Wednesday, April 20, 2011

For the Love of French Onion Soup

If you really want to know and I think you must, caramelized onions cures countless woes. Some afflictions, the really serious ones that leave you curled up under the covers, hiding from the beams of sunlight peeking through the closed blinds or simply the blank stare of whats for dinner - what ever it is - the act of caramelizing onions will woe and suddenly be settled back into the swing of life.

Remember to remember - life is not that serious, you are not that big of a deal, never take yourself that seriously. This is what I tell myself, this is what J teaches me, this is what gets me through.

Start chopping the onions to caramelize at first hint of troubles, then chop more and thank yourself later. The simple task of slicing onions with a sharp knife will get your  mind off of anything except the natural burn that onions produce. Onions extract a brief physiological toll bound to distract, within a few moments of opening up an onion, the tangy scent wafts up to our noses, and our eyes begin to water.

I feared making french onion soup for years, saving the perfectly molten soup tucked under toasted bread and bubbly chewy cheese for a lunch date, trying to forget how I loved the soup. Homemade french onion soup was mystifying and out of reach.

French I thought, I am far from refined and skilled enough to make any recipe that eludes to French origins. I realized I have never really caramelized onions, yes sweat and sauteed but never brought them to the point of total surrender of caramelization. Caramlization takes time, turning over five cups of onions into a mere heap in the pan takes patience. Once the onions turn a deep chestnut color, your house will smell of sweet onions for days.  There is a point, the onion gives up the battle to the heat of the pan, releasing a gift of sweet and smooth caramelized onion.

Apparently it is not the French aspect of the soup, French onion soup is simple, the ingredients are staples and abundant. I was afraid of was penitence not the soup. Patience is a virtue and a challenge. Patience comes with time, will and practice. The simple act of caramelizing a couple pounds of onions is a simple rhythm of the act will have you focused and forgetting why the world seemed so heavy. 

Burnt garlic, we all have our faults and I am constantly learning. This bread is made out of the pizza dough from last week

Sunday nights at our house are very quiet and calm, the perfect time for me to belly up to the stove and make us a heart warming dinner, trying to comfort us from the looming week ahead.  Enter sweet, savory, caramelized onions. An omen for the week.

Onion Soup [Soupe à l’Oignon]
Source Smitten Kitchen who adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking

When Deb adapts a recipe from Julia Child, I sigh and know that my troubles are over and I can indulge. This recipe is for my dear friend Nuisha, I hope you enjoy.

1 1/2 pounds (680 grams or 24 ounces or about 5 cups) thinly sliced yellow onions
3 tablespoons (42 grams or 1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil
1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt, plus additional to taste
1/4 teaspoon (1 gram) granulated sugar (helps the onions to brown)
3 tablespoons (24 grams or 7/8 ounce) all-purpose flour
2 quarts (8 cups or 1.9 liters) beef or other brown stock*
1/2 cup (118 ml) dry white wine or dry white vermouth
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons (45 ml) cognac or brandy (optional)
To finish [Gratinée] (Optional)
1 tablespoon grated raw onion
1 to 2 cups (to taste) grated Swiss (I often use Gruyere) or a mixture of Swiss and Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter, melted
12 to 16 1-inch thick rounds French bread, toasted until hard

Melt the butter and oil together in the bottom of a 4- to 5-quart saucepan or Dutch oven over moderately low heat. Add the onions, toss to coat them in oil and cover the pot. Reduce the heat to real low and let them slowly steep for 15 minutes. They don’t need your attention; you can even go check your email.

After 15 minutes, uncover the pot, raise the heat slightly and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook onions, stirring frequently, for 30 to 40 minutes until they have turned an even, deep golden brown. Don’t skimp on this step, as it will build the complex and intense flavor base that will carry the rest of the soup. Plus, from here on out, it will be a cinch.

After the onions are fully caramelized, sprinkle them with flour and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the wine in full, then stock, a little at a time, stirring between additions. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer and simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 more minutes, skimming if needed. Correct seasonings if needed but go easy on the salt as the cheese will add a bit more saltiness and I often accidentally overdo it. Stir in the cognac, if using. I think you should.

Set aside until needed. I find that homemade onion soup is so deeply fragrant and flavor-rich that it can stand alone, but that doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy the graitinéed top once in a while. Here’s how to pull it off:

Preheat oven to 325. Arrange six ovenproof soup bowls or crocks on a large, foil-lined baking sheet. Bring the soup back to a boil and divide among six bowls. To each bowl, add 1/2 teaspoon grated raw onion and a tablespoon of grated cheese. Stir to combine. Dab your croutons with a tiny bit of butter and float a few on top of your soup bowls, attempting to cover it. Mound grated cheese on top of it; how much you use will be up to you.

Bake soups on tray for 20 minutes, then preheat broiler. Finish for a minute or two under the broiler to brown the top lightly. Grab pot holders, and serve immediately.

* Porcini or mushroom stock are a robust vegetarian substitution.


So you want stand at the stove and caramelized onions. You are a saint. You should feel proud.  I am proud of you. Toss in an extra chopped onion so you pull out a half cup of caramelized onions to make a lovely rye bread with caramelized onions slipped in as featured in this month's Kitchen Play contest sponsored by the National Onion Association.

Whole Wheat Rye Bread with Caramelized Onions and Swiss Cheese
Adapted from: Cookistry

1 cup warm water
2 1/4 teaspoons instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup (3 1/2 ounces) medium rye flour
2 cups (9 ounces) whole wheat bread flour
1 cup (2 1/2 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese
1/2 cup caramelized onions
2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Olive oil
Extra flour, for dusting

In the bowl of your stand mixer combine the water, yeast, sugar, and rye flour. Stir to combine and set aside for 10 minutes.

The mixture will be bubbly and foamy.

Add the bread flour, cheese, and onions. Knead with the dough hook until the dough is elastic. The dough will be sticky; that's fine. Add the salt and butter and continue kneading until both are fully incorporated.

Sprinkle some flour on your work surface and turn the dough out. Knead by hand, for a minute, adding just as much flour to keep the dough from sticking.  Form the dough into a ball.

Drizzle some olive oil into your stand mixer bowl (or another clean bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, turning it over several times to make sure it's coated with the oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside until the dough has doubled, about an hour.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or sprinkle with cornmeal.

Flour your work surface again and turn the dough out. Knead it very briefly, and form it into a ball. Place it on your prepared baking sheet seam-side down. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to rise until doubled, about 30 minute.

Remove the plastic wrap, slash as desired, and bake at 350 degrees until browned, about 40 minutes.

Move the loaf to a rack to cool completely before slicing.


  1. Nice! Good luck with the Kitchen Play contest!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I've read many recipes for French Onion Soup, but none with such lovely pics and winsome commentary as yours. Thanks for posting this. And even tho' it's only Wednesday, I like the thought of allowing Sunday evenings to create an omen for the week. :-)

  4. I have never seen more beautiful onion photos! Pure art!