In her presence all castes dissolve. Rich and Poor are equal in appetite. And from the subtle depths of all past ages the scent of the gratinee is the incense of haves and have-nots together in the dark, together because of the dark. The early to bed know nothing of her. They are the sons of error and is certainty itself. – Robert Courtine, The Hundred Glories of French Cooking
French Onion Soup is the most classic and well-travelled of all French dishes. It has seduced and conquered more stomachs than even our beloved New England clam chowder. She is, as author Robert Courtine suggests, “a daughter of the streets. This daughter of the night and night’s pale dawns will always remain as elusive as those dawn’s themselves.” Her simplicity seduces us.
I once read a legend that onion soup was “invented” by Louis the XV and almost spit up my morning cafe au lait laughing. In this histoire, Louis was out hunting with the boys when they returned to the hunting lodge and found nothing but a couple onions and a bottle of Champagne in the cupboards. What is a poor monarch suppose to do but improvise when confronted with such bare necessities? Maybe this is why he is referred to as Louis the Beloved. Perhaps he created the soup after the Battle of Fontenoy in which he won Austrian Netherlands but shortly before giving it back three years later at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Laughable at best.
A version of onion soup has been simmering on stove tops in peasant homes since the dawn of time. It has much more to do with economy and efficiency than with royalty and snacks for hunting parties. We have an obsession in our society to want to claim something as the original recipe or story. Like somehow it was scientifically traceable to an exact definable starting moment, the Onion Soup genesis. 6000 years ago someone knew this particular dish would be the hit of some future country not yet conceived. Onion soup most likely started simmering in many pots at the same time.
Onion soup at its very essence is nothing more than onions and water boiled together. You can find at least one hundred recipes claiming to be authentic or original or even “the” recipe. When in fact all that is needed is an onion and that onion is indispensable. Period, Done, Finished. Everything from this point is an opinion. Caramelizing the onions brings out sugars and makes a more luxurious soup. Adding flour thickens it gently and provides more body. Some people will argue whether adding water or stock is more authentic. I say who cares. Add chicken or beef stock if you are so inclined or simply use water. It goes without saying that adding stock will certainly make it richer and more complex perhaps even distracting a bit from the simpleness of the onions. Some people add white, red or even sherry wine. Wine will add a bit more complexity to the final flavor and deepen the palate. I have seen multiple recipes advising milk and dairy products. The great Escoffier even advises using a small amount of bechamel mixed with pureed onions to spread on the toasts before sprinkling with grated cheese.
And her soul at peace. She cradles a whole world of bohemianism, of merrymaking, of fatigue and encroaching soberness in her sturdy matron’s arms. She consoles, in those small hours, our sickness of heart and disillusions. – Robert Courtine
Onion soup exudes my free style approach to cooking perfectly. There are no rules, there are no boundaries, there is no ONE onion soup. Let the moment passionately embrace you. Let the circumstances of now dictate your next moves. Let what is in your cupboard decide the ingredients. Who knows, maybe Louis the XV did invent it.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 strips bacon, diced
- 4 sweet onions, about 2 - 2.5 pounds
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 tablespoon flour, omit if you are gluten intolerant
- 1 cup red wine
- 10 cups chicken stock or water
- 1 sprig thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 8 croutons, see notes
- 6 ounces emmental cheese
- 2 ounces mozzarella
- Melt butter in a thick bottomed, heavy pan. The weight of the pan matters greatly. The heavier the pan the less chance of scorching while cooking the onions low and slow for two hours.
- Add bacon and cook till lightly browned.
- Add onions and garlic and cook on medium heat for 30 minutes stirring often. The onions will get soft and brown slightly.
- Turn heat down, and continue cooking for another 1.5 hours. During this time the onions will get very brown BUT not burnt. The sweetness and richness of flavor comes from this step.
- Sprinkle flour over and stir into onions. If you do not eat gluten you can omit. This step gives onion soup a bit more depth and body.
- Add red wine, chicken stock or water, thyme and bay leaf and simmer for 30 minutes
- You can cook the soup this far and save for another day. The soup should have a beautiful golden brown hue and taste incredible.
- Use whatever bowls you have. I tried everything from classic French onion soup bowls to regular bowls to a beautiful Lodge cast iron pot I had sitting on my shelf. Put two croutons per bowl.
- Shred the mozzarella and emmental or gruyere or Swiss cheese. I like a ration of three parts Swiss type cheese to one part mozzarella. The mozzarella really adds a beautiful molten cheesy quality to it. Add as much cheese as you want.
- Put the bowls on a cookie sheet and set under your broiler till golden brown, about five minutes.
An easy recipe for chicken stock can be found in my cookbook, Cuisine of the Sun purchased here
My Onion Soup, version two
When the soup is done puree in a blender. The soup will get get a creamy look and taste even sweeter. Float toasted croutons topped with one poached egg and grated cheese.
Tuscan Onion Soup, version three
Substitute pancetta for bacon in original recipe. Half the amount of onions used and add one red onion and one fat leek. When you add the chicken stock and red wine, add a shot of balsamic vinegar. Top with a crouton, sliced Fontina cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.