Whenever Sam and I need a quick lunch and don’t have any lunch food in the fridge, we like to visit La Boulange, a local French café and bakery chain. I vacillate between ordering the beet salad and the nicoise salad, but Sam always orders a cup of French onion soup with an open-faced sandwich. He loves French onion soup, and the idea to make French onion soup at home has been mulling in my mind for over a year. Now that it is finally Autumn, I decided to scratch this recipe off my mental “To Cook” list.
Caramelized onions and beef broth are rich in themselves, but spike them with vermouth, brandy and Worcestershire sauce and you have a soup that is positively luxurious—and that’s not even counting the bubbly gruyere and bread on top. French onion soup screams après ski, and I’m already planning to tote this soup along on our family trip to Tahoe this Thanksgiving. Since the soup base can easily be made ahead of time, I’ll freeze it and let it thaw during the car ride. When it’s time for dinner, I’ll reheat the soup, top with toasted bread and cheese and broil until the cheese is bubbly.
French onion soup is often salty or heavy, but this version is simultaneously clear and complex, thanks to the secret ingredients (vermouth, brandy and Worcestershire sauce). After eating this French onion soup for both lunch and dinner, I can’t help but think that the La Boulange version pales in comparison. I must not dismiss it too quickly, though, because it was what inspired me to make this soup in the first place. Now that we’ve discovered the secret of making French onion soup at home, I guess we’ll be sticking to the salads at La Boulange.
Use the best quality beef stock you can find. I was very happy with Better than Bouillon brand beef stock. The recipe below calls for broiling the entire pot of soup, but feel free to use single-serving ovenproof dishes if you prefer.
Recipe adapted from The Gourmet Cookbook.
6 fresh parsley stems
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
8 black peppercorns
1 Turkish bay leaf or 1/2 California bay leaf
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 pounds onions, thinly sliced crosswise
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
6 cups beef stock or broth
1/3 cup dry vermouth
2 tablespoons Cognac or other brandy
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
12-14 (3/4-inch thick) baguette slices
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 garlic clove, halved crosswise
1 cup grated Gruyere (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 ounce)
Make the French Onion Soup
Make the bouquet garni: place parsley stems, thyme, peppercorns and bay leaf on a small square of cheesecloth, gather up the edges and tie closed with a piece of string.
Place a large ovenproof heavy saucepan, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-low heat and melt butter and olive oil. Add the onions, salt and pepper and stir to evenly coat onions with butter and oil. Place a lid on the pan and cook for 15-18 until onions are soft. Stir the onions occasionally.
Add the pinch of sugar to the onions, stir, increase heat to medium and cook uncovered for 15-18 more minutes, until onions are deeply browned. Stir frequently and scrape brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Watch the onions carefully because this is the step where they tend to stick to the pan.
Once the onions are caramelized, add the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the beef stock, vermouth and bouquet garni. Bring the soup to a bowl, then reduce heat to medium-low, cover partially and simmer for 30 minutes. Discard the bouquet garni. Stir in the Cognac and Worcestershire sauce.
Preheat oven to 350*F and place a rack in the middle of the oven. Place bread on a baking sheet and brush both sides of the bread with melted butter. Bake for about 15 minutes, flipping bread over halfway through, until both sides of bread are golden brown, Remove bread from oven and rub with cut sides of garlic clove.
Cover entire top of soup with the toast. Sprinkle Gruyere and Parmigiano-Reggiano on top of toast and bake soup until it comes to a simmer, 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven. Preheat broiler. Broil soup for about 1 minute or until cheese is golden and bubbly.