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Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
French onion soup should not be a guilty pleasure: it is nothing more than a field of onions, stock, bread, some cheese, some open flame. It is, at its humble core, a peasant soup: a cheap staple—onions—improved with a minimum of heat and a maximum of time, stretched with bones and water. Peasant soups should not feel like a guilty pleasure. They should feel like longing.
So why does French onion soup seem like something you should feel vaguely ashamed to be eating, let alone feeding to your children? Let us bracket the broiled cheese. Even the broth of a good French onion soup always tastes like decadence. It tastes so close to the bliss point that you begin to suspect nefarious methods.
All of which is a way of saying: this column will not be about kale. It will not have any words that begin with super and end with food. It is about meaningful exhalations and poor postpartum posture. It is a slushy, end-of-February sort of column. Think of it as slumped up against the screen.
If your child dislikes French onion soup, you have a problem. (Although maybe not: more for you.) Because unless said child has a thing about textures, in which case the onions can seem like slimy eels your parents have snuck in your soup, French onion soup is hard for even the pickiest eater to reject. It’s ecumenical: you don’t even need teeth.
And unlike—I dunno—macaroni and cheese, with which it shares a fair amount of nutritional content, it won’t make you feel like you’re pandering. French onion soup looks like a real, tableclothed dinner.
And yet for all that: is there any soup that has been more wronged? (With the possible exception of minestrone—have you seen the things they do to minestrone? There should be a law.) At its worst, French onion soup tastes like a soup that someone abandoned their half-eaten bread in and then served to you.
This soup, dear Reader, is not that soup. It is the Backward Town version from the Tartine Bread cookbook: instead of caramelizing your onions by coddling them on low heat, you scorch them. On high.
This is when I tell you about the cup of cream. I can hear you from here: that’s why it tastes like a guilty pleasure, you nitwit. So I lied a little! But last time you got vegetables! And you need a cup of cream to get through February anyway: what if you go and fall into a snowdrift tomorrow? This French onion soup may save your life.
Here’s how we do it: dump the cream, a knob of butter and a tearjerker’s worth of onions into the pot. Turn up the heat. Wait until the cream turns into solids. Then wait the onions get sticky brown. Deglaze. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Add broth. Bake. (The deglazing involves wine, yes. If you have drinking age-related concerns, use stock. I used wine and immediately after dinner, a certain diner started spinning madly in circles and giggling maniacally. On the other hand, he does that every night.)
After Isaiah took his first bite, he dropped his spoon and said, abruptly, “Whoa.” I thought he’d burned himself. “Whoa,” he repeated and then slapped his forehead with his palm, vaudeville-style. “This is delicious.” (You have to imagine this said with a thick Brooklyn accent, the sort of Brooklyn accent no one but four-year-olds or seriously old men have anymore.)
“Dada,” he said. “You have to soak bread in soup for a really long time more.” I promised him I would.
French Onion Soup, the Scorched Way
Very lightly adapted from Chad Robertson's brilliant recipe in Tartine Bread
Serves 4, robustly
6 large yellow onions, sliced thinly
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups dry white wine
2 quarts chicken stock
5 ounces Gruyere cheese, grated (a Cheddar would work, too)
4 slices of hole-y, country bread
Photos by James Ransom