As tempting as the Zuckerman recipe sounded, I really had my head set on a strong vanilla scent. The coconut will have to wait for a different occasion. Substituting farro does require a bit of a change in cooking time. Unlike rice, farro takes much longer to soften and absorb the liquid being cooked in, so you'll need to allot more time if you are substituting it in other recipes. Also, don't expect the farro to break down to the silky smooth texture you'd get in a risotto. The farro berries will maintain more of their original shape, and keep a bit of a bite to them even when softened. I love the chew this imparts to the dishes, but if you like an almost-paste like rice pudding, you'll probably do best to skip this recipe.

As I whipped up the pudding, I decided that in addition to the brûlée presentation, I'd also do something a bit simpler and a bit more lavish. For the simple, what could be better than the pudding, still warm with a few fresh blueberries tossed in for a bit of added sweetness? Not much in my book. This is a perfect breakfast (if I ate breakfast) treat, warm and hearty with just the right hint of fruit and vanilla.
The brûlée was equally delicious. Not having a brûlée iron made the whole process a bit tricky, as I faked it by holding the sugar coated pudding up about 2 cm from the broiler to crisp up the top. It worked, but the sugar really needs the direct heat to quickly caramelize it without heating up the underlying pudding, which tends to release a bit of oil. If you go this route, definitely use a kitchen torch or a brûlée iron for best results. When you do, you'll end up with a gorgeous golden brown crust to your creamy and chewy pudding.
Finally, for a bit of show, I decided to make a chilled version that was formed with a mold, topped with some freshly sliced Page mandarins, and drizzled with a blood orange reduction. It looks impressive, with the bright orangey-red of the syrup, the bright orange of the mandarins and the vanilla flakes clearly making their presence known in the pudding, but it is simpler to throw together than you might think. And the flavor is brilliant. The sharp sweet citrus and the mellow nutty/vanilla of the pudding are a match made in heaven's kitchen.
Vanilla Farro-Risotto Pudding (Adapted from Donna Hay Entertaining) Serves 4 to 6 2 cups water 2 cups milk 2 T butter 1 cup farro 2 split vanilla beans 3 T sugar 2 t vanilla extract 1 cup cream 2 egg yolks Whisk the water and milk together, and bring to a low simmer in a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. In a separate pot, heat the butter until just melted, then add the farro and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla beans, and stir. Then, start to pour the milk/water mixture into the farrow about a 1/2 cup at a time. Between additions, stir well until the liquid is absorbed. Repeat until all the milk/water mixture is well incorporated and absorbed. This will likely take about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove the vanilla beans, and add the sugar and vanilla extract. Whisk together the cream and egg yolks in a separate dish. Then, slowly add to the farro, stirring until it is well absorbed. The the texture of the mixture should be fairly thick and creamy with the farro grains still holding their shape but al dente. At this point, the pudding is ready to eat. To brûlée, place the pudding in the dish to serve, and sprinkle with casters sugar. Torch the top, or run a hot brûlée iron over the sugar until it melts and is golden. Allow to cool slightly before serving. If you want to serve with the syrup, combine the juice of two to four blood oranges and around 1/4 cup of sugar together and heat over moderate heat it starts to thicken slightly... it will thicken more as it cools.

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