French Onion Soup
There are certain dishes in a cook’s repertoire that are there for comfort. When times are stressful, when tragedy strikes, when you lose someone close to you, when there is a storm brewing, these are the times when we need reassurance in the form of something good and comforting to eat—and cook.
When I need soothing, I turn to French onion soup. With its piping hot liquid underneath a crouton topped with bubbling Gruyère cheese oozing down the sides of the bowl, it is the perfect antidote to all manner of storms both figurative and literal that might be raging around you.
My connection to French onion soup has deep roots that I didn’t even know were there until one day a few years ago I read an article in the New York Times about what to cook during a winter storm. I had been busy planning my own menu in preparation for the storm and had decided to make French onion soup, but was curious what others thought of cooking.
The food staff at the Times came up with several suggestions, but the one that struck me came from Julia Moskin, who offered up a mushroom lasagna recipe that ran in the Times shortly after 9/11. Huh, I thought. French onion soup is what I made after 9/11. I hadn’t associated it with that terrible time until I read the article and there I was planning to make it again when looking for comfort during the storm.
Now, of course, I carry the memory of 9/11 with me into the kitchen whenever I make French onion soup and it is what I turn to most frequently when times are hard.
At the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11 I was a single woman in my early forties living alone on the Upper West Side. French onion soup—which makes enough for a small crowd—isn’t the first thing you would think a single woman would be inclined to make for herself. It was the Friday after 9/11. I know it was a Friday because my weekly appointment with my therapist was on a Friday and I remember planning to make French onion soup when I got home from my session—something to look forward to after all the grieving and sobbing that tumbled out of me that week.
The world didn’t make sense anymore, but somehow French onion soup did. It’s not like I made it frequently. In fact, I may have only made it once before, years ago when I was in my Julia Child phase. Maybe that’s why I chose to make it at that particularly awful moment—it shuttled me back to an earlier time when the Twin Towers were still standing and the ground seemed firm beneath my feet.
It’s hard to overemphasize what a culinary touchstone Julia Child is for so many of us home cooks of a certain age. I don’t know exactly where I fall in the generational spectrum of women whose interest in cooking blossomed during episodes of The French Chef or any of her subsequent cooking shows, but she was certainly my first introduction to serious cooking. I used to sit down with my mother in the afternoons after school to watch Julia during her original black and white broadcast run of The French Chef in the 1960s.
The first Christmas after I returned from my junior year abroad in France, I pored over Mastering the Art of French Cooking searching for a recipe to make for my family on Christmas Eve as if I were cramming for a final exam. I finally decided on Steak au Poivre. It was my first attempt at cooking a French dish and I read and reread the recipe until I had practically memorized it. It is absolutely true that the instructions in Mastering are so well done it is practically foolproof. The meal came out perfectly and decades later my family still talks about that Steak au Poivre.
So whenever I am in need of culinary grounding, I reach for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s no real surprise then that it was Julia’s version of Soupe à L’Oignon Gratinée I made on September 14, 2001. She uses beef stock and 1 ½ pounds of onions which you sauté for a mere 15 minutes before adding the liquid. Today my go-to French onion soup comes from Dorie Greenspan’s excellent cookbook, Around My French Table. She uses 4 pounds of onions and chicken stock and her advice is to cook the onions slowly for an hour or more to get the rich caramelization that will both flavor and color the stock when you add it.
The smell of onions slowly breaking down in a pool of butter is one of the most comforting smells I know. It’s the smell of home with your mother standing over the stove preparing dinner: we will gather around the table in an hour or so and all will be right with the world. It is probably why I find making onion soup so comforting. Cooking the onions down slowly over a long period of time ensures the soul-sustaining aromas will linger in your kitchen for hours.
But like all experienced cooks, I have tweaked Dorie Greenspan’s recipe to make it to my liking. Her recipe calls for 8 cups of chicken stock (a standard amount of liquid based on a half dozen recipes I cross-referenced in my cookbook library). But since my husband likes his soup thick (more stew-like so he feels like he isn’t just having soup for dinner) I cut the amount of liquid down to 6 cups.
What I also love about Dorie Greenspan’s recipe is that she has you pour a splash of Cognac in the bottom of each bowl before serving. Most recipes call for Cognac to be added to the pot as it is cooking, but to my mind, a splash of Cognac seems more bracing and just the kind of thing you would expect a Frenchman to do as a kind of pick-me-up after a long night of carousing or an even longer nightshift.
Now that I employ the slow-cooked method of making French onion soup, I can’t imagine preparing it any other way. Onions will not be rushed. The difference between onions that have cooked for fifteen minutes and onions that have been slowly breaking down and concentrating their flavor for over an hour is day and night. Maybe that’s why Julia Child used beef stock—beef stock became the dominant flavor, compensating for her under-cooked onions. (No disrespect to Julia—I am still a huge fan.) When you use chicken stock and cook the onions slowly, it’s the onion flavor that dominates. If you truly don’t have the time, don’t bother.
Making onion soup is both a leap of faith and an act of love. You also need a sharp knife. Slicing four pounds of onions with a dull knife will put you off the recipe for life. But once you slice the onions and put them into your pot you will probably wonder how all those onions will ever sweat down and whether or not there is a mistake in the recipe. This is where the leap of faith comes in. That, and the right pot.
Use a heavy-bottomed pot. The bigger the better because there will be more surface area for the onions to spread out allowing them to cook down faster. I use my Le Creuset cast iron pot that I have owned for years, but I could use a bigger one. It takes my onions nearly two hours to release all their liquid.
Keep the flame on low to medium low and don’t leave the kitchen. Those onions need attention and frequent stirring so as not to burn them. This is the act of love part. When the onions have released all their liquid, that’s when the brown bits of caramelization start to occur and the onions begin to take on a rich golden color. At this point you can add the liquids.
Good cooking is a big time commitment. We don’t always have it, but when we do there is no better way to show your love for both yourself and your family or friends than to take the time to cook something delicious.
Even when I was single (and I was single for a long, long time) I took the time to cook for myself. True, I like to cook. But maybe I like to cook because the act of cooking makes me feel whole. It is utterly satisfying to me to bring together a bunch of disparate ingredients and turn it into something good to eat.
Which is why, after 9/11 I needed to cook. Even if it was just for myself. And it is why I turn to cooking still—for a little comfort when times are hard.
French Onion Soup
Adapted from Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan
4- 5 Large Spanish onions (about 4 pounds)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 Cup dry white wine
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
6 slices country bread, toasted
6 ounces grated Gruyère, Comte or Emmenthal cheese
Cognac (a splash in the bottom of each bowl before serving)
Slice off the top of each onion, cut in half vertically leaving the root section intact for easier handling. Peel the skin and slice very thinly.
Heat the oil and butter in a heavy bottomed pot on medium low until the butter and oil are hot. Add the onions and garlic, sprinkle with salt and stir as best you can to coat.
Lower the flame or heat to the lowest setting. Leave the pot uncovered. What you want here is for the liquid from the onions to bubble vigorously. Keep an eye on the pot and stir from time to time as the onions begin to lose volume. This will take up to two hours depending on the size of your pot (less for larger pots, more for smaller pots).
When almost all the liquid is gone, and the onions have turned golden, sprinkle the flour on top and stir the onions to coat. Let the flour cook for a couple of minutes then raise the heat a bit and add the wine, reducing the liquid again.
Add some good chicken stock (preferably homemade from roasted bones—the darker the stock the more flavor and the richer the color).
Grind the white pepper into the soup to taste. (Freshly ground white pepper has a real kick to it so be sure to taste.)
Cover the pot and bring to a simmer on the stove. Cook for 30 minutes.
If you are using a traditional onion soup crock to serve, you will have to trim the bread to fit the bowl. Invert the bowl over a slice of bread and trim with a knife.
Toast the bread on both sides.
Place the individual serving bowls on a rimmed baking sheet. Pour a splash of Cognac into the bottom of each bowl. Ladle the onion soup in each bowl leaving just enough room for the toasted bread to float on top. Sprinkle the grated cheese on top.
Set the oven to broil. Place the oven rack on the second highest level below your broiler and then slide the baking sheet into the oven. The cheese will melt quickly so don’t stray too far from the oven. Let it bubble and spill over the sides a bit for a little drama.
Serve with a simple green salad dressed with vinaigrette. This is a surprisingly filling meal all by itself.