Before moving to Guatemala, all I knew about "arroz con leche" was that it meant "rice with milk" and that I had heard this song in Spanish class.
According to suite101.com "The “arroz con leche” or “rice with milk” has a long history. You can taste this dessert in different Spanish speaking countries: Spain, Peru or Costa Rica, for example. It is basically a Latin dessert. Spaniards brought this recipe to America some centuries ago, but the origin of this dessert is not the land we call these days Spain; Moors, when conquering the South of the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain nowadays) brought their recipe and the art of mixing the basic ingredients with different spices."
Because refrigeration did not exist and people wanted to use their leftovers instead of wasting food, leftover rice was turned into this sweet dessert by ingenious and thrifty Moorish cooks.
Blanca showed me how to make it the other evening, so I now have a flavor to associate with those words.
We started with uncooked rice, of course, and added a stick of cinnamon, about a teaspoon of nutmeg, (optional) a teaspoon of salt and a cup of sugar.
Then we added water and cooked as usual.
When the rice had finished cooking, reaching its normal consistency, we added a box of milk. (For people who live where boxed milk is uncommon, that's about 4 cups.)
When the rice had cooked a little longer in the milk absorbing it and turning into a pudding-like consistency, we added about a cup of raisins and half a stick of real butter.
When the butter melted and the raisins plumped up by absorbing the liquid around them, we mixed it one more time and it was ready to serve! We put it in a bowl and sprinkled some cinnamon and honey on top. It was delicious. Some of my students have said they eat it cold, but I certainly prefer it warm.
This is a basic "arroz con leche" recipe, but there are several ways it is personalized. Some people may add some raisins, clove, butter or vanilla,lemon or orange zest to the final product. These additions are not very common in Spain. The Mexican recipe includes eggs and the Andalucia one adds some "agua de rosas" On the other had, another Spanish region, Asturias, includes some liqueur and yolks. Ehow.com states another variation: "A Chilean version adds two eggs toward the end of cooking; as the hot mixture cooks the eggs, the final product is more like a custard than arroz con leche made with milk alone." Play with what sounds good to you to find the right combination for your taste buds.
Most Guatemalans make their "arroz con leche" much thinner than this, almost thin enough to be a drink. Oatmeal is also treated this way. However, I like both of those dishes very thick; enough to feel that I'm eating them, not drinking them; so this recipe is a variation of the "Chapin." It's easy to customize, though. You just let it reduce less time or add more liquid if you would like it to be thinner.