Making French onion soup is really much more about the equipment than cooking skills, and by equipment I mean broiler-proof bowls and a broiler with enough clearance to handle those bowls. I knew this going into it, but also knew that I really wanted French onion soup. It’s one of those dishes you crave on cold winter nights. It’s comforting, hearty to the point of decadence, and since the short ribs filled my meat quota for the month, its almost-vegetarian quality really fit the bill for everything I wanted in a post-Christmas but pre-New Year’s meal—that week where life lets up and minor to major indulgences become justifiable.Saveur's version:
Photo: Andre Baranowski
Major letdown, no?
The funny thing is that when I made this recipe, I was in Los Angeles where winter means an average high of 68 and low of 47 and where fires are built mostly for the fun of it and are often put out prematurely following comments like, "Uhm, it's really hot in here." And now as I write this, I’m at home in Pittsburgh where there are no highs and lows as far as I can tell—everything is just super cold, all the time.
On to the recipe, which calls for braising the onions instead of cooking them on the stovetop, which I would recommend simply for the hour and half that your house will smell of butter, onions, wine and sherry. It’s such a particular smell—mildly vinegary but mostly rich and brasserie-like. And this is where I messed up—though you really wouldn’t have known it by the amazing aroma.
I halved the recipe, but failed to half the size of the braising dish, so the melted butter, sherry, and white wine didn’t fully cover the onions. Below are the onions after the first 45 minutes, uncovered—just a little burnt—and then after another hour, covered with foil. I was convinced the recipe was ruined, but after Matt and I sampled one of the burnt onions and it only tasted vaguely burnt, we pushed onward.
Up next was the bouquet garni, which prompted the Google search: what is a bouquet garni? Speaking of Google searches, what’s going on with Google search auto-fill? It’s getting kind of weird.Anyway, as it turns out, a bouquet garni is a bunch of herbs wrapped in cheesecloth or sometimes leek leaves that is used to flavor a stew or soup. Here is mine sans cheesecloth or leek, neither of which I had on hand. I like to call this the Bon Appetempt loose bouquet garni (patent pending).
To get around the broiler and broiler-proof bowl problem, I decided to mound the gruyere and parmesan on top of the bread and put those in the broiler and then place them on top of the soup.
The results were solidly mediocre.
Unfortunately, the burnt onions flavored the broth much more than my makeshift garni had. Each bite tasted slightly of char. And even more sadly, I have no solutions for the person with a shallow broiler. I mean, would it work if I moved my oven rack up to the highest slot and cooked the bowls like that?
Of course, I really would make it all over again just for the onion and butter aroma to take over our apartment.
RECIPE from Saveur and based on one in Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells (Workman, 1989):
1 cup white wine
1⁄2 cup plus 3 tbsp. sherry
10 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. sugar
3 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
6 sprigs flat-leaf parsley
6 sprigs thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
2 qts. Beef Stock
12 1⁄2"-thick slices baguette
2 cloves garlic, smashed
6 cups grated gruyère cheese
2 cups finely grated parmigiano-reggiano
1. Heat oven to 425°. Combine wine, 1⁄2 cup of the sherry, 8 tbsp. of the butter, sugar, onions, and salt and pepper in a 9" × 13" casserole dish and braise, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the onions just begin to brown, 40–45 minutes. Remove casserole from oven, cover with foil, and continue braising in oven, stirring occasionally, until caramelized, about 1 hour more. Keep the onions warm.
2. Meanwhile, tie parsley, thyme, and bay leaves together with kitchen twine to make a bouquet garni. Put bouquet garni and stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Remove and discard bouquet garni. Stir in remaining sherry and cook for 5 minutes more.
3. While the broth simmers, spread the baguette slices with the remaining butter. Toast in a skillet over medium heat, turning once, until golden, 5–7 minutes. Rub the slices generously with garlic and set aside. Discard any remaining garlic.
4. Heat broiler with rack 6" from element. Arrange 6 heatproof bowls on a foil-lined sheet tray, divide onions and broth between bowls, and stir together. Place 2 baguette slices in each bowl; top each with about 1 cup gruyère and about 1⁄3 cup parmigiano. Broil until cheeses are browned and bubbly, 3–5 minutes. Serve immediately.