In my book no soup beats a well-made classic French onion soup as the ultimate comforter on a cold winter’s day. It’s packed with taste, easy to make, not expensive and healthy too.
The first time I had onion soup, though, I have to say I was a little suspicious. And it’s true that with its muddy brown color this dish will probably never win any beauty contests. But its understated appearance completely fooled me, and I was taken aback by this rich and flavorful soup.
Though I try a lot of new dishes all the time, I very rarely get a really powerful tasting experience that immediately wins me over. However, that’s what happened that first time I had French onion soup, and I’ve loved it ever since. In fact, I can get a bit grumpy and offended if I have French onion soup in a restaurant and they’ve done a sloppy job.
Onion soup is actually very hard to mess up, but when it happens, it’s usually because whoever made it was cheap with the booze and/or the cheese. And perhaps they thought they might get away with their sloppiness by covering the soup in a massive layer of bad-quality melted cheese. As a result you end up battling with one big gooey lump of cheese with some onion attached to it.
So just remember to give the soup a little love. This recipe both has cognac and port wine to give it that richness and heat French onion soup is known for. The addition of fennel seed gives it just a little bit of spice and bitterness to balance the sweetness of the onions. Serve it as a starter or a main with a nice bottle of (not necessarily French) Pinot Noir.
Classic French onion soup with cheese bread (serves 4 as a main, 6 as a starter)
4 lbs (2 kg) onions (yellow onions are fine but you can also mix yellow and red onions if you like)
3 tbsp butter
3.5 oz (150 ml) cognac or brandy
3.5 oz (150 ml) port wine
3 cubes of good quality beef stock or liquid beef stock pods
0.7 gallon (2.5 l) water
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves only, not the stems
3 bay leaves
1 tbsp fennel seeds, crushed
Optional: 1 bunch (about 5) scallions, finely sliced
7 oz (200 g) shredded Gruyere cheese (or a mature Cheddar or Monterey Jack, or a mix)
French baguette – enough to make at least 8 slices
1. Peel and cut the onions into slices. Melt the butter in a large pot and add all of the sliced onions. Stir and fry the onions at medium to high heat for about 10 min. until they start to clear. Make sure they don’t brown.
2. Pour in the cognac/brandy and the port wine and stir for a couple of minutes.
3. Add the beef stock cubes or liquid beef stock pods, the water, crushed fennel seeds, bay leaves and thyme and stir for a minute or so.
4. Cover the pot with a lid, and let the soup simmer at low to medium heat for at least 30 min.
5. While the onion soup is simmering, prepare the cheese bread. Preheat the oven to 400 Fahrenheit (200 Celsius). Shred the cheese coarsely.
6. Cut the baguette into slices and drizzle each slice with a bit of olive oil. Place the bread slices on baking parchment on a baking tray and distribute the cheese evenly on top.
7. Taste the soup and add salt and pepper if needed. If you’d like to add scallions, add them to the soup now.
8. Bake the cheese bread in the oven for about 10 min. or when the cheese starts to become golden brown. Make sure to time it with the onion soup.
9. Serve the onion soup in little soup bowls with a slice of cheese bread in the middle and extra cheese bread on the side.
In for more French recipes, for example a main and a dessert? Here a few recommendations:
Dinner: Creamy chicken tarragon