Hardly anything I can think of trumps the utterly simple deliciousness of a well prepared French onion soup. Similarly, I can think of nothing utterly worse than a thin, flavorless ill-prepared version. Like all dishes with very few ingredients, the key is making each one count. For an exquisite French onion soup it boils down to three things: a top-quality, rich dark beef stock, long, slowly simmered caramelized onions, and Gruyere or Comte cheese for topping.
Therefore, if at all possible make your own stock, don’t rush the onions, and go for the best quality imported cheese you can afford. Processed Swiss will work in a pinch but the flavor and color will be diluted. Aside from its heady layers of sweet onions marrying with nutty, bubbling cheese and a rich broth, this is an ideal soup for entertaining (such as New Year's Eve or Day!). All of the components can be made ahead and put together at the last minute before serving, and I’ve never met a soul (French or otherwise) that doesn’t love the stuff.
French Onion Soup: Soupe a L’Oignon Francaise
(Adapted from pre-published pages for The French Cook: Soups and Stews, Gibbs Smith, Fall 2014)
Makes 6 servings
Six 1 1/3 cup oven-proof bowls or ramekins
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large sweet onions (preferably Vidalia), or substitute regular white onions, peeled halved and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
3 cloves garlic, smashed and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
3/4 cup good quality white wine (suggest Chardonnay)
1/2 cup dry vermouth
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
4 cups best-quality, unsalted beef stock (preferably homemade)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the croutons and cheese garnish
12 slices of 1- or 2-day-old French baguette bread, cut into 1/2”-thick slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups grated Gruyere or Comte cheese
In a 5 1/2-quart Dutch oven or similarly sized soup pot, melt the olive oil and butter together over medium-high heat. When melted, add the onions, garlic, and a generous dash of salt and pepper. Stir to coat. Continue cooking for another 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until all of the onion “water” is cooked off and the onions have become quite soft. Add the thyme and continue cooking. The onions will start turning golden and caramelizing in 10 minutes. This is what you want. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as needed.
Increase heat to high, add the wine, stirring to pick up any brown/caramelized bits and reduce by half. Add the vermouth and also reduce by half. Sprinkle the flour evenly over the soup, and stir to mix into the onions, cooking for one minute. Add the beef stock, stir. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer, cooking another 15 minutes, uncovered. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on high. Arrange the croutons in a single layer on a baking sheet. Drizzle each side lightly with olive oil and rub it into the bread. Place the sheet on the top shelf and broil until just golden on each side, turning once. You can stop here and store the soup separately from the garnishes overnight in a refrigerator or continue to finish the soups. To serve, taste the soup again, and adjust seasoning if necessary.
Ladle boiling hot soup into each bowl/ramekin. Top each with 2 or 3 croutons and about 1/2 cup grated cheese. Arrange on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese is golden and bubbly, about four to six minutes. Serve immediately with fresh thyme sprigs for garnish if desired.
Bon appetit et Joyeux 2014!
(Homepage photo from Simply Recipes—does not depict Holly Herrick's recipe.)