Sunday, March 18, 2012

Julia's French Onion Soup

When your husband arrives at home with a huge bag of onions because they were on sale and nearly the same price as the three pound bag you asked for, what do you do?  French onion soup, for starters... or in this case the main course! 
The 'on sale' onions
come in 25 pound bags.
French onion soup has been a favorite in America since the 1960's when Julia Child drove the interest in French cuisine. She made the soup in her initial series on public TV, The French Chef, and since then Americans have loved this dish. However, way back in 1803 Susannah Carter published the first known American recipe for onion soup in The Frugal Housewife.
The Frugal Housewife
Complete Woman Cook.
Onion soup was also enjoyed by ancient Romans and Greeks, although the French onion soup (with the bread and cheese topping) we think of today originated in France in the 18th century. It is this version that Julia made so popular here in the USA and that I share with you today. I'm using the recipe that she published in Julia Child, The Way To Cook, which if you do not already have on your shelf, I highly recommend. It is the one cookbook I come back to time and again. She not only provides recipes in this wonderful book, but important master recipes and manufacturing notes that are extremely helpful in preparing individual recipes as well as improving your basic cooking techniques.  This recipe does not result with stringy, stretchy cheese you find in many restaurants, but one with much more flavor as it uses Gruyère, the famous Swiss cheese, and also dry French vermooth and Cognac or brandy (as opposed to wine) in the broth.

However, the single most important ingredient in a good French Onion soup is the beef broth.  So I suggest you take the time (about six hours of cooking time) to make this ahead and use it in the recipe.  Making stock is not difficult and well worth the time.  I start with raw beef bones such as the shank, neck and knuckle plus any raw scraps I have collected in the freezer.  If I have little on hand, I purchase an oxtail or two.  If you are making a large quantity (which I  suggest to make it worth your effort) do the following.

Beef Broth (made a day or more in advance)
Preheat the oven to 450F and arrange the bones and about 1/2 cup each of roughly chopped carrots, onion and celery in a roasting pan.  If the meat is not fatty, toss lightly with oil.  If it is fatty, do not oil but rather stir several times while cooking to coat the meat and vegetables.  Roast (uncovered) for 30-40 minutes.  Remove solids from the pan and discard the fat, placing the solids in a stock pot.  Place the roasting pan on the stove top and deglaze with two cups of water, scraping any solids from the pan bottoms/sides as the water boils.  Pour the liquid over the solids in the stock pot and add an additional carrot, onion and celery rib to the pot. You may also add a few garlic cloves and plum tomato if you prefer. An herb bouquet of your favorite seasonings should also be added to the pot.  Add additional water to cover the ingredients by about two inches.  Bring to the simmer on top of the stove; skim off and discard gray scum that will collect on the surface for several minutes.  Add 1-2 teaspoons of salt.  Cover and simmer, skimming off fat and scum occasionally, about 4-5 hours.  Strain the stock through a colander into a bowl, pressing juices out of the ingredients.  Degrease the stock and season lightly to taste.  Strain again, this time through a fine-meshed sieve into a clean pan or container for storage.

Julia's French Onion Soup Gratinéed
Plan to start cooking about four hours ahead of serving, or prepare the soup in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready for the gratinée (bread and cheese topping.)  If you want to speed up the process, you can consider this pressure cooker version of Julia's recipe.  This recipe makes about six dinner servings.

3 Tbs butter
1 Tbs olive oil
8 cups thinly sliced onions ( about 2 1/2 pounds)
1/2 tsp each salt and sugar (to help brown the onions)
2 Tbs flour
2 1/2 quarts homemade beef stock, 2 cups of which should be hot
4 to 5 Tbs Cognac, Armagnac, or other good brandy
1 cup dry white French vermouth

Special Equipment Suggested
A food processor with slicing blade or a hand slicer is useful for the onions; a heavy-bottomed 3-quart saucepan with cover for onion cooking and simmering.

Browning the onions--40 minutes.  Set the saucepan over moderate heat with the butter and oil; when the butter has melted, stir in the onions, cover the pan, and cook slowly until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes.  Blend in the salt and sugar, raise heat to moderately high, and let the onions brown, stirring frequently until they are a dark walnut color, 25-30 minutes. (Julian's note: Mine took less time to cook than noted here.) 

Simmering the soup.  Sprinkle in the flour and cook slowly, stirring, for another 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove from heat, let cool a moment, then whisk in 2 cups of hot stock.  When well blended, bring to the simmer, adding the rest of the stock, the Cognac or brandy, and the vermouth.  Cover loosely, and simmer very slowly 1 1/2 to 3 hours, adding a little water if the liquid reduces too much.  Correct seasoning.  The soup can be served as is or gratinéed.  (Julia's note:  For the most delicious results, you want a slow simmer of 2 3/4 to 3 hours.)

When onion soup is the main course, bake it in the oven with cheese and toasted French bread, and bring it all crusty and bubbling to the table.  A big salad, more bread and cheese, and fruit could finish the meal, accompanied by a bottle or two of fruity white wine, like sauvignon blanc or even gewürztraminer.

The previously toasted French bread remains crisp
even after 20 minutes of baking in the oven.
MANUFACTURING NOTE:  Be sure you have a homemade type of bread with a body here because flimsy loaves will disintegrate into a slimy mass. 

8-12 slices of toasted French bread
1 1/2 cups of Swiss Gruyere (half grated, half very thinly sliced) with a little grated Parmesan cheese

Lightly oil the French bread slices and bake at 425F for five minutes on each side.

Assembling and baking--about 30 minutes.  Preheat the oven to 425F and set the rack at the middle level.  Line the bottom of the serving dishes with half the slices of toasted French bread, and spread over them the sliced cheese.  Ladle on the hot onion soup and float over them a layer of toasted bread, topping with the grated cheese.  Sprinkle with a little Parmesan cheese.  Move immediately into the oven and bake 20 to 30 minutes, until the cheese has melted and browned nicely.  Serve as soon as possible-- if you dally too long, the toast topping may sink into the soup.

(Julian's note: In a convection oven it only takes about 15 minutes if you ladeled the soup in hot.  I do not think it is any longer common to have the bottom crouton in the soup and I have omitted it in my own version of this recipe.)

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