I’ve felt rather blah lately. Overworked, overtired, overscheduled, overwhelmed. I’m just over it. This weekend I did pretty much next to nothing except watch old Gene Kelly musicals while playing computer solitare and it was exactly what I needed. Late Sunday night I found enough energy, around 9pm, to make a little dinner and decided I wanted French onion soup. No, I needed French onion soup. Warm, filling, toasty and cheesy … it was just what the doctor ordered.
I adore French Onion Soup and order it pretty much every chance I get. I’ve had the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between but it’s always better when you make it yourself. It must be a family thing. Years ago, when I absconded with my mother’s 1966 copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she called out from the family room “Fine but be sure to send me a copy of the french onion soup recipe!” Of course, I promptly did so. God forbid one should be without the recipe when necessity calls.
Did making it myself last night take some time? Well, of course it did. Doesn’t everything that’s good and wonderful take a little time? But it’s not all that difficult. Now that I’ve got the onion caramelizing thing down, this came together pretty easily. The trick is to leave the lid on and let that moist, contained heat help break down the sliced onions. Then the lid is removed to allow that accumulated moisture to cook off and further develop the caramelization and fond on the bottom of the pan. Deglazed with some wine and beef broth, the result is a wonderful full-bodied soup with plenty of onions in about an hour. That’s really not that much is it? Mostly hands-off too.
Now here’s where I veer off the common path. I usually use red onions rather than white, yellow or a sweet variety. I think I picked this up years ago from a Cooks Illustrated article but in trying to find it again, I only see yellow onions in their recipes so I’m not sure at all where I got this idea. BUT I do know that I really like the flavor and color that red onions bring to the party. From this same place I also learned to add a little shot of balsamic vinegar to both round out the sweetness and to add a little acidic note because believe it or not, sometimes sautéed red onions in this use can have a blue tinge. It’s kind of trippy.
For me, the keynote of any French Onion Soup is the cheesy crouton on top. It is imperative that you get this right. The bread has to have some substance to it or you’re left with a soggy, disintegrated mess. Best bet is stale bread, lightly toasted from something sturdy like a baguette as a firm bread slows down the inevitable soaking. Let me put it this way; the bread is basically a vehicle – a raft if you will – to hold as much cheese as possible. It has a hefty and important role to play. No spongy white bread here, my friends. No siree. Now that we’ve got that settled, it is important to remember that above all else in the loftiest of positions is the cheese and there are two requirements from which I do not stray.
Two: It must be Gruyere, though I’d accept Emmentaler or even Swiss. But absolutely no to the following: no mozzarella, no provolone, no cheddar (eek!), no Monterey jack or other abominations in the goat/feta family. No, no and absolutely NO. (And yes, I HAVE seen all of those at least once.)
I also find it works best if the cheese is thinly sliced rather than grated. Thin slices lay ever so nicely over the bowl and are more prone to forming that lovely little crust over the sides that you can pick and nibble on. Grated cheese tends to sink into the soup; not a bad thing but you don’t get a nice even layer on top and the crusty sides are greatly diminished.
As I sat there idly spooning up the warm, gooey mixture, I was transported to another place (or so I’d like to think.) I wasn’t at my kitchen table on a chilly, dreary Chicago evening. Rather, I was somewhere in the 6th arrondissement at a little outdoor café table on a blustery fall day with a steaming bowl of Soupe a l’Oignon au Gratinee, a glass of house red and a rough plan to visit 6 Parisian patisseries in the next few hours. Trust me, it was much better than my kitchen table.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: C’EST MAGNIFIQUE! It’ll cure what ails you, especially if you’re feeling a bit draggy. I’ve even made this in the dead of summer in an un-air-conditioned apartment because the situation was dire. It worked then too. Warm, rich soup with a crunchy, cheesy top layer? Seriously? What doesn’t that cure?
FRENCH ONION SOUP
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter
4 pounds red onions, halved and thinly cut lengthwise
6 sprigs of fresh thyme (or ¾ teaspoon dried thyme)
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
1 cup full bodied red wine, such as merlot or cabernet
6 cups beef stock
1 cup water
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1 baguette sliced into ½” slices (best if stale)
1 pound Gruyere, Emmentaler or Swiss cheese, thinly sliced
- For the onions: In a heavy pot over medium, heat the olive oil and butter.
- Add the onions, thyme, bay leaf, and salt and pepper and saute, covered, until the onions are deep amber and exceedingly soft, stirring occasionally, 25-30 minutes.
- Remove the lid and cook and additional 10 minutes until deeply colored and somewhat dry.
- Add the wine, increase the heat, and let the wine bubble away for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the beef stock, water and balsamic vinegar, and let the soup simmer for 25-30 minutes, allowing the flavors to meld together.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- For the bread: Preheat the oven to broil.
- Broil the bread until toasty and crispy, about 2-3 mintues per side. Set aside and keep the broiler on.
- Finish the soup: Remove the bay leaf and thyme sprigs from the soup and discard.
- Ladle the soup into ovenproof bowls, fit a few toasted baguette slices on top then cover it with a thick layer of the cheese. Thicker than you think it should rightfully be.
- Put the soup bowls under the broiler and cook 3-5 minutes, or until the cheese is fully melted and golden.
- Carefully remove the bowls from the oven and serve immediately with a warning – the soup is very very hot.