Filed under: Recipes
On Thursday Thomas Keller’s long awaited cookbook, Bouchon, arrived on my doorstep. I’d had a cursory flick through it at a friend’s house and had pledged there and then that as soon as I owned the book I would tackle one of the more demanding bistro classics, the French onion soup. On my honeymoon, back in October, I’d enjoyed a particularly good one at Pastis (a faux French bistro located in the trendy meatpacking district in New York) Whilst the rest of the food was not up to much, the crusty bread laden with melting cheese floating in the sweet oniony liquid refuses to leave my memory.
Technically speaking the soup itself is not difficult to prepare however it is time consuming, you’ll need the best part of an afternoon. Keller’s recipe instructs one to spend 5 hours intermittently stirring the onions (which means a total cooking time of well over 6 hours) in order that the onions reach the perfect point of caremalization and surrender their sweet juices. In a professional kitchen this is all well and good but for the home cook it can be a daunting and unnecessarily worrisome task. So whilst I have stuck loosely to Keller’s recipe I have reduced the cooking time (by approximately 2 hours) by not using a heat diffuser under the pan meaning the onions cook significantly quicker. Another modification I made was using chicken stock instead of beef, like many cooks I usually have some lying around in my deep-freezer whereas I very rarely make beef stock, using the chicken stock makes the soup lighter and less meaty.
The most unpleasant aspect of the recipe however is chopping the mountain of onions needed. This is particularly irksome if you are predisposed to weeping, a sure fire trick that works for me is to put a metal spoon in my mouth. However whilst this might avoid tears streaming down your face it won’t guard against the onions infusing their potent odour into everything in their immediate vicinity and that includes you. So beware you might have a distinctly whiffy air of onions about you for a couple of days.
A final word of warning, keep an eye on your onions when cooking, if you notice there is too much liquid in the pan turn up the heat and make sure you dry them out a little otherwise they will boil instead of caramelize.
Despite all these little annoyances nothing beats a lovingly prepared onion soup, especially when it is cold and rainy outside as it is while I am cooking the soup. It is the ultimate in comfort food, so much more than just a soup, a meal in itself, and ultimately spirit lifting.
French Onion Soup
For the Soup
8 pounds yellow onions
4 ounces unsalted butter
1 ½ teaspoons all purpose flour
beef stock ( chicken or vegetable will do)
sherry wine vinegar
For the Croutons
extra virgin olive oil
6 -12 slices aged Comte or Emmentaler cheese (at lease 4 inches square)
For the soup
Cut of tops and bottoms of the onions, then cut the onions lengthwise in half. Remove the peels and tough outer layers. Cut a V wedge in each one to remove the core.
Lay an onion half cut side down on a cutting board with the root end towards you. Note that there are lines on the outside of the onion. Cutting on the lines (with the grain) rather than against them will help the onions soften.
Melt the butter in a large heavy stockpot over a medium heat. Add the onions and 1 tablespoon salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook stirring every 15 minutes and regulating the heat to keep the mixture bubbling gently, for about 1 hour, or until the onions have wilted and released a lot of liquid. Continue to stir the onions every 15 minutes being sure to scrape the bottom and corners of the pot, for about 3 hours or until the onions are caramelised throughout. Remove from the heat (You will need 1 ½ cups of onions for the soup, reserve any extra for another use)
Transfer the caramelized onion to a 4.5 litre pan. Sift in the flour and cook over a medium-high heat, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beef, veg or chicken stock and sachet, bring to a simmer, and simmer for about 1 hour or until the liquid is reduced to 2 litres. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a few drops of vinegar. Remove from heat.
For the Croutons
Preheat the broiler/grill. Cut 12 3/8 inch thick slices from the baguette (reserve the remainder for another use) and place on a baking sheet. Brush the bread lightly on both sides with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt. Place under the broiler/grill and toast the first side until golden brown then turn and brown the second side. Set aside and leave the broiler on.
Return the soup to a simmer. Place six flameproof soup bowls, with about 1 ½ cups capacity on a baking sheet to catch any spills. Add the hot soup to the bowls and lay the cheese on top.
Place under the grill for a few minutes until the cheese bubbles, browns and forms a thick crust. Eat carefully the soup will be very hot.
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