I think of vanilla as a comforting flavor, too. It can be plain, yes, but that's not a bad thing. Vanilla is familiar and certainly non-offensive. There are different varieties of vanilla, and some are preferred over others, but in general I can't see it as being a jarring flavor or a flavor that many people have a true distaste for.
Vanilla blends so well with so many other spices, most notably in the realm of sweets.
It can, of course, stand on it's own as the main attraction, but that's not necessary. Along with other flavors, vanilla adds some nice depth- and if it were missing, the taste of many things probably wouldn't be quite right.
It's hard to go wrong with some good vanilla.
Arborio rice is used here, and as in the case of risotto, the pudding becomes thick and creamy because of the rice's starchiness. It has a higher starch content than most other rices and has the wonderful ability to absorb more liquid while maintaining a good texture with slightly firm and individual grains.
This version is baked instead of cooked on the stovetop (one obvious benefit being that much less stirring is required). It ends up being a thicker rice pudding than others I've made (on the stovetop), but it can always be thinned out a little with a bit of milk before serving if you would like.
If you prefer it a little thicker, cook a little longer... it all depends on how you like the consistency.
And I have to say it's convenient that rice pudding can be served as either breakfast or dessert- it mostly depends on how it's dressed up.
Other potential flavor additions:
A few gratings of fresh nutmeg
The zest of an orange
A bit of ground cardamom
Strawberry, raspberry, or cherry jam spooned over the top before serving
Baked Rice Pudding
serves 6 or more
1 c (100 g) arborio rice
3 c (750 ml) whole milk
1 1/2 c (375 ml) heavy cream
1/2 c (110 g) sugar
1 vanilla bean
Pinch of salt
3 T (42 g) butter
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F/ 150 C.
Rinse the rice well in cool water. Drain and set aside.
Slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and pod to a medium saucepan along with the milk, cream, and sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce the heat if necessary to maintain a simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the rinsed rice, salt and butter along with a few pinches of cinnamon to taste. When butter has melted completely, pour the rice mixture into an oven-proof dish with room to spare (maybe about 3 qt. or L), or leave it in the pot if it's oven safe, and cover tightly with aluminum foil.
Place the dish in the oven and bake 45 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven, carefully remove the aluminum foil, stir the rice, replace the aluminum foil and put the dish back into the oven. Bake another 15 minutes, repeat the stirring process, and bake for a final 10 minutes.