Simplified French onion soup recipe perfect for home cooks

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Our son, Giovanni, turned 12 years old last week. Over the years, we have watched him move from his early, omnivorous toddler days where he would eat anything — even kalamata olives and calamari — to his "picky eater" preschool days where he wouldn't eat anything other than chicken nuggets, cheese pizza, plain pasta and French fries.

He's come a long way since then, and is now quite an adventurous eater. Last month, we had lunch together at a restaurant where I ordered a cup of French onion soup. Gio has never been very interested in soup, so I was surprised when he asked if he could have a taste. "It just smells so good," he said, and after one slurp he was hooked, and proceeded to finish the rest of my soup for me while insisting between mouthfuls that I had to learn how to make it.

French onion soup was an autumnal favorite at Sarello's, but I'd never made it before and was somewhat daunted by the task. At Sarello's, our chefs used our own beef stock made with house-made veal demi-glace, and the result was a richly complex soup with layers of beefy flavor.

I knew that just the process of caramelizing the onions was already a labor of love, as it requires a fair amount of time and supervision, and I also knew that I had no interest in spending the amount of time and money required to make my own demi-glace and beef stock. So, I set about trying to find a way to make a simplified, yet still savory and delicious, version of this famous onion soup using ingredients that are easily found in our local stores.

Over the past four weeks, I have experimented with various recipes, including Julia Child's and Martha Stewart's, and after some consultation from my resident professional chef, we finally developed a version that met our flavor expectations without requiring a great deal of culinary talent (especially if you use a food processor or mandolin to slice the onions).

In one of my earlier versions, I used sweet Vidalia onions, because I just love their mellowness, but the soup turned out far too sweet for all of us. I wanted to create a soup that was so good you couldn't help but have a second bowl, and no one was returning for that one. Yellow onions are the way to go for this recipe.

Julia Child's recipe calls for a cup of either white or red wine as well as homemade beef stock, and I made a version using white wine and store-bought beef stock which I enhanced with a good quality beef bouillon. This adaptation was OK, but the beef overpowered the onions, and no one was coming back for seconds.

So I brought in Tony to tap his chef expertise. He suggested that, since I wasn't making my own stock, I should use a good quality broth instead, and recommended that I use a mix of both beef and chicken stock to deepen the flavor. He further suggested that I use only half a cup of white wine, and add dry sherry for the other half, as well as a bit of fresh or dried thyme to round out the flavor profile.

These simple tips made a huge difference in the outcome of this soup, which turned out so delicious that Gio came back not just for a second bowl, but a third. I love that his ever-expanding palate is challenging me to up my own culinary game.

Sarah's Simplified French Onion Soup

Serves 6 to 8

Ingredients

3 tablespoons butter, unsalted

1 tablespoon olive or canola oil

1½ pounds yellow onion (5 to 6 cups), thinly sliced

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper

1 quart beef broth

1 quart chicken broth

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

½ cup dry white wine

½ cup dry sherry

2 sprigs fresh thyme or ½ teaspoon dried thyme

Directions

In a large Dutch oven or stock pot, melt the butter and oil over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir until evenly coated with butter. Cover the pot and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions appear tender and translucent, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Uncover the pot and stir in the sugar and salt, then sprinkle generously with freshly ground black pepper, about 1 tablespoon. Increase heat to medium or medium-low and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring often, until the onions turn a rich, golden brown, but not black (caramelized).

Meanwhile, in a smaller pot, bring the beef and chicken stock to a boil, then reduce to the lowest heat setting until ready to use.

Once the onions have achieved caramelization, reduce heat to low and stir in the flour until well mixed; if the flour appears to clump, stir in a pat of butter until it is fully absorbed into the onions. Cook over low heat for about 1 minute, stirring continually, to lightly brown the flour.

Remove pot from burner, pour in 1 cup of the hot broth mixture and whisk to incorporate the flour. Add the remaining broth, white wine, sherry and thyme, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently for about 45 minutes. Taste and stir in salt and pepper as desired, starting with ½ teaspoon of each.

Serve immediately as is or with the more decadent Gratinée topping (recipe below).

To store: Cool completely, then cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.

To freeze: Cool soup completely. Pour into a large plastic freezer bag, place bag in a medium bowl and freeze (once frozen, bowl can be removed). To thaw, simply place the bag in a large saucepan filled with water and heat over medium-low heat until thawed. Pour soup into a sauce pot and bring to a boil over medium heat. Serve and enjoy!

Gratinée topping

Ingredients

French bread, cut into slices ¾-inch thick

Olive oil or melted butter

2 to 3 cups Gruyere cheese, grated

¼ cup cognac, optional for adults

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Brush each slice of bread with oil or butter. Place the bread on a baking sheet, in a single layer, and bake until the tops are golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until ready to use.

Place your serving dishes on a baking sheet. Pour the hot soup into individual, oven-safe serving bowls (or one large casserole dish), and add a splash of cognac to each adult serving, if desired (add the entire ¼ cup if serving in one dish).

Fill the top of each dish with the crostini — this may require using 2 per dish if needed. Generously sprinkle the grated cheese over the top, covering the crostini entirely.

Change oven to the broiler setting. Place the baking sheet in the oven and broil, watching closely so the bread doesn't burn, until the cheese is golden brown and fully melted, and has started to bubble on the top. Serve and enjoy!

Sarah's tips

• Use a food processor or mandolin to slice the onions, if possible.

• If cutting the onions by hand, cut the top end off first, then slice it in half through the root end. Cut off the root tip and then cut from end to end, into ¼-inch slices.

• The volume of the onions will greatly reduce as they cook.

• For a gluten-free version, simply omit the flour.

• Yellow onions are best for this recipe, as sweet onions like Vidalia or Walla Walla will yield a soup that is too sweet.

• The crostini can be prepared in advance — if making a day or two early, store crostini in an airtight container until ready to use, or freeze for up to 2 months.

• The alcohol content in the white wine and dry sherry will burn off as the soup simmers; if serving to children, skip the splash of cognac at the end.