Something Special for a Cold Winter’s Day
On Wednesday, the first snow day of the week, I woke up motivated, energized, and ready to attack something. I couldn’t head outside, obviously, so I threw myself into the kitchen and got going on my completely unnecessary recipe for the month.
I have long had something of a French onion soup obsession. If it’s on the menu at a restaurant I’ve never been to before, I cannot resist ordering it – one never knows where a good soup may be found. However, out of all the other restaurants – chains, specialty, family-owned, small or large – that I have ever ordered it from, there are only two that offered a soup worth ordering again.
At Rembrandt’s down in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, I have found French onion soup nirvana. They make it with red wine and it is truthfully one of the most delicious, decadent and rich things that has ever made it past my lips.
The second soup, unfortunately, was at a restaurant I can’t recall the name of nor remember where it was. No, I was not drunk or otherwise hallucinating. My husband’s best childhood friend and his wife invited us to meet them at a small diner somewhere in the Lehigh Valley lost in the shuffle between my in-laws, their in-laws, and our respective homes and the instant I ordered the soup, I regretted it, expecting something powdery from a box, but ended up with the most perfect simplified version of French onion soup imaginable.
These moments of discovery give hope, but my latest restaurant soup escapade was at a local family restaurant and the soup suddenly was so disappointing, so frustrating with its boiled, not caramelized onions and its over-slathering of cheese that desperately hoped to compensate for the weak broth that I realized the time had come to try to make it myself. If I could make a perfect soup in my own kitchen, whenever I wanted, those indefinite periods of time between blissful tastings of an unexpectedly delicious soup would be a bit more bearable.
I decided to start with my two most revered cooking reliabilities, Julia Child and Smitten Kitchen. Gloriously for me, Deb from Smitten Kitchen’s recipe actually was Julia Child’s, so I took this as a sign and started in on this recipe yesterday morning when the soup world felt as if it was mine for the taking.
And in the end? It was heavenly. It was everything that French onion soup should be – rich, salty, tangy, sugary. I chose to use sweet onions and they caramelized beautifully and almost-but-not-quite disintegrated in the broth; the chardonnay and brandy added that edge of decadence.
My only regret was not having a stronger cheese to accompany it. I toasted whole wheat baguette with butter and mozzarella to float in the bowls; but the mozzarella was too bland to properly set off the flavors of the soup. Next time I’ll be sure to have a strong swiss or gruyere to top the soup with.
Soupe a l’Oignon [Onion Soup]
5-7 cups of thinly sliced onions
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar (JC/SK only call for 1/4 tsp but I had a lot of onions)
3 tablespoons flour
8 cups boiling beef broth
3/4 cup dry white wine (JC/SK calls for 1/2 cup, but I upped it because I wanted the flavor stronger and it was perfect)
salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons brandy
croutons, or toasted french bread
1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese (SK suggests, rightly, using gruyere)
Cook the onions over medium-low heat, stirring infrequently, with the butter and oil in the covered saucepan for 15 minutes.
Uncover (do not allow condensation to drain back into pan), raise heat to medium-medium-high, and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 45 stirring occasionally, until the onions have caramelized.
Sprinkle the flour and stir for three minutes avoiding clumping.
Remove from heat and add the boiling broth. Add the wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Taste and add more salt/pepper as necessary; but remember that a strong cheese and the brandy will add more of a salty flavor once added.
Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Serve with croutons and cheese or gratinee under the boiler in individual ovenproof soup bowls if desired.