How on earth can we have gotten this far without covering French onion soup?  I have been remiss in my obligation and commitment, and I stand before you chastened and rebuked.

Anyone who does not like French onion soup has lost enthusiasm for life, and is to be pitied and cared for, and plied with enormous amounts of French onion soup and repeated showings of Audrey Hepburn movies.  Eventually, they’ll come around.

“Hepburn” is an awfully funny name, but look:

Together, perfect soup and Audrey Hepburn are the most expedient and reliable cure for a case of the glums.

French onion soup has the added benefit of being drop-dead easy and pretty cheap.  The only relatively pricey thing on the ingredients list is Gruyère, but–as I said about Cheddar in a previous entry–it’s well worth the expense and a little goes a long way.  Cheap and lousy cheese has no flavor or personality, which is why you go through it like a sorority girl goes through Kleenex.  Quality cheese is strong, proud, and well defined, so you don’t need as much.

While we’re on the subject, we might as well go over fromage forte–“strong cheese.”  You know those frustrating little knuckle-busting bits and pieces of cheese that are left over after you’ve grated a hunk?  Save ’em.  Save all your stray cheese odds and ends.  Put them all into your food processor and zap them with a splash of white wine and a good dose of garlic.  Zap it until it’s all smooth and spreadable.  Don’t worry about whether the cheeses are incompatible–the more, the merrier.  You’ll see.  On toasted French bread or crackers, it’s heaven.

Anyway, back to French onion soup.

It’s best to use little bean-pot-shaped bowls.  The ones that I use actually were labeled as bean-pots when I bought them–at Goodwill, for fifty cents each.

If you used a traditional soup bowl–wide and shallow–you’d need a lot more bread and cheese to pull it off, and that would screw up the ratio of bread and cheese to onions and liquid.

The secret to making good French onion soup is caramelizing the onions:  Cook them for a very long time on low, low heat.  Onions are–believe it or not–loaded with sugars, and when you brown them, you’re actually cooking the sugars–making caramel.  Sounds weird, I know.  When you hear “caramel” you think of ice cream or Werther’s candy, not onions.  But I’m telling you–try it once and you’ll be a convert forever.

This here recipe should provide you with about a gallon, which is far more than most home cooks need.  Go right ahead and divide it by two or three or four; no harm in that.  I’d do it for you, but I’m no good with math.  Sorry.

Even if you’re no good with math, don’t be afraid to divide it.  It’s one of those lovely forgiving soups that tolerates miscalculations.

Finally, off we go:

10 lbs. yellow onions, sliced thin (don’t have yellow onions?  Fine.  Use white.  Red would be strange, though)

8 oz. butter (clarified is ideal, but how many people keep clarified butter lying around?  I don’t)

1 gal. beef stock

1 gal. chicken stock

1/2 oz. fresh thyme or, as fresh herbs are obscenely expensive, a pinch of dried

s & p

1 c. sherry–good enough to drink; not “cooking sherry,” which is hideous swill

toasted slices of baguette, for garnish*

grated Gruyère, also for garnish*

*–Just because it says “for garnish,” don’t you even start to think that you can have French onion soup without them.  French onion soup without toasted baguette and Gruyère is akin to bean soup without beans.  I just can’t hitch a number to how much you’ll need because I don’t know how big your bowls are.  And again, I suck at math, so I don’t even want to try and guess because I’d probably be wrong.

Sweat the onions in the butter on very low heat for a very long time.  My favored approach for sweating is, as the name sort of implies, creating a little sauna in a sauce pan–cover the pan securely and completely with a couple of layers of plastic wrap.  After a little while, it’ll start to balloon up, and maybe shrink and lose its grip on an edge of the pot, which is okay.  You’ll also notice a lot of condensation gathering on the inside surface of the plastic wrap.  These are all favorable signs.  Leave it alone until the onions are very brown–ideally the color of mahogany–but you mustn’t let them burn.  There’s a very big difference between caramelizing and burning.  Brown is good, black is bad.  Done correctly, it’ll take a long time, and you’ll have to exercise some patience, but that’s okay.  Patience is a virtue.

Okay, that being done, deglaze the pan with a cup of the beef stock.  If you haven’t read earlier posts, I should maybe tell you what “deglaze” means:  Add the liquid (beef stock, in this case), bring it up to a boil, and scrape the bottom of the pan in order to loosen the cooked-on crusty bits (fonds in French).  Your goal here is to scrape the pan clean.  Browned crusty bits are very desirable, though black ones aren’t.  Anyway, keep stirring and scraping until danged near all the liquid has boiled away and the pan is dry (au sec).

Add the remaining beef stock, the chicken stock, and the thyme.  Level it off to a simmer and let it go for about twenty minutes.  Taste it, add salt and pepper as you see fit, and add the sherry.

Ladle it into warmed bowls and top each with a slice or two of toasted baguette and a good, heavy layer of Gruyère.  Pop them under your broiler until the Gruyère is completely melted and just starting to get brown spots.  Be vigilant–the cheese can go from perfect to burned in the blink of an eye.

It may be heretical, but I sometimes doubt the French palate.  They eat frogs, snails, and horses, for God’s sake.  But they hit a home-run with onion soup.

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