If you follow the Church calendar, you will notice a rhythm — a flow — that courses a cycle patterned after Nature itself. In the dark and cold, the Church awaits its Light, and finds it in the nadir of darkness and coldness. As lilies emerge out of the lifeless ground, knowing before we do that warmth is on its way, New Life defeats Death. Within that polarity, light and dark, hot and cold, saints are remembered, feasts are celebrated, penances are performed, and souls are saved.
If Epiphany flows from Christmas, then it makes sense (to me) that the meal to mark it should also flow from Christmas. At Christmastime, we make a standing rib roast (in fact, this year, we made three such roasts), the bones from which can be saved to make a rich beef stock. From this beef stock we can make French Onion Soup, with just a few additional ingredients.
A great French Onion Soup is savory and sweet; aromatic, oniony, and beefy; crunchy (from the crouton and crusty bits of melted cheese); chewy, sinewy and stringy from the cheese melted within. It’s one of those distinctive inventions, drawn from a culinary tradition that respects using all of the parts of an animal, turning time into an ally of flavor, and combining simple ingredients to reach a sensual apex of cuisine.
French Onion Soup is pure gastronomic theater: a beautiful layer of melted caramelized Gruyere shrouds the steaming contents within. As soon as it served, you can smell just how great it will be. And, to eat it properly, you must bring your face, mouth and nose as close to the bowl as possible to bear the long strings of melted cheese to their destination. If you wear eyeglasses like I do, you can let the steam of the soup fog up your glasses so that you are temporarily blinded by its glory and so that you can pretend that you opened a door to the truly perfect French Steam Bath.
First, make the stock a day or two before. Take your largest stock pot, throw in your roasted bones, fill with water, add chopped carrots, celery and onions, and some salt, and simmer for a period of hours. Usually at least eight hours is required to adequately and completely extract all of the goodness and flavor from the bones. You may also have to replenish the stock pot with additional water midway through simmering to combat evaporation. After cooling, strain the liquid into a storage container and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. (N.B.: after chilling in the refrigerator, a layer of fat will harden on the surface, which you should discard before using the stock.)
QUARTERMASTER’S FRENCH ONION SOUP
Makes approximately 30 servings
12 quarts beef stock, preferably homemade
2 quarts water
2 quarts Cheshire Cheese Stout, or another dry stout
10 pounds yellow onions, thinly sliced into semi-circles
3 pounds of good-quality Gruyere cheese, or, in extremis, Emmenthauler
1 cup (two sticks) butter
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
4 bay leaves
1 bunch (6-7 “sprigs”) fresh thyme
30 black peppercorns
1/2 cup flour
salt and black pepper, to taste
Balsamic vinegar, to taste
Cheesecloth and butcher’s twine, for bouquet garni
2 crusty French baguettes, sliced on bias
1. Divide the sliced onions in half, placing one half in your 20-quart stock pot and the other half in a deep skillet with one stick of butter and some salt.
2. Over low heat, begin cooking the onions in the skillet in the butter (this process will caramelize the onions over a period of hours, do not rush it or permit the onions to burn), stirring occasionally
3. Add the beef stock, water, and stout to the onions in the stock pot and set over high heat.
4. Make a bouquet garni with the bay leaves, thyme and peppercorns and tie with a long piece of twine which you can attach to the handle of the stock pot (to prevent it from touching the bottom of the stock pot [and possibly burning]).
5. Bring the stock pot to boil and then reduce heat to a simmer, allow to cook for a period of several hours, alongside the onions in the skillet, which should continue to caramelize.
6. After at least two hours, the onions in the skillet will be very soft, and have a very sweet aroma and flavor. They should look a deep amber color, like a rich caramel, but they should not be burned at all. Add the flour to the skillet, incorporate into the onions, and cook for an additional 5-10 minutes.
7. Empty the contents of the skillet into the stock pot and stir.
8. This is a good time to check the seasoning. Do not be afraid to use the necessary amount of salt. Otherwise, the soup will be very bland. Remember, salt of the earth… For such a large quantity, I usually add a teaspoon of salt at a time, checking after each addition (and allowing for the fact that as the soup continues to cook, it will reduce further).
9. Next in seasoning, add ground pepper, and finally the acid. I prefer to use something like balsamic vinegar, but other things will work too. Again, add a tablespoon or so at a time; what you’re looking for is a flavor contrast: French onion soup is salty and sweet, and the hinge is the acid — there should be just enough tartness to allow the palate to appreciate the saltiness and sweetness. If you do this gradually, you will be able to observe how the acid works on the flavor, and how the soup can be brought into a correct balance.
10. Continue to cook at a low simmer for at least two hours more, and then reduce heat so that the soup stays hot but does not continue to cook. Remove the bouquet garni and discard.
12. Melt the remaining butter and add the olive oil.
13. Brush both sides of the bread slices with the butter-oil mixture and place on a baking sheet. Cook in the oven for 5-6 minutes, remove and flip the slices, and return to over for an additional 4-5 minutes, or until they are toasted, crunchy, and golden brown. Remove and set aside until the soup is ready to assemble.
14. Make a decision regarding whether you will slice or grate the cheese. Personally, I prefer slicing, especially for the cheese that tops the soup and gets broiled, because it provides a more even layer. Slicing is somewhat less labor-intensive. Slice, or grate, the cheese.
[A Note here on Cheese: the better it is, the better the soup will be. Don’t spend days (if you include the stock preparation) making this only to top it with cheap supermarket Swiss cheese. This is an economical recipe; the most expensive ingredient is the cheese. A good Gruyere to use is Le Comte (a raw cow’s milk cheese), and while not cheap ($10.99/pound) it is widely available and can usually be found at Trader Joe’s or Costco.]
15. After all of the croutons are toasted, raise the top oven rack to a good position under the broiler and turn on the broiler in the oven to at least 500 degrees.
16. For assembly, fill the soup into an oven-proof bowl (a “fancy” white crock or “hearthy” brown crock with a handle are the most common vessels to use), add some cheese into the soup, and then place two croutons on top; do not submerge the croutons into the soup. The point here is to retain the crunchiness of the crouton as a texture contrast for the rich smooth cheese and broth. Let the crouton be as a Barque sailing over the soup-waters of the French Onion Sea. Cover it with additional cheese.
17. Broil the filled crocks of soup until the top layer of cheese is completely melted, bubbling and golden brown, usually less than five minutes.
18. Serve immediately, with additional bread and salad, if desired.
As a meal, French Onion Soup is one of those things which, upon finishing, you will draw back into a moment of quiet contemplation and contentment — possibly more aware of the majesty of God, who delivers His goodness in the form of animal bones and white-yellow layered orbs that grow in the ground, and brought to reflection on a Greatness that intends human genius capable of bringing about such transformation: humble ingredients transfigured to become wholesome and wonderful, just like us when we submit to His will.
It is that good!