Most recipes for this classic use beef stock or broth. This version, however, uses only water – the intense flavor of the caramelized onions provides more than enough depth of flavor for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. And it comes from a genuine French cook, a professor of French literature at the University of Illinois, U-C. She demonstrated its preparation at a tiny cheese shop in Champaign one fall weekend when I was a student there. I’ve been making it her way ever since.
- 4 c. sliced yellow or white onions,
- NOT super-sweet
- 1/2 c. sliced shallots
- 12 cloves garlic, sliced
- 6 T. unsalted butter, divided
- 4 c. chicken stock, or other stock such as beef or vegetable
- 2 c. leeks, white part only, thinly sliced
- Salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
- Thinly sliced scallions for garnish
Uncover the skillet, stir the onions to scrape up any browned bits on the bottom, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are dark, caramelized and gooey. This will take at least 45 minutes and probably will take more than an hour.
Put the onions into a large pot and return the skillet to the stove. Increase the heat to high, add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom to deglaze the pan. Add some of the water if needed.
Pour the wine deglazing mixture into the pot with the onions, add the remaining water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for at least 30 minutes to combine the flavors. Season to taste with salt and pepper (and a little more vinegar if you like). The soup may be prepared ahead of time up to this point – in fact, it actually improves the flavor to let it stand for awhile. Refrigerate the soup if you are holding for more than an hour or two.
Remove the bay leaves and reheat the soup if necessary.
Preheat the broiler.
To serve: Ladle the hot soup into deep ovenproof bowls, leaving about 1 inches of space. Place a slice of bread on top of the soup and push it carefully and gently a little bit into the liquid. The bread shouldn’t be completely submerged, just well moistened on the bottom.
Sprinkle the grated cheese generously over the bread. It’s OK if some of the shreds of cheese hang a little bit over the sides.
Place the bowls on a baking sheet (this helps prevent tipping and spills) and place under the broiler. Broil until the cheese is melted, bubbly and just beginning to brown. Carefully remove the bowls from the broiler, using hot pads. (Remember, the bowls are HOT!) Place each bowl on a plate and serve immediately.
Serves 6-8 as a main course, 12 or more as an appetizer.