Thursday, January 22, 2009

Best French Onion Soup Part II

Shopping list and initial thoughts here, while the first part of cooking is here.

In truth, I made this soup in three parts, not two... the aforementioned "cooking onions in oven stage"... followed two days later by browning the onions and deglazing the pan (x4) , finishing the soup on the stove top, and then letting it rest over night to fully develop its flavors... finally serving the soup last night covered topped with croutes covered in Gruyère with the whole ensemble fired briefly under the broiler. However, the pictures didn't really come out from the stove top part... so I'm just going to roll it all into one post and you will just have to deal.

Tuesday night I took the refrigerated cooked down onions and put them over medium high heat. The idea being to, first, warm them back up, but to subsequently cook off all the remaining liquid so they would caramelize and start to glaze the bottom of the pan. You're supposed to "stir frequently" but I went for "pretty much constantly" to make sure I kept an eye on the fond development and nothing burned. Like I said, I don't have any pictures, but it took 20-25 before I noticed the delicious brown flavor goop collecting on the bottom (the recipe calls for 15-20, but I had cold onions and turned the heat down to medium because I was a little (over?)concerned about burning). Once you start seeing the light brown coating developing, it takes somewhere between 5-8 minutes before the glaze gets thick enough and dark brown enough that it's time to pour in a 1/4 cup of water and scrape it all up and start again. How dark you let it get is up to you, as you want some serious browning for flavor... just pouring in water and cooking it off isn't going to do anything for you... but it is a fairly fine line between brown and burnt. Regardless, once you deglaze and scrape everything up, you'll need another minute or two to cook off the water(stirring frequently/constantly this whole time) before a fond once against starts to develop and you cook for another 5-8 minutes before another deglaze with a 1/4 of water. You can repeat this step as often as you like... the recipe suggest 3 or 4, and I I got to 4 before I thought they were a dark enough mahogany to move on. The whole process is supposed to take 45-60 minutes, so if you're moving much faster than that then you should either turn your heat down or be a little more patient with the fond development. After your final deglaze, stir in a 1/4 cup of dry sherry and cook it off over about 5 minutes.

Now, here is where you are supposed to add your stock to finish off the soup... the recipe suggesting a combo of water(2 cups), chicken broth (4 cups), and beef broth (2 cups). As I mentioned before, I was making a vegetarian version, so the latter two were not an option... certainly I could substitute veggie broths, but I thought to go with just 8 cups of tap water as this was my first time making the soup. Vegetable broths aren't nearly as time consuming to make, so it would seem sensible to make it myself as opposed to buying it... but I really didn't know what flavors to bring in without seeing how it tastes. A mushroom based broth certainly made sense, but I wanted a little baseline before I risked overpowering my onions with other flavors.

So anyway, pour in your 8 cups of preferred liquid(s), throw in a bay leave and 6 sprigs of thyme that has been tied up into a little bundle with some kitchen twine. Turn it up to high and bring to a simmer before covering it and taking it down to low. Simmer all that for 30 minutes to blend the flavors. While the soup is simmering is the time to make your croutes and grate your cheese (8 oz) (unless you are planning on serving the soup the next day). For the croutes just cut half a baguette into 1/4" slices and place them in a 400 degree oven until "bread is dry, crisp, and golden at edges", which takes about 10 minutes. Preheat your broiler, ladle in your soup into broiler safe bowls, float two croutes on top(not overlapping) of each, and then cover with cheese. Finally putting the bowls on a broiler pan/cookie sheet about 5 or 6 inches from the heating element for 4-5 minutes until the cheese is melted and bubbling. Let cool 5 minutes and voilà... Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée.

At first, when I tasted it on its own, I thought the soup was a little bland... but that's not quite right... it's actually more that it lacks a little depth by itself. The onion flavor is quite well developed absolutely delicious, but it's only one note, you know? Presumably this is because of the use of water instead of broth. However, once I got the cheese and bread involved I felt completely differently about it... and the soup seemed perfect. I think I'll probably still try a homemade veggie broth next time to see the difference, but it came out quite well in gratinée form.

It's a lot of work, but the glazing/deglazing part is pretty fun, you can break it up into more manageable chunks, and the end result is quite worth the effort in my opinion.