Growing up, my family had a membership at a place called Lake Shore Yacht & Country Club. We didn’t ever “yacht.” I don’t really remember seeing many boats, for that matter. But I do recollect my mother making us go to early morning swim team practice.
Which arguably functioned as a creative, aquatic form of maternal punishment, as the water heater in the Central New York “yacht club” pool was broken more days than not. (It is worth mentioning that Syracuse is rumored to see more gray than Seattle.)
This, of course, was balanced out by dinner.
We would get to eat in the clubhouse on Saturday nights about once a month. My dinner selection was predictable. Usually a turkey club (no cheese), cut into quarters, with a side of ruffled potato chips. Or chicken fingers and fries, the unofficial dinner anthem of American 10-year-olds.
And occasionally, if I was very lucky, I was allowed a side of French onion soup. It was served in those sturdy, brown and gray variegated crocks. With a thick layer of bubbling cheese, which always burned your mouth a little bit.
Since switching over to my winter coat, I’ve had a craving for blazing hot burn-the-roof-off-your-mouth soup. Consequently, I have also been faced with a surplus of sourdough, as a result of Dave turning Canary Square into a small bakery last week. My memory went to Lake Shore.
And then to Tartine, wherein Chad Robertson has a decidedly non-fussy recipe that utilizes homemade chicken stock, leftover wine, and a little duck fat: all things I miraculously had on hand to substitute for the standard beef broth. And I wouldn’t even question doing it again.
The whole endeavor lends a kind of therapy to a cold fall night. The most crucial thing is that you coax the onions to relax and turn deep caramel. Which involves feeding them cream, white wine, and—eventually—cheese. (To make good French onion soup, you should wine and dine an onion much like you would a human.)
It’s a worthy process. The flavor developed in such a short amount of time feels like cheating. As does topping it with good crusty bread and enough cheese to cover, go golden, and then bubble in spots.
Such things will erase the memory of a chill every single time. I bet mom knew that though.
French Onion Soup
Adapted from Tartine Bread
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp duck fat
6 yellow onions, cut into ¼ inch-thick slices
1 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
2 cups dry white wine
2 quarts chicken stock, homemade if possible
4 to 6 slices sourdough bread (this will depend on loaf size), cut to fit inside your crocks
5 ounces Gruyère, grated
In a large saucepot (or Dutch oven) on medium heat, add the butter and duck fat; when the fat starts to melt, add in the onions, salt, and cream. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent (10 to 15 minutes).
Raise the heat slightly and cook the onions, without stirring, until their bottoms start to brown (about 5 to 7 minutes: feel free to check with a spoon if you can’t tell). Stir the onions, scraping up any residue, and then add a ½ cup white wine to deglaze the pan. Repeat this (browning the onions without stirring and then deglazing with ½ cup of wine) 3 more times; the onions should turn deep caramel in the process, getting darker with every stirring.
Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer; cook for about 15 minutes (or until the flavors meld, I cooked mine closer to 25 or 30). Season again with salt, as needed (keeping in mind the soup might get a bit more concentrated in the oven).
While the soup is cooking, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Add the bread slices to a sheet pan and toast them until dry and brittle (10 to 15 minutes); remove and set aside.
Place oven-proof bowls on the sheet pan. Ladle the soup into the bowls, filling almost all the way to the top; cover with bread slices (this can be one large slice or several small ones) and top generously with cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and golden brown and the soup is bubbling (this may take 20 to 30 minutes in large dishes, but it will cook faster in smaller ones: I had about ¾ cup-sized bowls and it took about 10 minutes).
Makes about 6 cups
-This can easily be made into a meal for one or two, with leftovers. Bake off the number of bowls you need and place the rest of the soup in the fridge (you’ll want to keep the bread and cheese separate). Assemble the soups and bake them off, as needed (it was fine starting with cold soup).
-How much seasoning you need will depend on how salty your stock is and how much you reduce your liquid. Taste as you go. (Mine was well seasoned out of the pot, but got a little concentrated in the oven, so the second day I added a little water into the bowls before I put them in the oven.)