Onion soup is one of the most distinctive and popular dishes of classic French cuisine – perfect for cold winter nights before a snooze in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine. It is a deliciously hearty dish that can easily be the main dish for a casual supper. Despite the modesty of its ingredients and relatively simple procedure, I find French onion soup the perfect dish to use as an excuse to call some good friends over. It appeals to all our senses, causing much appreciation at the table.
Although onion soup was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans, details on exactly how it was cooked have not survived. According to popular myth, French onion soup started with Louis XV who, while out hunting was dying for something to eat; however the only ingredients that were available at the hunting pavilion that afternoon, were butter, onions and champagne. The masterly combination of these ingredients is said to have created the first recipe, but this fun story is probably an attempt by the aristocracy to claim as their own, a recipe really originating in the hard-working poor neighbourhoods of Lyon.
The most authoritative version as to the origin of the classic French recipe seems to involve the ‘canuts’, who were silk workers in Lyons, and invented the basic dish because it was a nutritious, easy and economical meal using local ingredients which staved off hunger during their exhausting hours working at the looms. Besides, in France, the classic onion soup is called ‘soupe à l’oignon à la lyonnaise’. Judging by the ingredients and the taste, it is evident that the provincial capital of French gastronomy comfortably beats the bourgeois myth of Parisians to the claim of being the home of the recipe!
Although there are many variations of the classic French recipe, the three key features that made the onion soup famous all around the world are: (a) the caramelising of the onions which gives high sugar content, intensity of flavor and deep color, (b) the combination of the onions with beef stock, which creates a rich background offering wholesomeness and finally, (c) grilled croutons with Swiss cheese – mouth-watering from the first glance until the last spoonful. As a secondary ingredient there is always white wine (although there are recipes using red) and some versions with brandy or a combination of both. To enhance the flavour, thyme and bay leaf are used and many recipes add garlic to bring out the rustic character of the dish. No matter how you make it, though, as long as you succeed in caramelising the onions and making the crouton gratin, the end result will be truly memorable. This is true even though most of us compromise with shop-bought stock cubes rather than making our own homemade stock by boiling a few bones, a little beef, celery, carrots, onion and simmering for 3 hours, as we would if we followed the original, ideal and delicious execution of the recipe to the letter.
By the way, we have just celebrated our second ‘official’ birthday from when we obtained the domain name of pandespani on January 17, so please allow us to remember the person who inspired us to create this blog – Julia Child -whose expertise can be enjoyed in the preparation of the recipe of French onion soup in the original broadcast. Julia’s recipe is very close to ours below.
Preparation: 5-10 minutes to slice the onions and about 1 hour cooking time. Everything up until the final stage of making the gratin can be made hours earlier and reheated. You will need individual ceramic soup bowls. Easy recipe.
Ingredients (serve 4)
50 gr. butter
3 tbsp olive oil
800 g peeled white onions (about 8-10), cut into slices or rings 1 tsp sugar
2 tbsp flour
200 ml white wine
1 tsp thyme
1 bay leaf
2 lt. beef stock warm (if you don’t make your own, use only 1 cube per 2 litres of water to avoid overpowering the taste of the onions)
2 cloves garlic, chopped (optional)
30 ml. cognac, Armagnac or brandy (optional)
half baguette bread, cut into 8-12 slices 1 cm thick
100 gr. Swiss cheese (Emmenthal or Swiss), grated
Preheat oven to 160º degrees C.
Prepare the soup: On the stove, heat butter and oil in a large saucepan. Add the onions and stir every now and then, sautéing them for about 20 minutes over a low heat so that the water in the onions evaporates, but without them burning.
Make croutons: Place the slices of bread on a baking pan in the middle of the oven (for about 25 minutes if the bread is fresh) until well-toasted, so they can float in the soup as croutons and not go soggy as soon as they touch the soup. Turn them over every 8-10 minutes, keeping your eye on them while you complete the recipe. The slices do not need to brown but just become slightly golden and be perfectly dry. When done, remove them from the oven.
Finish cooking: After the first 20 minutes of sauteing, add the sugar and stir for about 5 minutes to get the onions caramelized and golden brown and tasty. (Note: Onions can get quite a lot darker than those in our photographs.). Add flour and stir for another 2-3 minutes. As the flour soaks up the liquid, immediately add the wine (and brandy if included) and leave for another 2-3 minutes until the liquid is reduced by about half and all the alcohol has evaporated, leaving only the flavour. Add the stock, thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper and garlic (if being included). Boil the soup for another 20-25 minutes (on a medium-low heat) and then withdraw from the stove for at least 10 minutes until the temperature of the soup drops (we don’t want it to boil while in the oven).
Note: Up to this stage, the onion soup can be made well in advance and warmed a short time before serving on a low heat setting before the last stage of making the gratin croutons.
Making the gratin topping: Preheat grill to 200 ° -220 º degrees C. Put the onion soup into individual ovenproof dishes, filling them quite full (the crouton gratin should sit above the level of the rim) and add 2-3 slices of the toasted bread to each bowl. Sprinkle them with the grated cheese. Place beneath the grill, on the high shelf of the oven and watch them for 4-6 minutes (depending on oven) until the cheese is melted and golden. Remove the hot dishes from the oven very carefully and transfer them to your table.
Serving: Ideally the French onion soup is served in special earthenware soup bowls with handles on the sides, but any china soup bowl can suit the rustic nature of the recipe, both functionally and stylistically. Accompany with a Beaujolais or a light and fruity red wine with fresh, lively character (eg young Agiorgitiko).
Because the dish is served hot (straight from the grill) and that excitement can result in a burned palate, it’s wise to warn your guests not to rush for that first mouthful too quickly! Bon Appétit, as Julia Child would say!
translated by Sophie Athanasiadis