Soup Sundays: French Onion Soup

French onion soup

We arrived in Paris on a Sunday morning. We were overtired from spending the previous day in the airport, flying all night, muddling through a layover, and not really getting any sleep on the plane. But we didn't want to waste valuable sightseeing (and face-stuffing) time sleeping, so we checked into our hotel, quickly showered, dressed, and were off again, pretending we were actually running on a full night's sleep.

We were hungry but didn't know the area yet . . . and it wasn't exactly "lunchtime." We stood in front of several restaurants, assessing, consulting the TripAdvisor app, putting too much weight on our first meal in Paris. Eventually, our building hunger won, and we promised to stop at the next restaurant we saw. Worst. Idea. Ever.

As soon as we sat down, I knew we should have left. But we have trouble being those people -- you know, the ones who make a scene, who come off as rude. So with legs itching to leave, we stayed firmly planted in our chairs, making the mistake of ordering. We went traditional: boeuf bourguignon and French onion soup (and yes, we joked that since we were in France, it was just onion soup). The boeuf bourguignon came with plain spaghetti. Spaghetti! Is that a thing? I had higher expectations, of that and the beef.

The onion soup, which should be a comfort-food masterpiece -- a bowl bubbling over with meaty broth and gently cut onions all covered with browned, crusty cheese -- tasted of little more than water. It was depressing. Only a few sad onion pieces lounged in the murky brown pool.

We looked at each other, still hungry, feeling guilty about the money we had wasted and annoyed that we had been too polite to get up and leave, and vowed never to speak of this lunch again -- whoops! -- as we set off to find the Eiffel Tower.

The soup I'm sharing with you now is the soup I made to erase all traces of that soup. I'd like to edit the memories of our Paris trip and set a bowl of this soup where that watered-down excuse for soup sat.

French onion soup

This soup is from Thomas Keller. You'll find the recipe in the pages of Bouchon. It's painstaking and worth every minute.

It's worth peeling, coring, and julienning 8 pounds of onions.

Julienned onions for French onion soup

It's worth stirring those julienned onions every 15 minutes for 5 hours (even when you start this process at 7 p.m. and are up making soup well past midnight) so they develop intensely caramelized and beefy flavor. It's worth switching and cleaning pots when you've accidentally left the onions unstirred for too long and the beautiful brown crust on the bottom of the pot has blackened.

Onions for French onion soupOnions for French onion soup

Onions for French onion soupOnions for French onion soup

Onions for French onion soup

It's probably worth making your own beef stock from scratch, but that was the only shortcut I took. And I think the deep flavor of the onions is enough to enhance any store-bought stock.

If you can get through all that, the rest of the soup is a cinch. Simply add the beef stock and a sachet of herbs and peppercorns to the onions and simmer for an hour.

French onion soup

At this point I cooled the soup and refrigerated it overnight -- TK suggests it's better if it sits for a day (and who was going to eat my French onion soup at 1 a.m. anyways?). Later I reheated four servings for the first course of our New Year's Eve dinner.

French onion soupFrench onion soup

While the soup heated, I brushed baguette slices with olive oil , sprinkled them with kosher salt, and toasted them. For cheese, I used Comté, which TK also suggested. After I ladled soup into our bowls, I arranged two baguette slices atop the soup in each bowl. Then I laid slices of the Comté over the baguette slices and piled shredded Comté over the slices. To finish, I set the bowls under the broiler and let it do its job, making the cheese all bubbly and melty.

French onion soup

French onion soup

The Comté was the perfect cheese for topping the soup. We and our dinner guests agreed that it had just the right flavor and texture. It wasn't stringy or chewy and it wasn't overpowering. It was smooth and melded with the soup -- I just wish I'd been able to find a bigger block of it. My slices of Comté were not large enough to rest on the rims of our bowls, so we didn't get the nice brown crust that night. It was still incredibly delicious. And the baguette slices were so nicely toasted that they even maintained a little crunch. The soup itself is almost indescribable. It's just so rich-tasting and meaty. The whole ensemble really is a comfort-food masterpiece.

The next day I reheated more soup for Jeff and me and used slices of provolone (we'd recently had French onion soup topped with provolone and liked it) under the shredded Comté to give the cheese a little more coverage. This time I got the nicely browned, crusty edges I was looking for (though the texture of the provolone is not as perfect as that of the Comté).

French onion soup

Have I ever had bad French onion soup? I'm not recalling any. ;)

Where did you have the best French onion soup ever?

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