Few things are more promising than a piping-hot bowl of French onion soup placed before you on a brisk day, its fragrant liquid beneath a toasted raft topped with golden cheese that will soon be stringing from your mouth.
I decided to work through what it takes to make a soul-satisfying version. Onions became the focal point of my tinkering with other cold-weather classics, including croque monsieur, baked stuffed onions and a savory tart.
The soup has three make-or-break components: broth, onions, cheese. An excellent rendition is layered with flavor and nuance. It starts with an excellent stock; without it, your soup will be average, at best.
You will notice that when you cook onions, they become sweet and remain acrid at the same time, and their odor lingers for quite a while. That is because they contain a good amount of sulfur. When you cut onions, cells are crushed, releasing the sulfuric gas that induces tears that burn. I have no special trick for avoiding the problem, although I certainly have tried more than a few. Just power through the process – and use a food processor for slicing.
The goal in caramelizing onions is to get some color, and, therefore, flavor, on them quickly and cook them long enough to get rid of their water (10 cups of raw will reduce to barely 2 cups cooked) and deepen their flavor.
To that end, I place a large saute pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, I spread the onions in the pan and don’t touch them for several minutes so their moisture starts to evaporate. Then, I add fat and still let them be for several minutes, until I notice that caramelization has begun. At that point, I season, stir, reduce the heat and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring and scraping up browned bits from the bottom every so often. Result: deeply browned strands of concentrated flavor and sweetness.
Into a pot they go with the stock for simmering and melding, fortified with bay leaves and finished with port wine and fresh, chopped thyme. Adding those ingredients too soon diminishes their impact greatly.
Gruyere, a firm cow’s-milk cheese from Switzerland, is the standard for onion soup because of its distinctive nutty notes. But I found that a mixture of cheeses provided more complexity and interest. Plus, when Gruyere browns, it can leave a bitter aftertaste. After experimenting, I settled on semi-soft fontal, a melty and much less-expensive Italian cheese, which added the creamy note I sought. I also tried, and rejected, combinations with raclette and fontina.
Along with the addition of caramelized onions, mixing cheeses made the difference in my version of croque monsieur. In addition to the fontal/Gruyere mix, I included a layer of camembert. Remember, it‘s all about layering the flavors — even for a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich.
To build the sandwich, use soft butter on the outsides of bread slices and Dijon mustard on the insides for a nice acid note. Toast the sandwich over medium heat in a saute pan on both sides. If you rush it, it will toast before it cooks in the middle. For browning the cheese topping, use the upper third of the oven to broil.
Deli hams contain a lot of water. To ensure the sandwich would not be soggy, I microwaved the ham portions briefly between paper towels and blotted them before adding them.
While I was putting all this together, I eyed the sliced ham, Mornay sauce and caramelized onions sitting on the counter and had a light-bulb moment. Using scraps left over from making two pies that day, I rolled out a third crust and blind-baked it in a 9-inch tart pan.
I covered the baked shell with the onions, topped them with ham and Mornay sauce and broiled what became a gooey, onion-soup-meets-croque-monsieur tart. A small slice makes a perfect winter first course; a larger one with a simple green salad is entree-worthy.
French Onion Soup 1 baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 pounds (4 medium) yellow onions, peeled, halved and sliced into 1/4-inch half-moons
4 large fresh bay leaves
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
Ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
8 cups homemade veal, beef, chicken stock or smoked chicken stock
cup port (can substitute Madeira, sherry or dry vermouth)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
2 cups grated fontal cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Spread baguette slices in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until lightly brown and hard.
Heat a large saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Spread the onions evenly in the pan, along with 2 of the bay leaves, and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes. (The goal is to let some of the onion’s moisture evaporate and to get some good color on the onions at the start. Once you stir, water will be released, and the caramelizing will end until that water evaporates.)
Stir onions, using a flat-edged wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let onions cook, stirring often, for 20-25 minutes, until caramelized.
Transfer the onions to a large pot and add the 2 remaining bay leaves, the onion powder and the stock. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and let the soup cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat to keep it at a very slow boil.
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the broiler to high. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place 8 onion soup crocks on it.
Stir the port and thyme into the hot soup, and ladle it into the crocks, stopping a half-inch short of their rims. Discard bay leaves. Float 2-3 slices of baguette on top: You want to cover the surface of the soup without the bread overlapping. Combine the Gruyere and fontal cheese in a small bowl. Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the cheese mixture over the toasts in each crock and broil for 3-4 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and well browned. Serve immediately.
Nutrition per serving: 440 calories, 21 g protein, 29 g carbohydrates, 25 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 95 mg cholesterol, 670 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar Oniony Three-Cheese Croque-Monsieur For the onions:
1/2 pound (1 medium) yellow onion, peeled, halved and sliced into 1/4-inch half-moons
1 small fresh bay leaf
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into 4 cubes
Ground black pepper
For the Mornay sauce:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A few grates of fresh nutmeg or 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup warm milk
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
For the sandwiches:
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated Fontal cheese
8 slices country bread, about 1/2-inch thick
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
4 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1/2 cup caramelized onions
6 ounces Camembert cheese, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
8 ounces very thinly sliced Virginia or Black Forest ham (see headnote)
1 cup Mornay sauce
For the onions: Heat a large saute pan over medium heat for several minutes. Spread the onions evenly in the pan, along with the bay leaf, and let them sit untouched for a couple of minutes. Drizzle the oil evenly over them and dot with butter. Do not stir them for several minutes. (The goal is to let some of the onion’s moisture evaporate and to get some good color on the onions at the start. Once you stir, water will be released, and the caramelizing will end until that water evaporates.)
Stir onions, using a flat-edged wooden spoon to scrape up all the browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let onions cook, stirring often, for 20-25 minutes, until they are golden brown and nicely caramelized. The yield is about 1/2 cup.
For the Mornay sauce: Heat the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat until it bubbles. Whisk in the flour, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and cook for 2-3 minutes, to create a nutty-brown roux. Slowly whisk in the milk, beating constantly to prevent lumps. Cook the sauce for 2-3 minutes, until well thickened and bubbling. Remove from the heat and add the cheese, stirring until it is melted. The yield is about 11/4 cups.
For the sandwiches: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the broiler to high. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Combine the Gruyere and Fontal cheeses in a small bowl.
Completely cover each slice of bread with butter on one side and mustard on the other side. Place 4 of the slices in a large nonstick skillet, buttered side down. Top each slice with 2 tablespoons of caramelized onions, Camembert slices, ham slices and 1/4 cup of the grated cheese mixture. Top each with a slice of bread, buttered side up.
Cook the sandwiches over medium heat until golden brown, 5-7 minutes, lightly pressing down on them with a spatula to ensure even toasting.
Carefully turn the sandwiches over and toast them on the second side until golden brown, 4-6 minutes. Transfer the sandwiches to the baking sheet and spread about 1/4 cup of Mornay sauce over each one. Broil for 3-4 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and nicely browned. Serve right away.
Nutrition per half sandwich: 410 calories, 19 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 950 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugarMakes 8 servings Source: David Hagedorn Makes 4 sandwiches