French onion soup resides at the intersection of elegance and comfort. When I was growing up, it was ubiquitous on the menus of fine dining and family style restaurants alike. For children, it provided a little danger and frustration, too – warnings about the temperature of the bowl and its contents, the long wait to avoid burning our tongues and ruining our enjoyment of the soup (as well as everything that came after).
Breaking through the crust of cheese and bread was the beginning of our pleasure, pushing that crust piece by piece under the broth part of the ritual, and eating the sopping bits our next task, by which time the broth was finally cool enough to eat. Slowly cooked onions were a sort of miracle to me, unable to tolerate the taste of raw and lightly cooked onions well into my teens. The sweet-savoury flavour of slow-cooked onions became one of my favourites.
I was lucky enough to have a mother who took the time to make French onion soup at home, without the aid of packaged soup mixes (those were for dip, after all). I’m still lucky – it was my mother who spent an afternoon cooking these onions down. I’d started the soup at her house, then realized I’d have to leave sooner than I’d expected. She put the partly-cooked onions into the freezer, then cooked them in time for my next visit. My role in the making of this soup was much easier than it should have been, just a matter of re-hydrating the onions in broth, toasting the bread and grating the cheese.
As a sort of compensation, I baked Kim Boyce‘s banana walnut cake for dessert. It made me feel I’d really contributed to the meal. After all, it’s the slow browning of the onions that carries the flavour of this soup. Deglazing the pan with wine deepens that flavour, rather than changing it. When you add the broth, the onions plump and lighten, lending their colour and flavour to the soup. Everything else is subordinate.
We skipped the spoonful of cognac in the bottom, without feeling we were missing anything. I can see myself adding the cognac when using the soup to begin a celebration meal, though. We stuck to the comfort end of this soup’s identity on this night, following it up with some pasta sauced with pesto I made last summer and oven-roasted vegetables.
You can find many other blogged descriptions of this week’s FFWD recipe here: Cheese-Topped Onion Soup