There is a small cabin at Lake Tahoe that always embraces me with its quiet beauty and ability to shut out the chaos of modern life. Earlier, a long walk along the beach enhanced my appetite and sent me happily into the cabin’s tiny kitchen where I made a large pot of homemade French onion soup for dinner. This simple meal-in-a-bowl melds the complex flavors of a rich beef broth, brandy, dry white wine and caramelized onions with crunchy toasted slices of French bread and gooey, bubbling cheese.
The family deserted me for a racy, loud Scrabble game by the roaring fire in the living room. I settled in for some alone time, gathered all my ingredients, and started peeling and thinly slicing 12 cups of onions for the soup. They were more pungent than usual and I teared up quickly. It didn’t matter what I did, my eyes were suffering. Soon everyone in the other room was complaining and opening doors to escape the onions. Ultimately, they fled outside.
Obviously I had to stay with it, but wondered if the poor people of ancient Rome and Greece had this problem when they prepared onions for their original soup, or if their naturally grown produce was milder than what we find in our markets today. Did they know how to prevent tearing? Guess I’ll never know.
As I began sautéing the onions the tears receded and the house filled with that wonderful scent that tells you something delicious is coming. I poured a glass of red wine, the others returned to their Scrabble game and we all breathed deep.
Later, as I served steaming bowls of soup topped with the toasted bread and melted cheese, everyone laughed about the burning eyes but agreed that the soup was almost orgasmic in taste. I told them that King Louis XV of France created this classic at his hunting lodge during the 1700s. Apparently Louis got hungry and discovered that the cupboard was basically bare. He rummaged around and found some onions, butter, and champagne for soup, along with some stale bread and cheese. We all raised our glasses to King Louis, and agreed that even a King couldn’t help but slurp a soup this tearfully good.
French Onion Soup
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
10–12 cups thinly sliced onions*
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon sugar
4 teaspoons flour
8 cups homemade beef stock*
¼ cup brandy
½ cup dry white wine
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 1-inch thick slices French bread, toasted
3 cups cheese, grated***
*For an accurate quantity, do not separate the slices into rings until after you measure them.
**Use homemade beef stock for best flavor. If you use canned broth, try chicken broth, which has better flavor than canned beef broth. Keep in mind that canned broth is quite salty, so you may want to reduce the salt in the recipe.
*** Gruyere, Parmesan Reggiano, Swiss, and Asiago chesses are all good choices.
1. Combine the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed skillet over medium-low heat.
2. Add the onions and salt and sauté for several minutes, then cover with a lid and cook 12–15 minutes, until the onions become translucent.
3. Remove the lid, increase the heat to medium, add the sugar and toss well. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are a deep golden brown—approximately 30 minutes.
4. Add the brandy and deglaze the skillet.
5. Add the flour and stir to coat the onions evenly. Continue cooking for 2–3 minutes.
6. Remove the onions from the heat and add the stock, wine, and pepper.
7. Return the pot to the stove, turn the heat to medium-high, partially cover the soup with a lid and bring to a lively simmer. Continuing cooking for 30 minutes.
8. Remove from the heat and adjust the salt and pepper.
9. Ladle the soup into individual, heat-resistant soup bowls and top each with a toasted slice of French bread and a generous portion of grated cheese.
10. Place under the broiler until the cheese melts and turns pale golden brown.
11. Serve immediately.
Get a printable copy of French Onion Soup.