We were making pizza two Sundays ago – or rather, Hubby was rescuing the pizza making effort from my ham handed start – and I asked him if he liked French onion soup. Deeming it best to remove me from any dough activities (kneading, punching down, rolling), he had instructed me to take care of toppings, one of which was caramelized onions.
“Yeah, I love French onion soup,” he answered, trying not to snicker as he removed the crusty top off the dough that I had placed to rise in a too warm oven. Pizza is problematic for me. I do not like to eat it anywhere except at home; and then I do not like anyone’s pizza but Hubby’s – not even, and especially not my own. My friends very kindly eat and praise the pizza I have made for them; but in absence of having eaten Hubby’s pizza, they are kind only in their ignorance. You would think that water, yeast, flour and salt would be easy to put together, yes? But though I can make a crispy French baguette, tasty pastries, and lovely little cakes, pizza dough is beyond me. Let me put it to you this way: we once used one of my failed doughs to play softball in the house, Emil (at the time not yet Hubby) playing catcher and teaching me to pitch with the water-flour-yeast-and-salt blob; and when the dough doubled in volume after 30 minutes of catch, we switched to playing soccer, kicking the dough back and forth like a hackeysack until it became too unwieldy (and began to hurt when it smacked against our bare legs and feet). This was after I had previously served him a pizza crust so thin he noted, "Honey, if we cut this crust into stars, we can use them as shuriken (Japanese throwing stars)."
“I love the fall,” I said, happily stirring the browning onions. “Comfort food time.”
“Baby, why is there so much dough?”
“Oh. I doubled the recipe. That’s six cups of flour.”
“And it made sense to you to put it this bowl to rise?” He pointed at the vessel which for all intents and purposes was little more than a cereal bowl.
I love the fall; the colors, the smells, the sounds. I love the way I can smell firewood burning in busy chimneys as I walk a street; I love the sound of the leaves crunching beneath my feet. I love that the stupid birdie who hangs outside my window doesn’t wake me up with his maniacal chirping at 6 am. I love the rusty colors in the yard, and the mahogany leaves on the Japanese maple. I’ve been in Georgia too long: fall’s nice here, but I miss the sensory overload of a fall like the ones I grew up with in Arlington, Virginia. And Hubby yearns for the autumn of his New York youth. He’s taking me to Vermont next month for our fall vacation; I cannot wait.
But most of all, I love the foods that come with autumn: rich, warm, soothing meals; risottos, soups and purées, braised meats so tender they fall off the bone, and lush pot pies. Mmmmmm...
I have two recipes for French onion soup. The first is the one I grew up with, the one that my mother made when we were little. It’s the recipe by which I judge all other French onion soups – and the standard by which all others fail; I am too used to the distinct flavors of her soup. The second recipe is based on Scott Peacock’s Caramelized Onion Purée. He hasn’t made the dish in several years; and I never thought to ask him for the recipe. Chef Peacock heads up the kitchen at Watershed, one of my favorite restaurants in Decatur. I call him the God of Soups. His soups are mesmerizing – straightforward and Southern comfort, but always with a clever twist. The caramelized onion purée is his take on French onion soup.
The problem with French onion soup nowadays is that it’s ubiquitous. It’s become fast food. It’s widely available, but never (unless I am in Paris) made correctly: it’s usually oversalted, cloudy, lacking any depth or richness, with limp white onion strips, topped with mushy bread and stringy cheese that has congealed into an inedible globule. Raise your hand if you have had to do battle with the greasy cheese ball in your soup.
The trick to French onion soup for me is that it can’t be rushed. The onions need to be caramelized slowly, in a heavy pot, and the stock is best when it’s homemade.
Sure, it can take a while to make the stock. But wouldn’t you rather have a bowl of perfectly clear consommé than a murky out-of-the-can beef broth? Of course you can take a short cut and make it with a high quality ready-made stock (or if you’re lucky and you live in a city where certain restaurants sell their freshly made beef stock you can buy some) – but making stock can be fun. Really.
Then you slice the onions –oh how lovely to have Vidalia onions nearby – into nice, thin little strips and let them get soft and brown and sweet in the pot; temper with a little Madeira, pour in that stock, add a splash of Cognac for that essential kick, and ladle the soup into a heavy crock. Get some crusty bread from a great bakery, toast it slighty and top with high quality Gruyère cheese, broil a few minutes and voilà; soupe a l’oignon as it should be made and eaten.
And Chef Peacock's soup is pure, rich comfort food. A smooth, velvety sweet onion soup swirled with cream. Just take those caramelized onions, puree them in the stock, then strain and finish with a dollop of crème fraiche. Add a couple of toasted croutons, some chives or parsley for a green touch, and you're good to go...
Perfect soups for the fall.
French Onion Soup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large Spanish or Vidalia onions, thinly sliced
1 T sugar
¼ cup Madeira
8 cups homemade beef stock
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 T Cognac
Day old crusty baguette, sliced 1 inch thick
2 cups fresh grated Gruyère cheese
Melt the butter in a large, heavy saucepan. When it stops foaming, add the onions and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, making sure the onions are coated with butter. Stir in the sugar. It will take about 15 minutes for the onions to soften and start to brown – be vigilant; make sure to keep stirring to prevent burning. Add the Madeira and stir until the alcohol has evaporated. Cook the onions a further 10 minutes more; the onions should be dark brown.
Add the stock to the saucepan and increase the heat to high. Bring the soup to a rolling boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the onions are tender and the soup is infused. Add the Cognac, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Toast the baguette slices in the oven or a toaster oven.
Preheat the broiler. Arrange ovenproof bowls (why oh why didn’t I steal Mom’s onion soup crocks?) on a baking sheet. Divide the soup among the bowls, top each with a bread slice and cover the bread with the cheese. Broil for 1 to 2 minutes, until the cheese is golden and bubbling. Serve. Be careful: the soup will be very hot.
Caramelized Onion Purée
This is not Chef Peacock's recipe; this is my homage to his, based on what I like.
3 cups caramelized onions (above)
2 cups homemade beef stock
3 T Cognac
1/4 cup heavy cream
chopped parsley, for garnish
salt and pepper to taste
2 slices of day old bread, cut into cubes
3 T olive oil
1 t nutmeg
Follow the instructions above to make the caramelized onions. Heat the stock in a small saucepan over medium low heat.
Add the onions to a food processor or blender and purée with 1 1/2 cup of stock until smooth. Add more stock for a more liquid purée. Strain the purée through a chinois or fine mesh strainer. Return the puree to the saucepan over low heat. Add Cognac. Stir in the heavy cream. Season to taste.
Toss the bread cubes with the olive oil and nutmeg. Toast in the oven or toaster oven until crisp and lightly brown.
Ladle into warm bowl, top with a dollop of crème fraiche and nutmeg croutons. Garnish with parsley.