I'm going to talk about rice pudding in a second, I swear to you. I'm talking about a velvety rich concoction that clings to the spoon in that most voluptuous of ways, topped with ripe mango slices and a drizzle of magical caramel sauce (more on the magic of that later), finished with a showering of pistachios. But you're going to have to hang in there for a moment, because I recently had a birthday, and as the occupant of a possibly-gracefully-possibly-not aging human body.......something else has been on my mind a lot lately.

Tell me about vulnerability, says one half of me, as though I were two separate people, each turning to the other.

I'm standing over the stove and poking the surface of a rice pudding at the time, stirring whole grains as they melt into a creamy mixture, and if I'm startled by this sudden self-address I'd like to think I am too cool to show it. This is how people lose their minds, isn't it?

I prod the grains of rice in coconut milk for a moment longer, thinking about how to answer myself. Softness. Let's talk about softness, shall we? We so often speak of strength as hardness, she's steely or he's made of stone, as though simple hardness were the thing to be prized. But hardness resists experience, rejects knowledge. Things glance right off the surface of a steely, hard thing, colliding and gliding away into the ether without leaving so much as a scratch. True, the next movement in your direction could, say, be a knife sneaking into the velvety hidden, mortal place between your ribs, or it could be an innocent spoon nudging into the silken depths of a warm bowl of rice pudding.

Still I can't help but wonder.......is that, really, all there is to all this? To harden up and evade life's every experience, unscratched? Believe me, one half of me says to the other, you've known people like this. And so have I. Is that really all that we're here to do, to escape and remain unchanged and unlearned and eternally youthful and unblemished, only to die one day without ever having really lived? What a blatant waste of a lifetime on earth.

No thanks.

Far more courageous, I think, to turn and face the knife--or the stirring spoon, as it may turn out--and not grow yourself an outward shell to deflect the blow; to remain soft, yielding, open to experience. It takes a strength far greater than simple steeliness to accept life's blows and to absorb them, allowing the resulting dings and scrapes and even gouges to become part of our personal landscape. Press up against life--yes, okay, in a way like warm rice pudding, surging upwards above a spoon or pressing silkily into the roof of your mouth--and let its other people, atmospheres and events leave impressions; some will linger, and some will fade. I scrape my battered wooden spoon against the bottom of the pot again and again, leaving loops and whorls that fill with creamy deliciousness as they collapse. My rice pudding is nearly done.

Tell me again about the teacups, then, says the skeptical half of me to the resilient half, not yet satisfied with my answer. About the teacups? I say that there are wiser cultures than our own that value an object more as it sees daily wear--the wabi-sabi nature of an heirloom cup, the glorious warm-to-the-touch tarnish on a piece of antique copper, the rich, rubbed softness of a piece of vintage velvet--and how it grows in beauty and usefulness as it's touched and scratched and tarnished along the way. I talk about the teacups whose glaze literally takes on different colors as years and years of repeated pourings of hot water and ceremonially sipped tea transform what was into what will be. It's supposed to add to their beauty, not detract from it, and I like that idea--as the occupant of a human body myself. People ought to cherish themselves, body and soul, in the same way. Shouldn't we? We change, we grow, we twist into ribbons, we bloom and reshape, we transform into extraordinary things, and finally, we die. One day. If we haven't let circumstances leave impressions on us along the way, then we've missed the whole point.

My second self is satisfied, silent.

I serve us each a portion of coconut milk rice pudding, heaped softly in a bowl under a fan of thinly sliced ripe mangoes, a drizzle of coconut dulce de leche and a small handful of pistachios. The rice pudding steams fragrantly upwards into our faces as we dip spoons again and again into the soft surface of the rice, not a word passing between us until it's all gone and we're silently scraping the sides of bowls.

Coconut Milk Rice Pudding with Mango & Pistachios

Serves 4 (depending on how well you tend to share)

This is, obviously, a rich creamy treat for anyone who's looking to take dairy out of their dessert routine without sacrificing flavor. It's still pretty decadent, but it's loaded with healthy plant-based fats from the coconut milk and pistachios. And a fanned-out spread of ripe, delicious mangoes on top adds just enough tart sunshine brightness to what is otherwise a bowl of soft, sweet, addictively spoonable goodness.

I've made several different versions of this in the past, including a variety that used brown rice for its nutty crunch and was a loose spin-off of this Mark Bittman recipe. In the end, though, I settled on arborio rice, the grain used to make traditional risotto, as much for the intercontinental vibe of this recipe as for its creamy texture. The grains swell up and become plump but still just toothsome enough, suspended in a thick and rich coconut pudding.

2 14 oz. cans of coconut milk (buy the best quality you can find, and use the full fat version, please)
4 tablespoons brown sugar or coconut sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 cup arborio rice

Optional (but recommended) toppings

Fresh mango slices
Chopped roasted pistachios
Coconut dulce de leche (see recipe below)

Pour coconut milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add sugar and stir until dissolved while heating just to a boil. As soon as bubbles begin to break the surface, reduce heat to the low end of medium and keep at a simmer. Add salt, cardamom and rice, stirring well.

Let simmer for about 45 minutes, remembering to check in with your wooden spoon every few minutes--even if you are in the midst of deep, philosophical conversation with your 'other' self--and give it a stir, scraping the bottom to prevent sticking. Rice pudding is finished when it's thick & creamy and rice is tender. Remove from heat and serve slightly warmer than room temperature (although it's a pretty great breakfast eaten cold the next day, as well), topped with fresh mango slices, a drizzle of coconut dulce de leche and pistachios.

Coconut Dulce de Leche

This is a pretty great basic recipe to have up your sleeve in general, as it's suitable for vegan, paleo or dairy-free diets, and is amazing on fruit, cake, ice cream, a spoon........whatever takes your fancy. The 'magic' of this wonderful sauce is that it somehow manages to taste like the most creamy, rich, butterfat-filled version of caramel sauce you ever tasted, while using none of those actual ingredients. In fact, it takes only three ingredients and comes together in less than thirty minutes on your stovetop with minimal effort. MAGIC.

Makes about 2/3 cup

1 14 oz. can of coconut milk (same note as above regarding quality)
1/2 cup brown sugar or coconut sugar
1 teaspoon salt

Combine all ingredients in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan (it's not much liquid, but you want to go larger rather than smaller on this, the extra surface area will help the caramel to evaporate and reduce), whisk together over medium heat until sugar and salt have dissolved. Bump the heat up to medium high and boil gently for about 20-25 minutes, stirring often to make sure it doesn't burn, boil over, or generally do anything else unpleasant.

Dulce de leche is done when it has thickened and darkened to a caramelly, nut brown color....yes, I realize this is totally subjective. Just stop it when it looks & tastes good to you. Remove from heat and let cool completely, then drizzle over rice pudding with mango slices. Can be saved in a container with an airtight lid for about three weeks. But it probably won't be around that long. :)