In Scout’s How to Cook Vancouver series, we will be striving to combine our addiction to dining out with our passion for cooking by challenging ourselves to make Vancouver’s best restaurant dishes in our own homes.
At Railtown’s award-winning St. Lawrence the last thing that seems reasonable to eat after a meal built entirely on the delicious twin pillars of butter and meat drippings is…rice pudding. Imagine it – you’re leaning back, discreetly increasing the diameter of the belt that you for some reason wrapped around the part of your body that is currently expanding the most, and someone suggests finishing off the whole experience with a bowl of deliciously starchy white carbs. It all seems completely outlandish, does it not?
Turns out the answer is a surprising not. At least that’s the case when you find yourself here in this cozy-yet-posh French-Canadian bistro, where the staff regularly propose eating more butter and cream, and do so in such pleasantly lilting tones that you feel it would be uncouth, perhaps even offensive, not to heed their well-intentioned directions. Perhaps you’ll surprise yourself by successfully demolishing a pork chop the size of a paving stone (smothered in melted cheese). Regardless of how you got yourself into this state of (seemingly) maximum fullness, the server will suggest rice pudding “for the table”. What would be considered impossible suddenly becomes intriguing.
“For the table?” your mind will say. “Well, surely that would release me from the burden of now finishing an entire dessert by myself. I’ll have a bite…maybe two.” A few minutes later, a large bowl (a tureen, practically) of rice pudding will arrive at your table, crowned with a massive dollop of thick salted caramel, toasted pecans, and cinnamon-spiraled biscuits. Very quickly, you will find yourself reaching for more spoonfuls than you thought you would, and it will slowly dawn on you that the human body is capable of truly spectacular levels of hedonism.
Creating a moan-worthy version of St. Lawrence’s rice pudding at home means needing options for making this ahead of time. (True story: most of us will not have the luxury of a pastry chef in our kitchens, waiting to spring into action when the first mention of rice pudding is hinted at.) If you are able to make it along with the rest of your (hopefully decadent) meal and simply leave the pudding and caramel sauce to cool while serving and eating dinner, wonderful. If not, make as many of the components as you wish a day or two before and just buy extra cream so that you can loosen the rice pudding (which should be warmed up on the stove) back to a fairly runny consistency before cooling slightly and serving. The caramel very quickly reheats on the stove or even in the microwave (though the cold caramel will also begin to melt if spooned atop warm pudding). Serve the entire dish warm or room temperature, but preferably neither very hot nor very cold. Also note that I have omitted the delightful little biscuits that St. Lawrence tops their puddings with, mostly out of necessity for greater simplicity.
Source note: This recipe consists of a tweaked amalgamation of dishes originally created by Dawn Perry (pudding) and Samin Nosrat (caramel).
Rice Pudding w/ Salted Caramel
4 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy (whipping) cream
1 cup Arborio rice
½ cup white sugar
1 cinnamon stick
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Salted Caramel + Toppings:
6 tbsp unsalted butter (¾ stick)
¾ cup white sugar
½ cup heavy (whipping) cream
½ tsp vanilla extract
Maldon, sea, or kosher salt (to taste)
¾ cup pecan halves
For the rice pudding, combine the milk, cream, rice, sugar, cinnamon stick, and salt in a medium, heavy saucepan (make sure the ingredients do not come within ~2 inches of the rim). Stir in vanilla if using extract, or scrape in seeds and stir in pod if using whole bean.
Bring the mixture to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat, stirring frequently to ensure minimal pot-stickage. Turn the heat down to medium-low and simmer gently (there should always be a few lazy bubbles surfacing) until the rice is tender and the mixture has thickened but is still quite runny, about 20-25 minutes. Make sure you occasionally stir the pudding as it cooks, scraping down the bottom and sides of the pan to avoid any burnt bits. Remove the pudding from the heat and pluck out the cinnamon stick and vanilla bean (if using). The pudding should still seem quite soupy; this is good – you want it to drink up some of that liquid as it cools down so that you’re left with the perfect consistency. Don’t worry about the film that will inevitably develop on the top of the pudding as it cools; just keep stirring it every so often and wait until your desired consistency and temperature have been reached (at least 30 minutes, but likely longer).
While the pudding cooks and/or cools, you can start on the caramel. Find your heaviest saucepan (usually this means thickest, especially on the bottom) and melt the butter in it over medium heat. If you already used your one heavy saucepan for the pudding, transfer the pudding to another vessel, then wash and re-use the same pot for your caramel. Stir the sugar into the melted butter and increase the heat to medium-high (or high if your stove is on the weaker side). Stir the mixture until it begins to boil, at which point you’ll want to stop stirring and instead just frequently swirl the mixture around in the pan. It’s very likely that the butter and sugar will separate and start looking like a total mess, but this is truly not a concern. Keep swirling, being careful not to get overly enthusiastic and risk burning yourself with hot sugar, which basically is just lava but worse. The sugar and butter will eventually become a strange singular blob that gradually grows more and more golden. Choose a level of browning that makes you happy and comfortable (this will take anywhere from 5-10 minutes), but try to not pull it off the heat anytime before you hit a light brown sugar tone. St Lawrence tends to use quite a “blonde” caramel, but I prefer taking mine right to the edge of too-dark and then intervening at the last possible second. Either way, when your desired stage of brownness has been reached, turn off the heat, remove the pan from the element and immediately use a whisk to beat in the whipping cream (watch out – this can sometimes cause your caramel to bubble up and spatter quite suddenly!). If any lumps of caramel remain (likely), just set the pan over the still-hot element and keep whisking until they dissolve. Cool the caramel to lukewarm, then season it with vanilla and as much salt as you need. A good trick that the food goddess, Samin Nosrat, gives is to season your caramel with a good pinch or two, then take a spoonful, sprinkle it with slightly more salt, and taste. If the salted spoonful is TOO salty, you’ve probably seasoned the rest of the caramel perfectly and can leave it be; if the spoonful of caramel tastes PERFECT with the extra salt, go ahead and increase the seasoning on the rest of the caramel. Let the caramel finish cooling in the fridge until a desired consistency is reached (St Lawrence goes for scoopably-thick caramel, but I’m a sucker for leaving it slightly runnier and letting it really ooze into the pudding). While the caramel cools, heat your oven to 350 degrees F and toast the pecan halves in a single layer on a baking sheet until lightly browned and toasty, ~8-10 minutes. Let cool.
To serve St. Lawrence-style, spoon the pudding into a large attractive dish or bowl and top with a hedonistic amount of caramel sauce and crown with toasted pecans. If, like me, you have a weakness for buying individually-sized decorative dessert dishes, portion the pudding out amongst your serving vessels into miniature versions of the above description. Breathe out a sigh of deeply comforted contentment.