Sunday, December 19, 2010

Wheat Pudding

I don't cook rice very often, but I used to work at a restaurant that let me take home large amounts of leftover rice, and over the years I have developed a taste for rice pudding. My favourite version is
made with a blend of brown and wild rice (which adds a satisfying chew to the dish), and dried saskatoons.

Lately I've been wondering if I could make a similar dish with a starch that is more common in my kitchen. Take that fifty pound bag of wheat berries in my closet, for instance. The one that I keep threatening to grind into flour if it doesn't make itself more useful.

I was wary of trying to adapt wheat to a rice pudding dish. When I first started cooking with wheat berries, I thought I could treat them like rice. I made some disastrous attempts at "risotto-style wheat" and "wheat pilaf." No matter how long I cooked the berries, they never seemed to burst like wild rice, or release their starch like short-grain rice, or stick to each other like pilaf. They were tasty and enjoyably chewy, with a little pop as you bit through the bran, but they just rolled around on the plate, and didn't form a cohesive starch like rice.

Lately I've been reading about the traditional Ukrainian Christmas dinner, a meal of twelve meatless courses, looking for ideas on winter meals. When reading about the main ingredients in their feast, I kept thinking, "I have that in my pantry... I canned tons of that this fall... I know where to find that...," items like dried mushrooms and fruit and sauerkraut and potatoes. It sounds like the Ukrainian landscape is very similar to ours, which makes the Ukrainian culinary repertoire a useful resource.

The first course of the dinner is usually a dish called kutia: boiled wheat berries, sweetened with honey, often flavoured with poppyseeds, served cold.

Kutia recipes gave me a method for bursting the kernels of wheat and shortening their cooking time. The key is to dry the wheat in a low oven for an hour. I'm not sure exactly why this works. Maybe drying the berries weakens the cells walls and lets the boiling water penetrate more easily. I don't know. But after drying for an hour, then soaking overnight, the berries burst after only a couple hours of boiling.

Once the cooking liquid is reduced, the dish has a great texture. I half expected the mixture to be gluey, but it's surprisingly creamy, with the exploded bran giving a good chew-factor.

At the end of cooking, I added honey, salt, dried cranberries, and a bit of butter. For a looser pudding add cream.

My only qualm is the slightly grey colour of the pudding, a flaw that I'm willing to overlook simply because it's so tasty.


  1. I want to try your version. I have had my share at Ukrainian Christmas' on my wife's side of the family, and I'm usually a 'pass'.

    What do you figure the chances are this could be taken down the savory road, as originally intended - now that you figured how to break them down?

  2. I don't see why it wouldn't work flavourwise. How about wheat porridge with bacon, onions, and sharp aged cheddar?

  3. Now this is something I know a lot about. When I was 18 I bought my own wheat grinder, rented a truck and drove to Lethbridge with a friend and bought 100 bushels of hard red spring wheat from Ellison's. My friend had a sore back and when we arrived, discovered the loading was up to us.... me. I could hardly walk the next day, but I managed to drive home. Anyway - I wanted a wheat storage... a food storage - and was buying for others (that was just the end of the hippy era... I wasn't a hippy - but was really into the earthy food movement at the time) So, I made all kinds of wheat. The grain will never burst when boiled and soaked... like rice. But what a beautiful burst in your mouth, and what a flavourful, filling and compelling chew. Two favourite ways for me to eat this in those days... soaked over night, then boiled and eaten hot with a little honey and salt. Second, take the left over breakfast (without the honey and salt) and mix it with ground meat for a dinner meal. The nutty chewy crunch was delicious with the meat. It was also incredibly filling. A little went a very long way. I still have a bushel of wheat in my storage at all times and use it consistently, mainly in bread. I need to revisit the old economical days of my youth as the food then was really good, too!
    But, sadly, never been to a Ukranian Christmas.