This is Ferni, one of the most comforting and familiar dishes in Persian cuisine; a smooth and creamy dessert that is loved by both the old and the young. Though to call it *just* a dessert really doesn’t capture the essence and significance of this dish.
Ferni is so much more than a sweet rice pudding; it is a cultural phenomenon which requires more explanation. But first let’s talk about it as a culinary creation.
Though the ingredients list and method of assembly are simple, this pudding is not for the impatient. If you are looking for a quick microwavable pudding, you will no doubt be frustrated and disappointed!
The impatient cook might mix the ingredients, crank up the heat, get the flour to thicken the milk, and believe the pudding is cooked and ready to serve. But that would not allow the rice flour to soften, or the subtle flavors to develop and combine. Any Iranian grandmother, through her skill and intuition, would be able to discern your mistake! Too much heat would also risk the formation of a crust at the bottom of the pot, or of lumpy clumps of rice flour.
In recent conversations with my mom, she shared how my grandmother would test the pudding. Dip a spoon into the pot after the pudding has been cooking for a long while, and then blow on the back of the spoon. If you can blow the pudding to the side and see the center of the spoon, the pudding is done! However, if the center doesn’t clear, the flour has not been fully cooked yet. How great is that?!
Ferni as a cultural phenomenon
I rarely remember having Ferni as a stand-alone dessert or just for the heck of it. Growing up in Iran, dessert had a very different meaning to us than I imagine it has today. There was probably not a single occasion when I called out to mom to ask what was for dessert.
The truth of it was that desserts were mostly reserved for celebrations, dinner parties and significant events such as Persian New Year, fall equinox, winter solstice, etc.
What I most associate Ferni with is fasting and the month of Ramadan, which in Farsi we call Ra-meh-zan. During this period, those who participated in this fasting ritual would make huge quantities of this pudding for their families and neighbors. Typically you would break the fast at sunset with a small bowl of Ferni, followed by other dishes, beverages and desserts. This time at sunset when the meal is consumed after a day of fasting is referred to Iftar.
For me, I love Ferni because it brings back so much fondness and nostalgia. I love the creamy texture, the gentle notes of rose and – best of all – the little crust that forms on top! It’s like a cream-top yogurt, except that it’s a satisfying layer of Ferni crust!
Making Ferni recently, I stood over the stove for nearly an hour without skipping a stir, and was reminded of the virtue of patience. I thought of the generations ahead of me who have made this pudding for centuries, stirring up a connection to my roots. I celebrated the fact that laboring over food preparation is a Persian virtue that I intend to uphold and respect.
- 4 cups milk, whole
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup rice flour
- 1/2 cup sugar, adjust to your taste
- 3 tablespoons rosewater
- Bring milk to a gentle simmer over medium heat, about 5-7 minutes.
- Add water, flour and sugar and mix with a whisk to integrate the sugar and flour into the milk.
- Reduce heat to low and stir continuously with a wooden spatula for 30 minutes.
- Add the rosewater and continue to stir for 15-25 additional minutes or until the pudding has visibly thickened. Taste the pudding to make sure the flour has softened and no longer feels gritty.
- Remove from the heat and using a ladle divide the pudding into individual serving bowls.
- Place the pudding in the refrigerator and serve chilled.