With so many wonderful choices of farmers’ markets in our area, for me, the decision as to which one to go to often comes down to, “Will the pudding guy be there?”
Yes, lowly rice pudding, the source of so many childhood memories — both lovely and lackluster — has emerged as gourmet decadence, worthy of the highest acclaim.
“I want the new cappuccino flavor with a splash of Kahlúa mixed in and fresh raspberries on top instead of cake and ice cream for my birthday,” said Kim Sinkford who comes to the Millville Farmers’ Market on Thursdays from her Sea Colony home. “Who knew that rice pudding would become my very favorite dessert?”
For Patty Ganc of Fenwick Island, who normally picks up a pound container every week, the raisin rice pudding has become her “breakfast of champions.”
Karen Wallace from Baltimore buys it because it reminds her of her Aunt Maud’s homemade rice pudding from years ago.
“I get the brown rice and raw sugar for me and the sugar-free for my mom, who is diabetic,” she said.
The rice pudding in question is called Sap’s Puddin’. And the pudding guy is John Sapienza. Trained at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island and selected for several prestigious culinary opportunities, Sapienza has been a chef for 25 years.
“I was the executive chef at several fine local restaurants and then, about five years ago, I decided I wanted to be my own boss,” Sapienza explained. “I’ve always had rave reviews about my rice pudding, and the crème brulées and fruit parfaits that I make from my rice pudding base. I decided that it was good enough to build a business around.
“It was a matter of perfecting my recipe, listening to my customers for what they want and getting the word out,” he noted. “The advent of farmers’ markets came at just the right time for me.”
It was also a matter of creating a huge FDA-approved commercial kitchen adjacent to the log cabin home north of Millsboro where Sapienza and his wife, Linda, live. Linda Sapienza is a registered nurse at Beebe Medical Center, and the couple has two grown children and a grandson.
Maria DeForrest, a professional photographer whose specialty is weddings, is on the board of the Milton Farmers’ Market.
“It’s what I do to give back to my community,” she explained. As part of that role, she takes photographs for all the vendors and creates basic Facebook business pages for them.
“John’s home is on a country road,” she said. “I walked through a side door into this massive expanse of white and stainless steel and thought I was on the set of a high-end glossy cooking magazine. He has a huge walk-in fridge, a 40-gallon steam kettle and an amazing vent for the steam to escape.”
Not surprisingly, when Sapienza talks about his gourmet rice pudding, he emphasizes the ingredients.
“I use fresh vanilla beans, wholesome Lewes Dairy products and the best brown and white rice. It has zero grams of trans fats, no preservatives and is gluten-free. I also make it sugar-free and am in the process of perfecting a dairy-free version.
“For the holidays, I do seasonal favorites, like pumpkin and eggnog varieties,” he added. “This year my cappuccino pudding has been a hit, and maybe next year you’ll see banana — and also a salad dressing I’m working on…”
It is worth taking the time to check the Facebook page for Sap’s Puddin’. The photographs reveal Sapienza’s world inside his kitchen, some of his ingredients and how beautiful rice pudding can look when it becomes a desert for a fancy dinner party.
In fact, Sapienza’s rice pudding is served at the elegant Jake’s Seafood House in Rehoboth, all three Irish Eyes restaurants and the down-home Kickin’ Chicken in Lewes.
“I’m working on growing the commercial side of my business,” said Sapienza. “I have a foot in the door at several major grocery stores and local specialty shops. It’s always nice to hear that my farmers’ market customers are asking the owners of their favorite places to shop and dine to carry my products. That’s what will make my business profitable year-round.”
Will Lundgren, 11, spends his summers at the beach and regularly accompanies his mom to the Fenwick Island Farmers’ Market on Mondays and Fridays. He skips the fruit and vegetable stands and makes a beeline to Sap’s Puddin’, where samples are ready for the tasting.
“I really like it,” he said, savoring the spoon for any lingering flavor.
Another customer bought a container of the traditional pudding to eat over the weekend and two more to take to his elderly father in Pottstown, Pa.
“Mom used to make it. It was a real treat, and now it is something he looks forward to after I visit the beach,” he said. “We top it with cinnamon and sugar, just like she used to.”
A pound container of Sap’s Puddin’ sells for $6. Buckets containing 20 pounds of pudding may be purchased by calling Sapienza at (302) 245-7841.
As the container says, “The proof is in the puddin’” and “Have a rice day!”