Jan 6, 2014

The Onion Soup Epiphany

I ate my first onion soup in a French restaurant in Rome called L'Eau Vive, an unusual place run by nuns and missionaries, located in a stunning Renaissance Palazzo.

Image © Whitecap.ca
It happened during a middle school French class field trip, and for some strange reason, the seating arrangement favored me to land at the popular girls' table. They were not cheerleaders, nor sports stars, these were all diplomat family kids, the majority of which well traveled and versed in international cuisine, and with a much broader cultural knowledge than expected of the average American 16-year-old.

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.

Bon appétit!

23 comments:

  1. I haven't made onion soup for ages. This will change. Thank you for reminding me!

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  2. Isn't it divine? I used to eat onion soup a lot in the late 70s and early 80s and then, here in Australia it went out of fashion. And I'd never made it myself, but last winter I did. I was swept away, it was so good. I'll try your recipe next time I make it. I should also find a way of inserting it into my Italian blog (The Good the Bad & the Italian).

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    1. I know, right? Onion soup's become a vintage dish... I'm so happy you stopped by.

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  3. I'll certainly forgive the trans-Alpine transgression! I adore onion soup,a good French one, if I do say so myself. Those long cooked onions and rich beef stock are perhaps the prime example of something that is more than the sum of its parts. Buon anno a te!

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  5. Ciao vengo dal blog di Chiara, piacere di conoscerti.
    La zuppa di cipolle è una delle mie preferite, adoro molto le cipolle.

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    1. Ciao Francesca, grazie d'essere passata! Chiara è un tesoro ha detto cose così gentili!
      Spero di vederti presto da queste parti :)

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  6. Adoro la zuppa di cipolle!!! Ho visto il tuo blog dalla Chiara e sono subito corsa!!!
    Complimenti

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    1. Wow, troppo gentile, grazie! Spero ti piacciano le mie ricette casalinghe :)
      A presto

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  7. Ciao Eleonora.. arrivo diretta dal blog di Chiara!!!! Complimenti per tutto ciò che hai fatto e fai! Chiara ha spiegato tutto dettagliatamente che non potevo non passare a conoscere te e il tuo blog! Buonissima questa zuppa nascosta dalla crosta del formaggio.. ne immagino il sapore..E per dirlo io.. che non è che amo moltissimo i piatti francesi! baciotti

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    1. Grazie Claudia! Nemmeno io sono una fan della ricca cucina francese, ma questa è troppo buona, e come racconto nel post, radicata nella mia memoria sensoriale :)
      A presto

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  8. Ciao carissima piacere di conoscerti, anch'io arrivo dal blog di Chiara, ti faccio i complimenti per questa bellissima ricetta! Ciao e buona serata

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    1. Grazie cara Mariangela! In settimana passo a trovarti sul tuo blog! Nel frattempo ti auguro un goloso weekend!!

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  9. sono felice che le le mie amiche siano passate a trovarti, lo scopo della rubrica è proprio allargare le proprie conoscenze condividendo passioni ed interessi e il tuo blog( anzi i tuoi blog) sono davvero bellissimi, a presto !

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    1. Chiara, non so come ringraziarti per questa magnifica opportunità che mi hai dato di conoscere tante, nuove realtà nel panorama del food blogging italiano!! Non vedo l'ora di farmi un giro su tutti i blog delle ragazze che mi sono venute a fare un saluto dal tuo!
      Un abbraccio :)

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  10. Ciao Eleonora, arrivo anc'hio dal blog di Chiara, complimenti per questa ricetta e tutti i tuoi favolosi post. Buona serata Daniela.

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    1. Ciao Daniela, sono io che ringrazio te delle belle parole e della visita! A prestissimo :)

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  11. Anch'io arrivo dal blog di Chiara e sono molto contenta di essere arrivata in questo bellissimo blog, complimenti anche per questa favolosa zuppa di cipolle.
    A presto

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    1. Carla, qui sarai sempre la benvenuta, quindi grazie della visita e ancora grazie a Chiara che lo ha reso possibile!!

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  12. Nothing beats a good onion soup in cold weather! I loved one of the details that Jamie Oliver had in his version of onion soup: he mixes different types of onions, including red onions, white onions, banana shallot and leek. Plus a bit of sage.

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    1. That's a good idea, about mixing types! I wonder if the shallot tilts it on the garlicky side though. Sage sounds brilliant!

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