Posted by: Erica Retrochef | February 1, 2016

Rice Pudding Melah

Why did we decide to do a special post each month about a politician? I already can’t remember. But for February, we’re doing a really simple dessert that was nonetheless presidential.

Ulysses Grant is really better remembered for his military career than his presidency, which was notorious for corruption scandals. He was, however, a politician, and a really popular one at that. He served two terms as president. He wrote his personal memoirs (while dying of throat cancer), and its sales would raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for his heirs. In 1900, his tomb was the most popular tourist attraction in New York; it had tens of thousands of visitors, many of them Civil War veterans.

I’ve always found him sort of a poignant figure, out of his depth in politics, and so I was interested to read that his favorite dessert was plain and simple: rice pudding. But this isn’t just “rice pudding” — it’s “Rice Pudding Melah”, after White House steward Valentino Melah, who apparently was obliged to serve it as often as possible (even at state dinners!)

No dessert at Delmonico’s, no matter how special, ever pleased President Grant as much as simple rice pudding. The Grants’ Italian steward Melah regarded this homey concoction as a challenge to his ingenuity and tried to vary it from time to time. No matter how he embellished it, Grant liked it and had it as often as possible when the family dined alone. When the inventive Melah experimented with rice pudding, however, it was good enough to be served at official functions–and actually was.

Measure 3/4 cup long-grain rice into a saucepan. Add 1 1/2 quarts milk and simmer very slowly until the rice is soft. Add 3 tablespoons butter, remove from heat, and cool. Meanwhile, beat 5 eggs well and stir them into the rice mixture. Add 1/2 cup sugar and mix carefully. Pour the mixture into a large greased baking pan and add 1/2 cup slivered almonds, mixing them gently into the pan. Bake in a medium-warm (325 degrees F.) oven until the custard sets. Remove from the oven, sprinkle a mixture of cinnamon and nutmeg over the top and serve. Delicious either warm with cream or chilled. Serves 8.


It actually felt really strange making a retro recipe that doesn’t have something canned (or gelatin). This is really retro…


It takes some guts to serve something this simple at a fancy banquet. With such simple recipes like this, it’s important to do it as perfectly as possible.

Butter always helps.


And five whole eggs!

Buzz actually mentioned something about how it seemed extravagant to be using five whole eggs. I just gave him one of Those Looks. Two working adults and we can’t afford five eggs to make rice pudding good enough for a President?

He laughed and let me get on with it.


I was slightly surprised by how little sugar was used — but only a half cup in six cups of milk was still enough to sweeten things up.


I dislike inexact instructions like “until the custard sets” — so for your future reference, it was about 45 minutes before the custard fully set.

And then cinnamon and nutmeg were sprinkled on top.


Lemon sauce is suggested, but as we’re all out of lemon juice, this was served with a simple dribble of cream.

Rice pudding is straightforward, and has always been one of my favorite desserts. (Think eggnog, but solid… and with rice in it?) The relatively small volume of rice meant that this ended up in layers: rice and almonds towards the bottom with a layer of pure custard on top.

I only have one complaint about this particular version: it needs either salted butter, or a sprinkle of salt. I used unsalted butter, and found the dish somewhat bland at first. But the sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg (and salt!) is really all it needed for garnish.

This version of the recipe I copied from The Food Timeline (American presidents’ food favorites), which got it from the 1968 Presidents’ Cookbook.


  1. I absolutely must try this. With this little sugar it’s probably going to be okay to make strictly according to this recipe despite my diabetes. (Probably the starch is more problematic than the sugar. Small portions should help.)

    1.5 quarts of milk? Seems a lot but I’ll take your word for it.

  2. It sound heavenly, I should make some. I love any kind of rice pudding. (I made some years ago using ALL CREAM. To cook with, and whipped cream, too. It was a once in a lifetime thing, just indescribably fabulous, but – only once, darnit!)

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