Onion soup is such a lovely thing to make right after the onion harvest at the end of the season, when the weather is just starting to cool down. Onion soup is also a lovely thing to start love stories with. Like ours, which certainly didn’t begin with onion soup, but which has seen its share of this dish through the years. Our first real date (though with a group) was at the now-defunct 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant in St. Louis. My then-suitor invited me via a sweet 2-page note, hyping up the view of airplanes taking off and landing as “romantic”. I didn’t see anything romantic about airplanes doing what they do, but whatever. Well, everyone ordered french onion soup as a starter and it was served in a crock similar to the one you’ll see in the last photo. I fell for the crock.
French Onion Soup must have been in vogue at the time, because I noticed it everywhere for at least the next few years. It was served at the (also now defunct) Famous-Barr‘s basement restaurant on Kingshighway and Chippewa, also in a crock. A year later, St. Louis Bread Company served it in sourdough bread bowls (the image shown doesn’t have the cheese melted, but melted was how it was always served at SLBC). You take the bread “lid” and dip it in the soup, then you eat the soup, then you eat the bowl it came in. Scrumptious stuff.
As a newlywed, I burned my hand making Julia Child’s version (in The Way to Cook) in our apartment one monthiversary. The soup had just finished its short foray into the broiler to melt the cheese and brown the top when I pulled the sheet bearing the cups (we didn’t have crocks) and sloshed the boiling liquid right onto my wrist. My hubby promptly got butter and ice and ice water in a large bowl, and I immersed my left hand in it while having dinner with my right. Yeah, romantic indeed.
Since then, each kid has been introduced to french onion soup in turn — they all love it. In fact it’s one of our emergency meals, except Panera is 5 minutes away and on lazy days we just order this for takeout. The homemade version, of course, is lots more satisfying. To make it, you’ll need:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3-4 large onions, sliced thin (I like using a combination of yellow and red onions for this, but this time I only had yellow. And you don’t have to get fanatic about this: largish and irregular slices will do as well, as you can see in the pic.)
2 large pinches sugar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup wine, red or white (almost any dry wine will do, or sherry or French vermouth which is my favorite. I was out of vermouth so I used some leftover Pinot Grigio instead)
2 tablespoons flour (gluten-free instructions below)
1 French baguette, sliced and toasted (can be toasted in a regular toaster, or in the oven — I did mine stove-top)
2 quarts beef broth (There is some debate on whether the original French Onion Soup just used water or stock, but the ones I’ve fallen in love with have always used stock, so I continue to. I used to love Campbells’ really brown, really salty stuff for this, but these days I try to use organic. Use what you like, or try wine-and-water only.)
Grated Gruyere, I prefer Swiss over French, but your choice
Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (Pecorino or Grana Padano will do as well), optional
Heat butter and oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring every once in a while, until onions are limp and just beginning to brown.
Add the sugar, salt, and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring every few minutes, until onions are caramelized, 20 minutes or so. Add garlic, bay leaves, and thyme sprigs. I just stick the thyme sprigs in there — if you want to go through the trouble of picking the leaves off the stem, by my guest, but I don’t usually bother as the leaves tend to fall off anyway in the cooking and I can fish out the stems easily enough later. Cook a few minutes more. Add wine and bring to a boil by turning up the heat. When boiling, reduce heat and simmer until wine has evaporated, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle flour over, and cook about 8 minutes, stirring often. Add the beef broth and bring back to a boil. When boiling, lower heat to a simmer and cook 10-15 minutes more.
While soup is cooking, toast bread slices and grate the cheeses.
Fish out the bay leaves and thyme sprigs and you’re done! Ladle into individual soup bowls, top with toasted bread slices and sprinkle on the cheeses. I prefer Swiss Gruyere and try to find the real thing as I find locally produced ones too salty. I do like the touch of Parmigiano on top. You can also use use grated or sliced Swiss cheese (holey or not), or any yellow melty cheese for the top, like Mozzarella or Provolone. Hee — while I was researching for this post I found some amusing trivia about the French/Swiss Gruyere Cheese war.
Broil for 3 minutes or so, just until cheese is melted and top is golden.
Gluten-free note: If you wish to make this gluten-free, besides subbing gluten-free bread slices for the bread, omit the flour and thicken the soup instead, right before ladling, with some tapioca, arrowroot or cornstarch dissolved in some water. Bring the soup to a boil again and stir the starch mixture in to incorporate and cook a few more minutes. Taste to make sure the soup doesn’t have any raw starch taste before serving.