Lest anyone think from my earlier post regarding my lack of cookie traditions that we had no culinary Christmas traditions in our family while I was growing up I wish to correct that notion here. We did. Plenty of them. In fact they were the traditions that taught me much about hospitality and great entertaining. Christmas Eve dinner always featured Julia Child’s French Onion Soup. While it was intended to be a casual run up to the main meal the next evening, for me it was my all time favorite meal of the year. Mom was always in the unenviable (yet necessary) position of having to feed the two sides of our family as well as many friends each Christmas and Christmas Eve. Lesson Number One For Entertaining: Choose The Menu Well. French Onion Soup was the perfect choice as much of it could be done in advance and would only require warming, assembly and a quick spot under the broiler before being put on the table.
It was also through this dish that my mother gave me Lesson Number Two: Heaven Is In the Details. If attention is given to ingredients, technique and presentation this simple soup becomes spectacular. Its origin is as a peasant dish served to workers, onions being something that was inexpensive and plentiful. But as is typical of the French, they know how to get the best out of any dish. To achieve its perfection you must follow its traditions. Don't skimp on the precious few ingredients or on the patience this recipe requires. In the days leading up to Christmas eve my mother would make the home made beef stock from the bones she would talk out of the butcher and broil at home. (She would also took this time to review with me how to do a proper brown sauce and glace de viande in the French manner.) Even the characteristic croutons would be made in advance according to the proper oven dry method and using the best bread she could find. The onions must be cooked painfully slow (and for much longer than the recipe indicates) in order to get to the reddish huge that indicates they have caramelized to perfection and released their burnt sugars.
Our family no longer has the same architecture that required her to pull double duty for holiday dining. The French Onion Soup tradition has given way to one that features a formal (and glamorous) Christmas Eve dinner of the type my mother does so well. This year in the run-up to the holiday I found myself unexpectedly with a few quarts of home made beef stock, the result of my own holiday entertaining, so decided to revisit this tradition. I cooked up a batch for my man and started our own Christmas Eve Eve tradition for the quiet dinner we enjoy sharing, just the two of us, before our two day Christmas posada (from family to family) takes a hold of us. You can bet we will be doing this one every year!
French Onion Soup
- 1/2 stick butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 8 cups thinly sliced yellow onions (about 2-1/2 pounds)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 8 cups homemade beef stock, or good quality store bought stock
- 1/4 cup Cognac, or other good brandy
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 8 (1/2-inch) thick slices of French bread, toasted
- 3/4 pound coarsely grated Gruyere
Heat a heavy saucepan over moderate heat with the butter and oil. When the butter has melted, stir in the onions, cover, and cook slowly until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Blend in the salt and sugar, increase the heat to medium high, and let the onions brown, stirring frequently until they are a dark walnut color, 25 to 30 minutes.
Sprinkle the flour and cook slowly, stirring, for another 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat, let cool a moment, then whisk in 2 cups of hot stock. When well blended, bring to the simmer, adding the rest of the stock and wine. Cover loosely, and simmer very slowly 1 1/2 hours, adding a little water if the liquid reduces too much. Add cognac. Taste for seasoning.
Divide the soup among 4 ovenproof bowls. Arrange toast on top of soup and sprinkle generously with grated cheese. Place bowls on a lined cookie sheet and place under a preheated broiler until cheese melts and forms a crust over the tops of the bowls. Serve immediately.
Previous related post: French Onion Soup Day