French onion soup
Before she died, my mother visited me twice from New Zealand. The second time, she and Neil, her husband-to-be, stayed in this flat while they were in London. They took Norman and I out to dinner one night to the Prospect of Whitby, a well-known Victorian pub almost exactly across the river from here (and from the equally well-known Mayflower pub on this side of the water). I chose the French onion soup. What a disappointment!
It was made with beef stock, and then my seafood main was ruined for me because the cook had added Pernod to make the whole thing taste of aniseed (God only knows why). I could barely eat either. I was used to something VERY different.
Originally (in the 1800s) French onion soup was made with reduced beef stock. Later, people began to make it with any flavourful stock of their preference. I prefer chicken. Some food writers claim that it is so good, you can simply use water. Even chef Raymond Blanc, whom I've adored since the early 1980s, uses only water and wine in his recipe. Me, I'd rather use a good home-made chicken stock or vegetable stock and forego the wine entirely. I occasionally make it with stock cubes, but it's nowhere as nice, not by a long chalk.
Over the years I've come to learn that I don't like any alcohol in this soup. Many recipes use white wine; recipes that claim to be authentic use Cognac, or the slightly more downmarket brandy. I like the onions to be sliced lengthwise, as opposed to across the grain. I'm also really fussy about the size and nature of the croutons. I use only one, about 2 1/2 inches thick, so its surface can be seen as it sits on the bottom of the plate soaking up half of the soup. It's rustic compared to thin, dainty croutons floating on the top. It's also what turns this soup into a meal rather than a starter.
The final component: the cheese. A nutty gruyere is gorgeous with this, but most often I simply use cheddar. I also don't bother burning my hands by placing the full soup plates under a grill to melt the cheese. It adds nothing to the soup, only to your stress.
Coincidentally, I was browsing through that latest edition of the Tesco Magazine (January 2023), and what should I find but a recipe for French onion soup made in a slow cooker! I have no idea how successful the method is, but I've included a link because I know some of you are keen to make more use your slow cookers.
Serves 2 - 3.
4 onions, thinly sliced
a splash of oil
a small pat of butter (15g - 20g-ish)
1 teaspoon sugar
2 rounded teaspoons flour
1 litre of stock
baguette loaf for the croutons
grated cheese for the croutons
Begin by frying the onions over a medium heat, stirring for 5 minutes until they start to soften. after the first minute, stir in the sugar. Now turn the heat right down, pop on a lid, and cook for a further 20 minutes, stirring every few minutes to prevent the onions burning on the bottom of the pan.
Stir in the flour until it is evenly distributed, and cook for 3 - 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the stock, turn up the heat, and stir everything well. When it comes to a boil, pop the lid back on, turn the heat down again, and cook for a further 15 - 20 minutes. Taste and adjust your seasonings.
Cut your croutons to the desired size and toast them somehow, especially the cut surfaces: with a toaster, in the oven, under a grill, or using a griddle pan.
Just before you are ready to serve the soup, load the croutons' tops with cheese (or sprinkle daintily), and grill or bake it till it melts.
If you are following my method, place one crouton in the centre of each soup bowl and ladle the soup around it, then serve.
If you are using thin croutons, ladle the soup into bowls and float the crouton(s) on top.
Any questions? You can use the comments form at the bottom of the page.
Did you know?
You'll find recipes at the back of all the books in the Send for Octavius Guy series: