Survey: raise your hand if you've ever ordered French Onion Soup from a restaurant envisioning a bowl of richly flavored broth, filling the room with the smell of caramelized onion, and topped with all the Gruyere your little heart could desire. Now raise your hand if, instead of a bowl of ambrosia, you received the equivalent of a slightly more aromatic chicken stock topped with a few sad, half-melted strands of pre-grated Safeway Swiss, alongside a chunk of day-too-old baguette. If you associate French Onion Soup with chain cafés, believing that this is a quintessential example of this dish, you probably haven't been super motivated to attempt it on your own (sorry Panera Bread). Or maybe you've never thought of it because, frankly, it just doesn't sound that interesting - I mean it is just onion, bread, and cheese in a simple stock, right? Wrong.
Anyone out there who has been lucky enough to spend some time in France knows that this simple soup can be one of the most flavorful, dynamic, welcoming dishes on any menu. Just like how many Americans view chicken noodle soup or hearty stews as warm reminders of home, French Onion Soup reminds me of the comfort of a warm bistro in Paris on a cold winter's day. While living in Paris, I scoured my quartier in search of the best French Onion Soup, and I thought I had found it in a brasserie near Place Saint Michel. I thought that, until I went back home to Sacramento and watched my mom school those Parisien chefs. BOOM!
Actually, I must give credit where credit is due. My mom's recipe is actually a page out of a Julia Child cookbook, who we all know learned everything she wrote about from none other but the French. So, you can imagine my excitement upon returning to the States only to find I could eat one of my favorite dishes whenever I told my mom to hurry up and make me a sandwich...er I mean, a bowl of onion soup. But unlike other moms that only see their beloved daughter during occasional visits and bend over backwards to satisfy any and all dining demands, mine doesn't really respond well to me barking orders as soon as I grace my family with my presence. So, she usually saves this dish for special occasions. What I'm trying to say here is that I realized early on, if I wanted this soup, I was going to have to make it myself.
And that's exactly what I did. Now, it's a part of my repertoire, and it's good...real good. And it's not because of some culinary prowess inherent inside of me that this dish is consistently just so...well...just so perfect. It's really because even a pigeon could probably follow the instructions and have it come out as it should. NOTE: It can take a considerable amount of time to execute (~3 hours), so give yourself some time. Otherwise, this is a classic, delicious example of French Onion Soup that's perfect when it's just you, a blanket, and Bravo, or when you're entertaining a group of friends.
Julia's French Onion Soup
(Paraphrased from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child et al, Volume I, “Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinee”)
5 C yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 1-1/2 lb)
3 T butter
1 T oil
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
3 T flour
2 qts boiling brown stock or canned beef bouillon
1/2 C dry white wine or vermouth
salt, and pepper to taste
1 French baguette, cut in 3/4" thick rounds (My mom uses sourdough bread cut in large cubes, generally a LaBrea sourdough oval baked fresh daily at Costco)
3 Tb cognac
1-2 cups Swiss cheese or Gruyere shredded, and 2 oz cut into chunks
1 Tb grated raw onion
1 Tb of olive oil or melted butter
Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in a heavy covered saucepan for 15 minutes. Add the salt and sugar, raise the heat to moderate and cook 30 - 40 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have turned a deep golden brown. Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.
Remove from heat.
In a separate pot, bring the stock or bouillon to a boil. Blend mixture into the onions. Add wine, season to taste, and simmer partially covered 30 - 40 minutes, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning. If not served immediately, return to a simmer before serving.
While soup simmers bake the bread rounds on a baking sheet in a preheated 350º oven about 30 minutes, till hard and lightly browned, basting them with olive oil after 15 minutes, and then turning them and basting the other side. When baking is completed, rub each piece with a cut piece of the garlic.
I cube the sourdough and baste with olive oil, then toast in the oven. When you pull them out, I hand rub garlic clove around each cube.
When the stock and bread are prepared, add the cognac to the stock and pour soup into individual oven proof bowls. Add a few chunks of cheese and grated onion to each bowl. Top with golden bread rounds (or bread cubes) and sprinkle with the grated cheese and Oil or butter (Julia loves her butter, but I cut the extra oil out).
Lower heat to 325 and bake in the oven for 20 minutes. Brown under the broiler if necessary.
Serve immediately. But be careful! It will be hot like lava for awhile after it comes out of the oven, and someone is bound to burn their tongue, so I usually allow the bowls to cool for 5-10 minutes before serving.
If you try this recipe from home, drop me a line and let me know how it turns out!