BBC – Travel – Riz au lait: A simple French dish made from pantry staples

Almost the moment that lockdown was announced in France, chefs started posting recipes for French comfort food desserts on Instagram, hoping to spread a bit of sweetness among their fellow citizens. But while crepes, yogurt cake and madeleines all certainly emerged, the recipe to feature most frequently, from the feed of Michelin-starred Stéphanie le Quellec to those of renowned pastry chefs Christophe Michalak and Yann Couvreur, was the humble riz au lait (rice pudding) – a custard-like dessert made by slowly cooking rice with milk and sugar.

While rice pudding exists in various forms around the globe, its very first apparition is hazy: some attribute it to China, while others point to the Indian subcontinent. East Asian iterations include simple sweet congee or the aptly named “eight treasures” steamed pudding, flavoured with a variety of fruits and sweet bean paste. In India, meanwhile, kheer has been enjoyed since ancient times, associated with Hindu god Shiva and with Ayurvedic therapies.

Today, nearly every culture around the world has its own version: baked or boiled, spiced or sweetened with fruit. Latin American arroz con leche is often made with condensed milk and spices; in Indonesia, black glutinous rice is the base for bubur ketan hitan. In Scandinavia, tradition even demands that a bowl be left out for mischief-making Christmas elves.

“It’s really a childhood dessert in French culture,” said Marine Gora, co-founder of Gramme restaurant in Paris. “I’d say everyone probably has a childhood memory associated with riz au lait.”

According to culinary historian Patrick Rambourg, riz au lait has long featured on French tables – if not specifically as a comfort food dessert, or even a dessert at all. While riz au lait recipes date as far back as the 14th Century, the concoction, then often made with broth (or almond milk on lean days when the Catholic Church forbade meat and dairy), was usually served to the bedridden or ailing thanks to its nourishing qualities and digestibility. But above all, riz au lait was generally a dish served to the aristocracy.

“Rice was still rare, at that time,” said Rambourg. “Very rare. And so, it was mainly eaten by the rich.”

It was probably because of this association with the upper crust that riz au lait soon took on a sweeter profile, seasoned with saffron and sugar – both of which were rare and expensive, at the time.

By the 16th Century, however, rice began to become more common in France – and in Europe in general – and riz au lait thus started to appear on more modest tables, notably among peasants in the French countryside, albeit only for holiday meals. When beet sugar became popular in France in the 19th Century, thereby making it a more commonplace sweetener even on modest tables, riz au lait slowly but surely became something that those from all walks of life could enjoy, from a simple dessert sweetened only with sugar to more elaborate riz à l’impératrice with candied fruits and alcohol.

The idea of riz au lait being a childhood dessert, then, is one that appeared “very recently,” Rambourg said. As for how exactly that came to be, the waters are murky. Perhaps it comes from the familiarity of its ingredients; perhaps from its digestibility, or the pureness of its white colour, or just from its ease.

But for Rambourg, there’s not one simple answer.

“I think there’s something else behind it… something that isn’t always easy to explain,” he said. “There are recipes that evoke feelings far more than flavour, perhaps.”

While riz au lait is firmly ensconced in the nostalgic, comfort food category of “recettes de grand-mère” (literally, “grandmother’s recipes”), in many French families today, riz au lait is more often eaten out of a store-bought plastic pot than served out of a fancy copper saucepan.

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“Often, it’s pretty poorly made,” said Gora. “It’s not creamy, it’s kind of overly compact.”

Some homemade recipes up the ante by folding in whipped cream or egg yolks for richness, while others spice it up with vanilla, cinnamon or caramel. When professional chefs put their hand to the dish, however, it is often to add contemporary textural contrast. Gora’s version calls for caramel-coated puffed rice atop the creamy pudding.

“Whenever you’re building a dish, you always try to look for different textures, so a bit of crunch,” said Gora. “It came to me naturally: the crispy, caramelised rice with a touch of caramel.”

Her recipe is unsurprisingly quite popular among her clients. And while it’s not on her regular menu, patrons make frequent requests for its appearance.

“Whenever anyone asks for it, I always make it the next day!” she said.

Chef Stéphane Jégo, too, opted to include a crunchy caramel topping when he created a version at his 7th-arrondissement Paris restaurant Chez L’Ami Jean 16 years ago. To hear Jégo tell it, he never intended for the riz au lait to remain on the menu quite so long. He was just looking for a nostalgic dessert he could serve that was easy to prepare in advance.

“I wanted something that hearkened back to childhood,” he said, “and to this idea of communal dining.”

His riz au lait has three components: the pudding itself; a creamy caramel made with salted Brittany butter; and house-made nougatine with nuts enrobed in a crunchy caramel coating (see recipe below). Served by the generous bowlful with a wooden spoon, it quickly became the star of Jégo’s menu.

“There’s this regressive side to it, where you get to the end of the meal, and the riz au lait comes, and the first thing everyone says is, ‘Oh, it’s way too much!’,” Jégo said, laughing. “And then it’s just like… oh, one spoon, two spoons, three spoons… and all of a sudden, the bowl is empty.”

Now, Jégo said, he couldn’t take it off the menu, even if he wanted to. “It’s crazy: I get stopped in the street, even abroad, for riz au lait.

“That, to me, is worth all the stars in the world. Because it means you’ve touched people. You’ve got to the heart of what good food can bring to people, and to pleasure, and to memory,” he said.

During confinement, Jégo has prepared 200 litres of riz au lait for hungry Parisians to take away and enjoy at home.

“I don’t really think mine is any better than anyone else’s. It’s the orchestration. The generosity. You’ve got this childlike zeal that just… takes over,” he said, as he stirred the caramel for his most recent batch.

“People just need that comfort.”

Stéphane Jégo’s Riz au Lait Recipe

Rice Pudding
2.5l milk
1 vanilla bean, split
500g short-grain rice
500g sugar
1l cream (Jégo uses Normandy cream)

Heat the milk and the vanilla bean. Add the rice and cook 40 minutes over low heat. When the rice is tender enough to crush between your fingers, add the sugar, and cook 15 minutes more. Remove the vanilla bean and chill the pudding in the fridge.

Whip the cream to medium peaks. Remove the rice from the fridge and use a spoon to break it up and loosen it. Fold in the whipped cream.

Nougatine
250g pistachios
250g walnuts
250g almonds (toasted in the oven with 3 dabs of butter)
125g unsalted butter
190g turbinado sugar

In a saucepan over medium heat, make a light brown caramel with the butter and the sugar. Add the walnuts and the pistachios, and then toss them in the caramel until well coated. Pour everything onto a lined baking sheet containing the toasted almonds, and then set aside to cool.

Salted Caramel
600g heavy cream, plus 25ml for whipping
125g salted butter (Jégo uses Brittany butter)
600g sugar
37g flaky sea salt (Jégo uses fleur de sel)
5½ gelatine sheets, 2g each

In a saucepan over medium heat, make a dark brown caramel with the sugar and the butter. Off the heat, add the cream, sea salt flakes and gelatine. Cook for 30 minutes over low heat. Set aside in the fridge.

Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the caramel.

When the nougatine has cooled, break it up into bite-sized pieces. Serve the pudding, caramel and nougatine in serving bowls, so that each diner can assemble his or her own portion.

(Credit: Stéphane Jégo, adapted for BBC Travel)

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