Saturday, September 17, 2011

French Onion Soup

Fall has dramatically descended upon North Carolina.  On Thursday the temperature was 92 and on Friday the high temperature was 62!  After months of relentless sunshine and 90+ temperatures, the skies are gloriously cloudy and grey and rainy!  Everyone is thrilled to pull out sweaters and cardigans, and I am in the mood for French food.  So yesterday I decided to spend the afternoon in the kitchen making Julia Child's French onion soup.
This soup is the essence of simplicity.  It is rich and elegant and comforting.  It is not something you can just throw together in 30 minutes, but instead it requires time and patience to coax the maximum flavor from the ingredients.  Thankfully it doesn't involve a great deal of difficult techniques, just your time.
I recommend finding the best french bread you can find for this dish.  For me that meant a trip to La Farm bakery in Cary, North Carolina.  La Farm is owned and operated by bread superstar Lionel Vatinet.

"Lionel Vatinet’s passion for bread was first nurtured when he joined France’s prestigious artisans’ guild Les Compagnons du Devoir as an apprentice at age 16. Emerging 7 years later with the distinguished and hard-earned title of Maitre Boulanger (Master Baker), Vatinet pledged to devote his life to teaching, sharing and preserving the ancient art and science of bread baking.  Among Vatinet’s achievements, his participation with Team USA at France’s competition La Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in 1999 is one of his most proud; the American team earned the Gold Medal for the fist time ever at this International Olympic style baking competition."

I made a few adjustments to Julia's recipe (I slightly increased the amount of onions), but mainly adhered to her meticulous directions.  The key is to very, very slowly brown the onions in butter in order to coax the release and caramelization of the natural sugars.  Too high of a temperature will burn the butter and singe the onions making the soup bitter. The result was fantastic! 

If you can find it, try to use real French Gruyere cheese for the gratinee.  Yes it will make your house smell like old socks, but the flavor is incomparable! 

Serve this with a simple green salad and plenty of extra bread for dipping into the soup...perfect for a cool rainy fall evening. Bon appetit!

French Onion Soup
Serves 6

2 lbs yellow or Vidalia onions sliced thinly
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp granulated sugar
3 Tbsp flour
2 quarts good quality beef stock 
1/2 cup dry white vermouth
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup Cognac

1 baguette, cut into 1/2 inch slices
1/2 lb Gruyere cheese grated (Swiss cheese can be substituted)

In a large heavy pot, melt the 4Tbsp butter over medium heat.  Add onions and toss to coat with melted butter.  Cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes (this "poaches" the onions in butter and causes them to sweat).

 The onions after "poaching in butter" for 15 minutes.

Remove the lid and add salt and sugar to onions. Increase the heat a tiny bit above medium, and cook the onions, uncovered for 45 minutes, stirring frequently until the onions are a deep and even gold color.  DO NOT increase the temperature to speed this process along unless you like a bitter burnt onion soup.

Delicious, slowly-caramelized onions fill the house with an amazing fragrance!

Ten minutes before the onions are finished caramelizing, heat the beef stock to boiling.

When the onions are caramelized, add the flour and stir to coat. Remove from heat and add boiling stock and vermouth.  Whisk briefly to break up any flour clumps.  Return soup to medium high heat, and cover partially with a lid and allow soup to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Adjust seasoning with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.  At this point the soup can rest, off heat until ready to serve.

One hour before serving, preheat oven to 325.  Place baguette slices on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for 15 minutes, then flip slices and toast an additional 15 minutes until bread is completely dry.

Bring soup back to a simmer, and add cognac.  Ladle soup into oven-proof bowls, leaving about 1/2 inch space at the top.  Float dried bread slices on top of soup and top with grated cheese.  Place soup bowls on a baking sheet and bake 20 minutes until cheese is melted.  Turn oven setting to broil, and broil until cheese is bubbling and golden.  Serve immediately with lots of sliced french bread.

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