I have many memories of late-night gratinée parties in our Lyon restaurant kitchen or at our house when I was a young man. When my brothers and I would go out at night, we usually came back with friends at 2 or 3 A.M. and traditionally prepared onion soup gratinée in the winter—and even in the summer—in the middle of the night. There are several versions of onion soup, and the ones served in restaurants rarely match the rich and crusty version we enjoyed as children.
My mother’s recipe for this soup was made with water rather than stock. I liked it, although I have come to prefer the ones made with chicken stock. Using butter, she browned her onions more than anyone else I’ve ever seen, for 20 or 30 minutes, or until they were a mahogany color, with some of them almost black. She would then add a little sprinkling of flour, a little garlic, and some water, and cook this mixture for 30 minutes before putting it through a food mill. The result was a rich, dark, slightly thickened onion bouillon. She poured this into a large soup tureen containing a lot of sliced leftover country bread (grospain) that she had browned in the oven. Half the tureen was bread, and the rest was filled with her broth. She then covered the broth with grated cheese and baked the soup for about 1 hour in a hot oven. Often, in the classic Lyon style, she would bring the large tureen of puffy golden soup to the table, make a hole in the center with her ladle, and pour in a mixture of egg yolks and port wine that she had combined in her soup plate. She then would stir the gratinée, crust and all, into a thick, hot mélange and serve it right away in hot soup plates. It was a meal in itself.
I make my gratinée the way we prepared it in Paris. It is baked in brown earthenware onion soup bowls that have a little ear or handle on either side. Do not use bowls with a straight edge; use slightly rounded bowls with a wide rim around the top. This is important, because it is on that wide rim that the grated cheese topping is pressed, hanging a little over the edge. As it cooks, the cheese sticks to the rim of the bowl, preventing the beautiful crust from sinking into the soup. Use a good chicken stock, flavorful, not too heavy, not too dark, and preferably homemade. I like yellow Bermuda onions; they have character but are not too acidic or strong in flavor.
In 1970, I opened a soup restaurant called La Potagerie on Fifth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets in New York City. We prepared four different thick stewlike soups every day, but we made only thirtysix onion soup gratinées—we didn’t have oven space to do more. They were made like this recipe and were ready at the beginning of the lunch service. When we brought them to the dining room, they disappeared in the first fifteen minutes of the service.
Gloria and I have to have onion soup a few times during the winter, and when we prepare it like this, it is essentially dinner. We usually enjoy it with a salad, a bottle of red wine, and fruit for dessert. Be careful not to burn yourself when eating through the brown, crusty cheese top that keeps this soup boiling hot.
- 1 baguette
- 1 pound onions
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon corn oil or peanut oil
- 8 cups chicken stock
- 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¾ pound Emmenthaler, Gruyere, or Jarlsberg cheese
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut the baguette into ½-inch slices, arrange the slices in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and bake in the oven for 8 to 10 minutes, until nicely browned.
Peel and slice the onions by hand or in a food processor. Brown the onions in a sturdy saucepan with the butter and corn or peanut oil over fairly high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. The onions should be golden brown, soft, and have a wonderful aroma. Add the chicken stock and the garlic (a little touch of garlic makes this soup taste more like my mother’s). Bring to a strong boil, then reduce the heat and cook at a gentle boil for about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Using the big-hole side of a box grater to create thick threads, grate the cheese.
Preheat the oven to 425°F. Arrange six rounded onion soup crocks with about a 1½-cup capacity on a cookie sheet. Place 6 to 8 toasted baguette slices in each of the bowls, and sprinkle 1 or 2 tablespoons of the cheese on top. Fill the bowls to the rim with the soup mixture, adding water or chicken stock if you don’t have quite enough liquid to fill the bowls completely. Just before putting the bowls in the oven, sprinkle about ½ cup of grated cheese on top of each. (You will notice that some of the bread will have risen to the top at this point, so you will have a bread base for the cheese.) Make certain that the cheese adheres to the rim of each bowl, pressing it around the edge with your thumb, so it will hold firm and melt there as it cooks. Let some of the cheese hang over the edge; it will form a crust. Place the tray in the oven, and bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese is golden, puffed, and crusty and the soup is very hot.