Gratinéed onion soup

Not-so-dignified French traditions

What is it about the simple word gratinée that makes food so delicious ? Everyone loves crisp-browned and bubbling cheese on top of gratinéed potatoes or on the ultra-classic French onion soup. Only kids have the guts to ask for “more crispy” – plus de croustillant – but when it comes time to clear the table, I’ve seen friends fight to take the gratin dish away. Why ?

They just wanted the chance to hide away in the kitchen and, in a most undignified manner, scrape off the slightly burned, extra-crisp gratinéed bits stuck to the side of the dish. (I’ll admit I do it too.) In colloquial terms, the gratin of society is the French equivalent of the "cream" of society, just the kind of distinguished people who wouldn’t be caught dead scraping the crispy remains from the side of a dish.

To scrape or scratch

But the rest of us – who throw caution to the wind when it comes to seeming dignified at all times – love our gratin. We brown a dish under the broiler, or in professional kitchens, under a salamander or overhead broiler. Gratiner means to brown or to broil, but that’s not quite right, is it ? “Broiled onion soup” ?

No, the verb gratiner is related to gratter, to scrape or scratch, which is precisely what my friends do while hiding away in the kitchen. But if you’re eating your own personal gratinéed onion soup, you don’t have to hide anywhere. In fact, I’ve scraped gratin in plain sight in many circumstances, including in a grand old château at five o’clock in the morning.

Soup in a chamber pot ?

My ex-husband’s extended family liked to do things the old-fashioned way, so when his cousins got married, they rented a château south of Paris for the entire weekend. The “just marrieds” arrived by helicopter, and dinner and dancing lasted until dawn.

Before we could all retire to our dormitory-style rooms and fall into bed, we had to give chase to the newlyweds, who had gone to bed long before the guests. According to the tradition, we searched for their room (kept a secret) and when we finally found it, tucked away in a hidden corner of the château, we invited them to partake of onion soup – served in a chamber pot ! After which all the guests enjoyed a steaming bowl of gratinéed onion soup (served in a bowl).

Horizontal dancing

The restorative broth, hearty croutons, and bubbling cheese – all served in lion’s head bowls (available in Paris at La Vaissellerie) – revived everyone for one last dance before bedtime/morning. And if you ask any French caterer who does weddings, you’ll find that they always know how to make a good gratinéed onion soup.

As for the soup’s invention, legend has it that Louis XV was responsible for the first gratinéed onion soup. One night – probably after some horizontal dancing with one of his alleged 300 mistresses – he had a faim de loup. (Even though I was just a kid back in the 80s, I kind of suspected that Duran Duran didn’t invent the expression “Hungry Like the Wolf.”)

Should you hide ?

So King Louis made do with what few ingredients he could find in the kitchen to make some soup : onions, butter, and Champagne. Over time, the soup became a poor man’s repast – without Champagne, but with the addition of simple white wine or slightly more luxurious Calvados (apple brandy). A 1651 recipe from François Pierre La Varenne includes capers and vinegar, but I prefer the no-frills recipe I’ve included below.

So should you hide when scraping the gratin dish ? No ! Fellow gratinée fan, let us hold our heads high (while also looking down at the gratin dish), and scrape away !

Gratinéed onion soup

Bubbling crispy melted cheese on baguette croutons ? Check. Restorative onion broth underneath ? Check !

Nothing’s better than the simplicity of French onion soup. It’s just perfect in the beginning of fall, especially if the rentrée, or back-to-school period, and the season’s first cold snap have all left you feeling a little run down.

Since there are only a few ingredients in this traditional soup, they must be of high quality, especially the stock you use as your base. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to make your own stock ! Did you know that you can up your stock game by purchasing organic chicken stock at the supermarket, and adding some aromatics to make it even better ? (And then you can say it’s homemade – sort of)..

This recipe is adapted from one of my very favorite cookbooks, French Cooking by Hubert Delorme and Vincent Boué.

ingredients :
- 1¼ pound (600g) large onions
- 4 tablespoons (60g) butter
- ⅓ cup (80ml) Calvados, sherry, or white wine
- 8-8½ cups (2 liters) clear chicken stock
- 1-2 parsley stems
- 1 sprig of thyme, or a pinch of dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
- freshly ground pepper, to taste
- slices of baguette for croutons (number will depend on size of baguette and your bowls)
- 5 ounces (150g) grated gruyere cheese

how to make it :
1. Peel, wash, and slice onions thinly – if you like, use a food processor to make quick work and fewer tears.
2. Melt the butter in a large soup pot over medium heat until it begins to foam.
3. Add the onions, and sauté over medium heat for 18-20 minutes, or until onions begin to caramelize, stirring every few minutes.
4. Deglaze (add Calvados, sherry, or wine), and let boil, stirring frequently. Reduce until the onions look syrupy (about 3 minutes).
5. Add the stock and bring to the boil. Add parsley stems, thyme, salt, and pepper. Lower heat and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally and skimming if necessary.
6. Remove the parsley stems and thyme branches from the soup. Make the croutons by cutting ½ to ¾-inch slices of baguette and toasting them lightly in a toaster oven.
7. Preheat the broiler of your oven. Taste the soup and adjust seasoning, then serve into individual gratin soup bowls (lug bowls) or any oven-proof bowl. Place the croutons lightly onto the soup – if they sink a little that’s okay, but all those onions should provide a nice “raft” on which the croutons can float.
8. Sprinkle the croutons with the grated cheese, and place the soup bowls onto a baking pan, and then under the broiler. Let the cheese brown, or gratiner, about 5-7 minutes, depending on your broiler. Enjoy hot from the oven, but warn your guests so they don’t burn themselves with the melted cheese. Bon app’ !

serves 8 as a first course, or 4-5 as a main course ; makes about 6-7 cups



Tags : French onion soup , Gratinéed onion soup , French wedding , François Pierre La Varenne , soup recipe , food history


Comments

modération a priori

Ce forum est modéré a priori : votre contribution n’apparaîtra qu’après avoir été validée par un administrateur du site.

Qui êtes-vous ?
Votre message
  • Pour créer des paragraphes, laissez simplement des lignes vides.






Want a free recipe and article about Paris in your inbox every month ? Sign up for free updates, with tips and inspiration from Parisian artists. A bientôt !



Latest recipes