I have my Grandma O’Toole to thank for introducing me to some of the very foods that I most enjoy. Of course, as a young person, I didn’t voluntarily choose them. I can vividly remember sitting across from my Gram at dinner, feeling very grown up, in one of the nicer restaurants in the seashell-pink Princess Hotel in Bermuda. She had taken me on a special trip before I started middle school, but, as my culinary tastebuds hadn’t yet peaked, the expression of slight disgust and bafflement were written across my face as I read over the menu.
Somehow Gram convinced me, in a way that only she could, to try the French onion soup. It was one of her favorite starts to a meal, along with a salad with bleu cheese dressing on the side. I’m certain she sold me on the oversized crouton and gooey melted cheese that topped the less kid-friendly onion-filled broth. I decided to be daring and take the risk.
As the waiter delivered the soup, I was impressed with the sheer volume of cheese that oozed over the side of the crock. I pushed through the springy surface with a spoon, surprised by how little soup there actually was. “Maybe Gram was right – can’t go wrong with a bowl full of melted cheese and bread,” I thought, as I worked a spoonful into my mouth. Taking a deep inhale, I went for it – not realizing that it would be extremely hot and, given the amount of cheese, chewy. Suddenly, I had what felt like third-degree burns all over my mouth and throat and I was simultaneously choking on a ball of Gruyère.
Hopelessly trying to keep my composure, I quietly sputtered for what felt like an eternity. Tears rolled down my checks, not only from the scalding, but because I thought this was surely the end of my young existence. And all because I went out on a limb to try onions! One desperate and final “uhh hmm” cleared my airway saved me the embarrassment of the Heimlich maneuver.
I sat there stunned and forced to reconcile the fact that although the soup had almost killed me, I actually kind of liked it. The rich, salty broth, sweetened by the onions; the thick bread; and the cheese – oh that cheese! – that was somehow both crisp and melted had all won me over – if in a rather dramatic way.
Now older and wiser, I still enjoy French onion soup – albeit cautiously – and my recipe for the dish incorporates all of the classic flavors. And despite my initial experience, I’d never skimp on the cheese or bread. But rather then using one large slice of bread, I bake smaller croutons with grated Gruyère and herbes de provence, which gives them crispy corners and tons of flavor that melts back into the soup. I still layer an obscene amount of Gruyère over the croutons to finish the soup with its signature golden top – I just make sure I grate it to avoid a repeat of Bermuda.
French Onion Soup
makes 4 – 6 servings
4 tablespoons herbed butter (or butter plus 2 teaspoons fresh thyme)
2 pounds yellow onions, halved and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup dry red wine (white wine or dry sherry may be substituted)
3 cups beef stock
salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces (about 3 cups) of grated Gruyère
herbes de provence croutons (see recipe below)
Herbes de provence croutons
1/2 of a baguette, sliced into 1 inch cubes
2–3 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon herbes de provence
1 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup grated Gruyère
In a Dutch Oven or other large heavy pot, melt the herbed butter (or butter and thyme, if substituting) over medium-low heat. Add the onions, spreading them out to cover the base of the pot. Stir in sugar then leave onions to cook for about an hour, stirring only occasionally, allowing onions to caramelize, but being careful not to burn them. The onions should turn soft and golden brown.
Next, sprinkle in the flour and stir to coat the onions. Add the wine and beef stock, bring to a simmer, and then cover and cook on low for another 20 minutes.
While the soup simmers, make the croutons. To do so, set the oven to 350º Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, toss cubed baguette pieces with all other crouton ingredients. Be sure the baguette pieces are well coated with oil and that herbs and cheese are well distributed. Spread the bread out evenly on the baking sheet and bake for 10–12 minutes, tossing half way through. When croutons are golden and crisp, remove from oven and set aside to cool.
To assemble the soup, place oven-safe crocks or bowls on a baking sheet. Set oven to broil. Add salt and pepper to taste to the soup mixture. Next, ladle soup evenly into each crock or bowl. Top each with a sprinkle of grated cheese and 5 to 6 croutons, then add another generous layer of cheese on top of the croutons. Place the tray under the broiler until the cheese begins to bubble and turn golden, watching carefully to avoid burning. Remove from oven and enjoy immediately – and carefully!