Saffron rice pudding can be found in India and Iran, and probably other saffron-growing countries, too. I'm not going to start any arguments about where it originated because I don't know.
This recipe is loosely based on one I found online for the riz au lait served at L'Ami Jean in Paris, which serves it minus the saffron, fruit and nuts, but with crème anglaise and salted butter caramel. Because the pudding is lightened with the addition of whipped cream, it's not heavy or stodgy the way some rice pudding can be.
I tested the recipe using different types of rice. Long-grained rice didn't work because the grains remained too distinct; it worked best with short-grained rice such as arborio or the so-called "pudding rice" that you can find in some supermarkets. Don't use Japanese/Korean rice, or glutinous short-grained rice. It's essential to bake the rice with the milk until the grains are completely tender.
The amount of sugar seems scant for this quantity of pudding, but added sweetness comes from the sugars in the milk, which becomes concentrated as it reduces during baking. You can add a little more sugar, if you like.
Just before serving the pudding, add some whipped cream and garnishes such as fresh or dried fruits, toasted pistachios and/or dried rose petals (buy the type used for tisanes).
Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Spread the pistachios on a small tray and bake for about 10 minutes, or until the nuts are toasted. Set aside while preparing the other ingredients.
Reduce the oven temperature to 140°C (285°F).
Wrap the cardamom pods loosely in a paper towel then hit them lightly with a hard object (such as a can of soup or tomatoes).
Unwrap the cardamom pods and put them into a medium-size pan. Add the milk, rice, salt, sugar and saffron threads and stir to combine.
Place the pan over a low-medium flame and bring to a simmer, stirring often. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid then place in the oven and bake at 140°C (285°F) for 60 to 90 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. It's ready when the rice is very tender and the milk is mostly reduced but still light in texture (it will firm up in the fridge).
Cool the rice mixture to lukewarm. Mix in the rosewater then refrigerate the pudding for at least an hour.
Whip the cream until it forms light peaks. Add about one-third of the whipped cream to the rice mixture, stirring it well to lighten it. The rice mixture will be very stiff, so it's easiest to mix in the cream with your hand. Mix in the remaining whipped cream in two additions, folding it in gently to maintain as much volume as possible.
Gently mix in the dried fruit and toasted pistachios. Spoon the pudding into bowls and add whipped cream and garnishes of choice before serving.