The very rich poor man’s pudding

A down-home Québécois classic is reinvented as a restaurant delicacy for better times

The very rich poor man's pudding

Photograph by Ian Barrett

One should not confuse the Québécois confection pouding chômeur with the congealed chocolate and vanilla stuff sold in single-serving plastic pots at supermarkets. This is because pouding chômeur—which translates as “unemployed person’s pudding”—is the caviar of puddings, a dessert to be savoured by those with a serious sweet tooth. The dish as you’ll find it today in many trendy Québécois restaurants consists of a dollop of biscuit dough—or, alternatively, white cake—baked in a bath of cream and maple syrup. Lots of maple syrup. In fact, given the price of maple syrup, its poverty-inspired name is amusingly inappropriate.

But in Quebec in 1929, when pouding chômeur was reportedly invented, the dish reflected its working-class roots. The recipe was created, so the story goes, by female factory workers who had access to only basic ingredients in their industrial neighbourhoods: butter, flour, milk, brown sugar. No fruit, no eggs, and certainly no chocolate.

When Pierre-Luc Chevalier was a child, his mother made pouding chômeur at least once a week. “It was the Saturday night dessert. Or something we had when people were coming at the last minute,” he said. Chevalier happens to be chef and owner of La Cantine, a 1970s kitsch-inspired restaurant, located in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood, and he now makes the dessert in his restaurant, remaining faithful to the brown sugar base—though he has added fleur de sel to give it a salty caramel flair.

Chevalier isn’t alone in rediscovering the dish that Amanda Hesser, writing in the New York Times Magazine last month (in a piece about another intriguingly named treat: “heavenly hots”), called “a delight that Canadians have been keeping to themselves.” While it has long been a staple of down-home Québécois cooking, pouding chômeur has been reclaimed and, with the addition of eggs and maple syrup, transformed for a more prosperous era by chefs such as Chevalier and Martin Picard of Montreal’s Au Pied de Cochon, whom Chevalier credits with being the first to reinvent the dish. Picard’s version is exceedingly decadent: the cake is completely submerged in a deep-brown maple syrup sauce that requires a soup spoon, and an empty stomach, to eat.

The ubiquity of the dessert on the city’s restaurant scene is a sign of the current revival of traditional Quebec cuisine. Artisanal cheese production—a part of the province’s long culinary history—along with foods from the terroir such as pork hocks and pig’s ears, have become popular in recent years.

Where farmstead cheese and the like hearken back to the food prepared by harried farm wives for their 15 children and hungry husbands, pouding chômeur is from a more recent period—the Duplessis era, when industrialization was transforming food, and easy-to-make recipes and processed foods were replacing the old ways. In other words, it’s Quebec’s unique version of the trend toward fancy cupcakes and gourmet mac and cheese.

At La Cantine, pouding chômeur is offered alongside other Quebec classics such as pâté chinois, a shepherd’s pie typically made with creamed corn that Le Devoir declared to be the province’s national dish (Chevalier’s features game meats); duck tourtière; and, of course, poutine with Szechuan pepper gravy. At Vallier Bistro in Old Montreal, they serve a maple-butter version of the pudding, and a pâté chinois made with confit de canard.

The new versions of the old dishes resonate with those who’ve made them at home as well as their grandkids. “I’m proud when on Friday night we see a table of seniors beside a group of women for a shower,” said Chevalier. The twist on pouding chômeur is that, unlike poutine, it has always been associated with mom’s cooking. “I’m 40 years old and my grandmother made them. My mother, too.

We only ate them at home,” said the owner of Vallier Bistro, Martin Poitras. Its appearance on restaurant menus, says Poitras, is indicative of how dining habits have continued to change. Women of his grandmother’s generation would have abandoned their own mothers’ recipes in favour of foods like macaroni in a box; these days people are seeking the ultimate cooking convenience: leaving the kitchen completely. “People cook less at home and we don’t eat those foods anymore. So you have to go to the restaurant to eat them,” he said. Unemployed person’s pudding—once only available in the home kitchen—becomes a restaurant delicacy, the pudding of the employed and well-fed.