One of the more entertaining aspects of my relationship with the Frenchman is our collective opportunity to play with language. At any given moment, one of us is speaking in a third language, and so mistakes are made. More often than not, we bend it to our liking in the name of wordy nerdiness.
While we met in Spain and started our friendship in Spanish, it’s probably our least fluent language now. Still, we both weave Spanish words and expressions into conversation, and use it to aid French and English when we don’t know a word. (I have recently taken to employing “tranquiler” as a French verb meaning “to calm down”. The problem is, the French word is actually “calmer”, far more similar to English than the Spanish “tranquilizar”. I will not be stopped!)
Before I met the Monsieur, I never gave much thought to the ‘Frenchisms’ we’ve adopted in English. Some make sense, like “French Toast”: French people really do eat pain perdu (“lost bread”) when baguettes go stale, although in France they make it far less sweet than we do, and it’s more likely to be served as dessert than for breakfast.
But there are others, “French braids” and “French dressing” for example, that make less sense. Actually, what we call “French braids” the French refer to as “Indian braids”. Go figure. And as for “French dressing”, I can’t imagine a French person adding ketchup to their simple vinaigrette.
In France, what we know as “French Onion Soup” is referred to simply as “Onion Soup”. Whatever you want to call it, it’s what I want to cook and eat when the weather turns bright and cold.
This recipe requires time, and a bit of attention, but it is not difficult. The ingredients are humble and inexpensive. It serves a crowd, and can be made ahead, dressed up or dressed down. It is also immensely satisfying, deep and richly flavored. You can make it on a Sunday, and feed yourself into the week. You could also freeze it for later.
Like with most things, you will reap rewards parallel to your efforts: if you cook the onions slowly, if you take the time to develop flavor, it will be apparent in the final product. You should also use good stock, homemade if possible. Beef is great (I used veal in this batch), although chicken stock works as well, or even a combination of the two. If you are a vegetarian, vegetable stock deepened with mushrooms is the way to go.
As for the cheese, Gruyère is ace, or aged Comté. I had some Challerhocker in the fridge (an earthy, nutty hard cheese from Switzerland), and so that’s what I used. Emmental (Swiss) also works, although it’s not as flavorful as the cheeses I mentioned before. I also like to add a flurry of Parmesan, for a little extra umph.
How much cheese you use is up to you. If you have a microplane grater, you can make light, airy wisps of grated cheese. In this case, I would sprinkle 1/2 cup Gruyère (or the like) and 2 tablespoons of Parmesan for each bowl. If you are using a wide-holed grater, you might use less.
As to the toast, you can use toasted, stale bread, livened up with a drizzle of olive oil or a swipe of butter. I sometimes use croutons as well. The crunchier the toast is to start, the less soggy they’ll become in cooking. The important thing is to have enough to more or less cover the top of each soup bowl.
- 3 large white onions
- 1 medium red onion
- 1 shallot
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons Cognac, separated
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- a little grate of nutmeg
- 6 cups beef stock
- 1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar
- Gruyère cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Toasts or croutons
1. Slice the onions and the shallot in half lengthwise; cut off the ends and peel the skins. Now slice each half crosswise, quite thinly.
2. Meanwhile, heat the butter and oil in a large Dutch oven (mine is 6.75 qt, or 6.3 L) over medium heat. When the butter and oil are bubbling gently, add the onions and the shallot. Stir everything to coat. The Dutch oven should be about 3/4 of the way full with onions; they will cook down. Close the lid and let the onions steam for 20 minutes.
3. After 20 minutes, remove the lid and add the salt and the sugar. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the onions for 40 minutes, until deeply, golden brown. You’ll have to pay attention, so that the onions don’t burn. Let’s be realistic: in the first 10 minutes, the onions won’t really need your attention. But by the time you reach the 20 minute mark, you will need to be scraping brown bit off the bottom of the pan every 2-3 minutes. At the 10 minute mark, every 1 minute, at least. In the last 5 minutes, pay constant attention.
4. After 40 minutes, add the flour, and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the wine, 1 tablespoon of the Cognac, the thyme, the bay leaf, and the nutmeg. Stir to combine, and to scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pan.
5. Meanwhile, heat the broth in a wide saucepan. When it’s warm, add it to the onions slowly, stirring constantly as you go. Wait until the soup reaches a happy little boil before you add more stock to the pot. When you’ve added all the stock there is, lower the heat just a smidge and partially cover the pot. Simmer the soup for about 50 minutes.
6. Now stir in the last tablespoon of Cognac. Give the soup a taste; season with salt and pepper and sherry vinegar. (Keep in mind that the cheese will add salt, so don’t go overboard.)
7. Heat the oven to 400F.
8. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. (This will prevent bubbling cheese from making a home on the bottom of your oven.) Distribute the soup amongst several ovenproof bowls. Stir a pinch of grated gruyère into each soup.
8. Top each bowl with toast, and the two cheeses.
If you are like me, and you are afraid to use the broiler, because whoever designed your apartment foolishly placed the fire alarm directly above the kitchen, it’s all right. What’s important is that the cheese is browned and bubbly. This will take about 20 minutes.