With all these easy meals I tend to make when things get really hectic and stressed I seem to forget how nice it is to actually get into the kitchen and cook up something that takes time and care; a little looking after. Things that make the house smell wonderful and really impress those you serve even if it is only myself and M. When I am in my kitchen diligently chopping and slicing, stirring and testing everything else seems to just slip away. I guess you could call it my therapy; my form of meditation. I have decided that I need more of that. I need to just relax and make something yummy! With that in mind and the cold, snowy weather I set my eyes on making a traditional slow cooked French Onion Soup. I know it doesn’t sound like much but it can be really therapeutic. What with all the slicing of the onions that comes with a good cry, the slow, gentle caramelization of the onions that invokes a great deal of patience; you cannot rush that. Then the release of deglazing the pan with its sudden and exciting burst of steam! Then the slow and methodical simmering to make sure everything comes together just right! Let us not forget toasting a hearty slice of baguette making sure not to burn it and all the satisfaction of melting the cheese just right so it is just slightly brown and perfectly melty as it sits atop the lovenly cared for soup, I mean who needs a shrink right? Well lets get right to it so you too can have a little kitchen therapy!
2 lbs. sweet onions sliced (give or take)
3 T. butter
1 T. honey (or a sprinkle of sugar but I like the taste of the honey)
1/4 cup Cognac (or brandy)
1 T. flour
1 cup of dry white wine
2.5 cups chicken broth or stock
2.5 cups beef broth or stock
2 bay leaves
2-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
salt and pepper – liberally
1 Fresh or stale baguette sliced think
1 – 2 cups of Gruyere or Emmenthal cheese, sliced or grated (I like sliced)
1/2 clove of fresh whole garlic
Spinkling of fresh thyme leave for garnish
First you start out by slicing all those onions. You will have what seems to be an exorbinant amount! You can take your time and slice each onion meticulously, this will really induce a good a cry! Or you can do what I did and employ the use of your handy Mandolin or V-Slicer. It makes quick work of those onions but be careful not to slice your finger, pain is not therapeutic!
When finished you should have a pile that looks something like this.
Now in a large dutch oven melt 2 T. of the butter until just foamy over medium heat then add the onions to the pot making sure to stir completely and coat all the onions with the melted butter. As soon as the onions begin to turn slightly transparent you can add the honey and some salt. Again, stir to coat and melt the honey. Turn the heat to medium low and begin to caramelize the onions, stirring from time to time to redistribute the onions. This will take a good while, about 45 minutes to and hour; trust me it is worth every minute. Don’t forget to check in on them, you don’t want anything to burn!
When you have successfully caramelized the onions you should have something that looks like this; isn’t that beautiful!
Once you have reached this stage the fun begins. Cognac has a way of bringing out the fun in things doesn’t it? Ok, now increase the heat to medium high and as soon as the pot comes to temp (it will be quick), with flat edge wooden spoon in hand poor in the Cognac and immediately begin scraping up all the good bits from the bottom of the pot. Continue to do this until the Cognac has almost completely evaporated. You can reduce heat again to medium and throw in the last T. of butter. As soon as that melts sprinkle in the flour and completely stir to combine. Cook the flour, butter and onion mixture for at least 1 -2 minutes, you don’t want a flour taste in the finished product. Now you can add your liquids. First start with the white wine. Let that cook down a little before adding the rest of the liquid. This helps to concentrate the flavors. I know it seems like a pain but trust me these little things make a big difference. Now add the remaining 5 cups of liquid, the bay leaves, thyme, pepper and test for salt; depending on your stock/broth you may need more, less, none. Give a good stir to combine and bring to simmer. Now lower the flame and gently simmer for a minimum of 1 hour, if you have more time you can on very low heat simmer for up to 3. It tastes great now but if you leave it overnight and reheat the next day it is even better! Don’t forget before serving take out the bay leaves and the remaining twigs from the thyme.
Now for something completely different!
Slice your baguette in either thick rounds or on the bias depending on your serving bowl for the soup. You want enough bread to cover 90% of the bowl (give or take). Place bread slices under the broiler till just turning a light gold. Take out and scrape the toasted bread with the fresh garlic half. Now this is not traditional but I think it adds a nice subtle hint of garlic.
Ok, now you have a choice. You can ladle out the soup in your oven proof serving vessels, place the croutons on top and layer the cheese on the soup covering the bowl then broil until all is bubbly and slightly browned. This looks great and is very traditional. However, it creates VERY hot dishes and can be not the easiest to serve. Not to mention you have to tell everyone that the bowls are hot and then they will all have to touch them; ‘cos of course you are a liar! Then you will be treating burn victims and by the time you get to your soup it will be cold! Ok maybe that is an exaggeration but it could happen! Just to be safe and prevent anything like that from happening I place the toasted croutons on a cookie sheet sprayed with oil and generously layer on the cheese making sure to get some around the edges so that when it melt it will fall down the sides like a skirt. Then place back in the broiler. Meanwhile I ladle out the soup in my bowls and just as the cheesy croutons are done and all melty and wonderful I scrape them up, cheese skirt and all and place them on top of the soup. Garnish with some torn thyme leave and you are good to serve. No bowl burns here! And trust me it looks just as impressive!
Now I know this is a bit time consuming but it truly is one of the best winter comfort, elegant, impressive, and down right tasty soups going! You can serve this as a starter to a beautiful multi-course dinner party or like we did along side a fresh hot roast beef sandwich on a cold winters night! And the best part, the longer it sits in the fridge the better it gets! But it won’t last that long! Oh and it freezes well too, how convenient!