Saturday, September 11, 2010
There's a little crisp in the air, and my mind turns to thoughts of soup.
My very first "major" cooking experience (i.e., planned out, shopped for, from a cookbook) was French Onion Soup, cooked from the recipe in "Easy Basics for Good Cooking" (1988 edition), a Sunset tome that I have used so much the pages are broken into a half-dozen chunks separated from the paperback cover (Thank you to Jeanne, who passed away not so long ago; her inscription with the gift was "Bon Appetit, XOXOXO"). The recipe for this does not appear to be available online, and I'll share it here only if y'all demand.
Tonight, however, I went with the recipe from "Cooking" by James Peterson, as follows (all rights reserved back to the authors). This is the first time I've made French onion soup in a long time, but the husband may be the biggest onion lover ever, so I'm not sure what took me so long to get back to it.
French Onion Soup
Makes 6 cups or 6 first-course servings
5 pounds onions, preferably red Bermuda type, sliced as thinly as possible
3 tablespoons butter, plus six tablespoons (optional)
1 cup dry sherry or medium-sweet Madeira
1 cup water
1 quart broth, preferably brown beef, chicken or turkey
6 slices dense-crumb white bread, crusts removed and cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 cups grated hard cheese such as Gruyere, Gouda or Fontina (about 7 ounces)
In a heavy-bottomed pan large enough to hold the soup, cook the onions in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat, stirring for about 10 minutes or until they release some of their liquid. Raise the heat to high and cook, stirring often, for about 30 minutes or until the liquid runs dry and caramelizes on the bottom of the pot and the onions are melted into a compact tangled mass. Keep a close eye on the onions as they cook so that the liquid doesn't run dry before it should and cause the onions to stick.
Add the sherry and water, bring to a boil, and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to dissolve the browned-on juices, until the liquid is reduce by about half. Add the broth, season to taste, and simmer.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the bread cubes on a sheet pan and toast in the oven, turning them every few minutes, for about 15 minutes or until browned on all sides.
Return the soup to a simmer if it has cooled. Put 6 soup crocks on a sheet pan (so the soup doesn't overflow onto your oven floor). Ladle the broth and onions into the crocks. Using half the bread cubes, spread them evenly among the crocks. Top with half the cheese. Spread the remaining bread cubes on top, and then the rest of the cheese. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until boiling broth starts to drip down the sides of the crocks.
OK. I did that, except with a half recipe. I was kind of disappointed.
There were several issues that I had with this soup that I don't remember having with the "Easy Basics" recipe.
The husband sliced the onions on a mandoline (awesome tool, but I made him do it because I'm super-sensitive to the onion nerve gas), but there were *so many* of them...the final soup, paying attention to the proportions and timing, ended up more like stew than soup. Onion noodles, the husband said, trying to describe the overall texture (he also suggested, entirely facetiously, that we add gummibears for texture). So I suggest adding more broth. We also used chicken broth, because we had it, but beef really makes a world of difference.
I used challah bread for the croutons, because it was taunting me from my bread basket, and I now regret that. It's too light, toasts to quickly, and absorbs the liquid from the soup too quickly. Take my advice and don't use challah bread.
I went for Rembrant brand extra-aged gouda, because the portion in the grocery store was fairly small (read: cheap) and I know I like the flavor of aged gouda on its own. Not the best choice, honestly. Either I didn't use enough of it when baking or it was the wrong kind of cheese, but it just kinda dried up and toasted brown over the croutons instead of creating that *amazing* cheese crust that the best French onion soups have. I added a pre-cut provolone slice over the top when it didn't look like things were going to turn out well, and that helped, but it still wasn't gooey awesomeness. Oh bubbling cheese-y awesomeness, how I love thee.
Third, there wasn't a great depth of flavor. I added four bay leaves with the chicken stock, and you could definitely taste them in the soup, but they were basically part of the same flavor profile as the onions, rather than being a good first-flavor or last-flavor. In tasting at the table, I thought mustard seeds or chipotle might help fill out the flavor profile, and I'll try that next time.
So. I hate to say it, but Sunset got it right this time, and James Peterson got it wrong. Unless I am misremembering my original French onion soup cooking experience (which is possible; I was inordinately proud of myself, and my parents reinforced that) or I did something bad by halving the recipe (which is possible; the width of the pan base could alter how the onions cook or the broth cooks off), I'm going back to Sunset next time.