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Savoury French Onion Soup

As Autumn settles in comfortably, there isn't a better time to try your hand at making this warm and savoury French classic. I tried it after I bought half a kilogram of shallots for a good price at the farmer's market and, to be totally transparent, I didn't love it as much as I'd hoped I would. Perhaps I used the wrong kind of stock or cheese but, in truth, I just think I'm personally inclined to leave caramelised onions on sandwiches instead of in soup.

Nevertheless, this dish transforms the humble onion - usually the quiet understudy of almost any meal - into a bonafide star. If you've got a craving for a warm, savoury, and satisfying broth to keep out the cold, then give this dish a try. But, be warned - if you aren't prepared to shell out for quality ingredients, you're likely to land up with a Cup-A-Soup imitation and a lasting sense of dissatisfaction.

I don't mean to get down on onion soup. If anything, I think this recipe is a healthy reminder that cooking is an adventure. You can't possibly know what you like or don't like if you don't try it all. So, if you don't come away from this week's recipe with a new favourite meal, at least consider trying something new.

With that in mind, let's learn how to make French onion soup!

What you'll need from the shops:

  • Half a kilogram of white or yellow onions, or shallots

  • About 50g of butter

  • A teaspoon of brown sugar

  • Gruyère cheese (I used raclette instead, which is another good melting cheese)

  • Good quality beef stock - I used a demi-glacé from Woolworths, which I don't necessarily recommend

  • A nice baguette or some other crusty bread that will hold up well in the oven

The ingredients of this soup are very simple, though it pays to opt for quality. Because the soup is made up primarily of stock, you'll want to pick a good one!

These are the beautiful shallots that I picked up from the market. They were sweet, crisp, and caramelised like a dream. They impart a much more gentle flavour than regular onions. I try to cook with them when I can - they're often neglected in the weigh station of the Checkers.

When you have all your ingredients assembled, it's time to cook.

How to make it

Step 1: Prep your kak

It's dead easy to knock this thing together. All you need is a spare hour to caramelise your onions and that's more than half the work done.

Before you can get there, though, you need to slice your onions or shallots into little slivers. You can do this by slicing the onion or shallot in half, then slicing lengthways so that you end up with long slivers. You may need to break these up gently with your fingers if you don't want oniony clumps in your soup.

Step 2: Caramelise those onions, low and slow baby

This is by far the most important and the most time-consuming part of the process. Caramelising onions takes much longer than most people anticipate. Onions are full of natural sugars. To develop a full, sweet, almost-nutty flavour profile, you need a lot of time on low heat.

So bung your onions into a Dutch oven or a big pot with a knob of butter and cook them on medium heat. Toss in your teaspoon of brown sugar and cover the pot with a lid for the first ten minutes of cooking. If you notice some browning on the bottom of the pot (this is easy to see on enamel-coated cast iron), that's good! Caramelisation is well underway.

When the onions have sweated it out, turn the heat down low and then leave. Them. Alone. You can stir them every ten minutes or so to prevent them from burning, but over-stirring will prevent the onions from getting that lovely brown sear we're looking for.

After 45 minutes to an hour, you should have soft, brown, caramelised onions perfuming your kitchen with their savoury scent.

Step 3: Deglaze and add stock

Deglaze the pot with a splash (about 3/4 of a cup) of dry white wine or stock. Add in your beef stock (I did about 1.5 litres of liquid to half a kilo of onions in this recipe) and stir to incorporate. Give it a taste test - it will probably need a dash of seasoning. Salt is your friend.

Leave your soup to warm on the stove while you prepare the true star - the cheesy bread topping.

Step 4: Quality inspection

Before you slice your bread of choice, offer it to your sous chef for inspection.

Pièce de résistance: the cheesy bread topping

You can prepare the cheesy bread topping by putting grated cheese on a slice of sturdy bread, placing the entire arrangement gently on top of a bowl of soup and grilling the ensemble under your broiler. But the internet warned that, without an extremely hot broiler, you're likely to end up with soggy bread if you try this method.

I don't have a broiler, so I just toasted some bread, topped it with grated raclette, and melted it in the hot oven before serving it over my soup. I topped the melted raclette with some French thyme salt - I didn't do it this time, but I'm confident the soup would benefit from some fresh thyme leaves thrown in when the onions are just about done caramelising.

Et voilà! French onion soup. I thought it was okay. The leftovers have been sitting in my fridge for a few days while I work up the courage to try them again. It might not be my favourite, but it will be right up somebody else's street. I hope this recipe finds you!

Bisous xx


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