Cooking from “the repertoire”: French Onion Snow Day

It finally felt like winter last weekend with actual snow in New York.  Mark and I – nostalgic for last year’s blizzard and in denial about the start of the new semester – declared it a 2-part Snow Day and stayed home:

With so much time on my hands, I decided to tackle my favorite time-consuming recipe: french onion soup.  I figure if you’re going to cook French in an American kitchen, you might as well go to the expert, Mrs. Julia Child. My copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, like many of my cookbooks, was a Christmas gift from Santa.

French onion soup is one of my all time favorite foods, and I had always assumed it would be difficult to make.  About two years ago, a colleague of mine reassured me that it wasn’t all that bad, and it turned out that she was right.  Since then, it has become part of my “repertoire” – although I don’t make it too often, as it requires an afternoon of stirring and monitoring.

The hardest part is chopping the onions.  You need at least five of them.  It took me a good 15 minutes of chopping, stopping and wiping away tears to get through the pile.  Even Mark, who was washing dishes as I chopped, felt the burn.  I don’t know how professionals do it.  According to my one-time knife skills instructor (see future blog post), there is nothing you can do to stop the pain.  Just grin and bear it, he said.

Once the onions were in the pot, and my eyes had stopped watering, things progressed quite nicely.  We had some leftover beef broth in the fridge, so I substituted that for beef stock, which is what Julia requests.  I’ve recently discovered a reasonably priced organic version at Union Market that comes in low sodium, which is a nice alternative.

The recipe requires that I boil the broth while the onions simmer in butter and oil (no one said this was healthy), but I only own one large pot.  So I had to improvise with two smaller pots.  One of them boiled over, and the liquid blew out my pilot light.  This resulted in my having to move all of the pots to the kitchen table so that I could relight it.  Oh the joys of pilot lights…

After combining the broth with the onions, and adding vermouth, the recipe is officially done.  However, I always take it to the next level by using Julia’s follow-up recipe for Soup a L’Onion Gratinee – aka, soup smothered with bread and cheese and baked to bubbly deliciousness.  Mark’s mother was kind enough to donate two of her own oven-safe tureens, which is essential for this recipe.

Here, I spared no expense, buying Gruyère cheese and a Tom Cat bakery baguette.  Mark volunteered to slice the bread.  He has a tendency to slice it too thick, so I had to keep an eye on his progress as a I shredded (and sampled) the cheese.  A few of his slices were vetoed for being too big, so we had samples of the bread too.

Overall, Julia’s recipe is as close to French perfection as it can get.    However, I disagree with her on the final step – placing the soup in the broiler for two minutes after it is baked.  This step is intended to give the cheese its crispy, golden texture.  The first time I followed the recipe, I used the broiler for exact specified time, and the cheese burned to a blackened crisp.  Since that disappointment, I’ve developed a system of checking on the soup every 20 seconds until it is golden.  After 60 seconds, I decided it was good enough.  Sorry Julia, but I’m not burning my recipe after hours of cooking.

Combined with a glass of french wine from Brooklyn Wine Exchange, it was the perfect snow day meal.  We agreed that the organic broth actually gave the soup a heartier flavor, and the splurge on high quality bread and cheese was worth the cost.  Best of all, there was enough soup leftover to repeat the meal (with the bread and cheese) after our first night of classes that Monday.  Bon appétite!

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2 thoughts on “Cooking from “the repertoire”: French Onion Snow Day

  1. You are making me think I need to open my copy and get cooking…..this is my fav soup…..looked really good!!!!

  2. Good stuff. Mary loves French onion soup, and I never made it. Going to pick up a copy of Julia’s cookbook at the library and give it a try.

    Good idea keeping an eye on Mark’s participation 🙂

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