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These young women were the ones who introduced me nonchalantly to soupe à l'oignon gratinée. And it was during that epiphanic meal – when my spoon first cracked through the bubbled cheese crust, plunging past the toasted bread, and into the supple onion velvet – that I understood this to be a major turning point in my gourmand learning.
Our French class teacher Madame Moraglia, whose idea it was to go visit a restaurant instead of another French cultural establishment, further fueled this cathartic moment by suggesting which vintage Bourgogne paired best with the delight in our plates, teaching us about the textured and creamy wine and how it mirrored the soup's mouthfeel. I remember distinctly seeing her nod at the smiling Congolese Carmelite server, prompting she pour each of us a drop, in order to savor the complete françoise dining experience. All part of education.
This opened my eyes, and allowed a glimpse into what the real pleasures of life ahead were going to be. I will always be thankful to Mme Moraglia, to Allison and the other girls at my table for contributing to my culinary enlightenment.
Every time I wish to replicate the joy of that unique coming-of-age episode, I make onion soup. This is the recipe I have perfected over the years, through trial and error. This dish is uniquely French, so for today, you'll forgive this little non-Italian digression as we will fly past the Alps, and land in baguette territory.
Ingredients for 4
500 g (1.1 lbs) yellow onions, thinly sliced
1/2 stick butter
2-3 tbsp all-purpose flour, sifted
2 tbsp dry sherry
A pinch of salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 liter (1 quart) boiling hot beef stock (a vegetarian version of this soup can be made with broth made with carrots, leeks, celery, potatoes, pumpkin or squash, etc.)
1 glass of whole milk
8 slices of crusty French bread, toasted
250 g (2 cups) Emmenthal, Gruyère or Swiss cheese, shredded
Preheat oven, setting it on broiler to high.
Cooking brings out the onion's nutty, mellow, often sweet, quality through caramelization. So this will be the first step. Melt 2 tbps of butter in a large pan and gently sautée the onions until translucent and golden. Careful, though: high heat makes onions bitter, so when simmering, always use low heat.
Sift in the flour and stir with a wooden spoon to avoid clumps. Season with a pinch or two of salt and a turn of the pepper mill. Splash in the sherry and deglaze the pot.
Pour in the hot vegetable broth and a glass of whole milk, and cook on low heat for about 30-40 minutes. This gentle, slow cooking will make the onion structure fall apart, but not completely, so if you're uncomfortable with the texture of onions, you can throw the soup in the blender and give it a couple of spins. Keep the soup hot while you assemble the servings. If you see it is too liquid, crank up the heat and absorb a little bit of the broth.
Butter the bottom of individual ovenproof baking crocks or ramekins (my cocottes are earthenware and with 2-inch high rims) and divide the onion soup ladling it in each bowl almost to the brim. Gently float 1 or 2 slices of toasted bread on each, and then sprinkle the surface with enough shredded cheese to cover completely.
Arrange your filled bowls on a cookie sheet, and broil in the oven for 10 minutes (time depends greatly on oven power) or until the surface of is completely au gratin, that is when a golden, bubbly cheese crust forms.
Serve immediately along with goblets in which icy Bourgogne Chitry blanc has been poured. A valid alternative can also be a chilled bottle of Côtes du Rhône blanc.