I love French onion soup, as any cheese lover should.  Like many of my favorite foods, it is an excuse to eat cheese.  Until recently, I had experienced only the standard restaurant style onion soup: beef broth & onions on bottom, slice of baguette on top, thick slab of melted cheese to cover and cut through.  Don’t get me wrong, this is very, very good. 

But a recent NYT recipe for onion soup,* made me realize that I had nibbled only around the edges of the glory that can be onion soup.   For those of you who don’t get the dead tree Sunday NYT, the picture of this soup, alone, was mouth-watering.  (sadly, they didn’t include the photo online and our scanner is down at the moment).  The shot was straight down, a ceramic pot blends into the background of the page, focusing the eyes upon a mass of orange and brown melted cheese with strings of onion poking out.  The recipe has five ingredients: onions, emmentaler cheese, bread, butter, and some dabs of tomato puree (ok, and water). (see below for details).

This particular recipe, which we made a few weeks ago and I’m making again tonight** actually ends up with almost a casserole consistency – very little liquid is left by the time it’s done.  What remains is a lucious concoction of melted cheese, onions that are themselves the consistency of melted cheese***, with layers of bread for heft. 

*Because this is behind the wall by now, I’ve included it below.  It says it’s from a 1907 recipe book, so I’m thinking that the original copyright has passed (and recipes have limited protection anyway.  Let’s hope the NYT doesn’t sue me.

**I actually started this last night because I’m making it for my book group tonight & wouldn’t have time for all the steps after getting home from work.  mr. jolt kindly sliced the onions for me as I am severely onion-impaired.

***Another recipe that gives you onions with the consistency of melted cheese is a recipe from NYT columnist The Minimalist, Mark Bittman – Onions Weep Into Rice.  It takes a long time, but wow. This is actually the first recipe that was predominantly onions that I loved.  (No cheese, alas, but still an excellent recipe).  If you’d like the recipe drop me an e-mail.

1907: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

From ”Gastronomie Pratique,” by Ali-Bab. This recipe appeared in The Times in a 1974 article by Craig Claiborne.

1 baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 25 to 30)
9 tablespoons butter, softened
9 ounces Emmental cheese, finely grated
8 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 12 cups)
1 tablespoon kosher salt, more to taste
1 cup tomato purée.

1. Toast the baguette slices and let them cool. Spread a generous layer of butter on each slice (you will need about 5 tablespoons), then lay the slices close together on a baking sheet and top with all but 1/2 cup of cheese.

2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until very soft and golden, about 15 minutes.

3. In a 5-quart casserole, arrange a layer of bread slices (about 1/3 of them). Spread 1/3 of the onions on top, followed by 1/3 of the tomato purée. Repeat for two more layers. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese. To avoid boiling over, the casserole must not be more than 2/3 full.

4. In a saucepan, bring 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil. Add the salt. Very slowly pour the salted water into the casserole, near the edge, so that the liquid rises just to the top layer of cheese without covering it. (Depending on the size of your casserole, you may need more or less water.)

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the casserole on the stove and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, then transfer to the oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour. The soup is ready when the surface looks like a crusty, golden cake and the inside is unctuous and so well blended that it is impossible to discern either cheese or onion. Each person is served some of the baked crust and some of the inside, which should be thick but not completely without liquid. Serves 6.