There were six girls dressed in their best clothes, flared skirts, high heels, nice scarves to protect their neat hair set, white blouses and pretty jumpers, red lipstick and even movie star sunglasses. They came home to a beautiful sunny morning in November. One of them, Virginia, was getting married and Francesca, a mutual friend, decided to organize a hen party out of the ordinary for her… a cooking class.
To make the class even more unique we travelled back to the roaring 50s. I was the next Julia Child with a string of (fake) pearls, a long chocolate brown skirt form my graduation ceremony and an embroidered blouse I only wear for special occasions. Well dressed, with my best polka dots apron, I would teach her the dish that you just cannot miss in the repertoire of a modern perfect bride.
And what was it, you might ask… a golden brown roasted chicken with crispy skin? fresh pasta to welcome home your loving husband after a hard day of work? A cheese soufflé from the French school? none of these. The groom had a special request, the onion soup.
Yep, I made the same blank expression. The onion… what? really? for a hen party? Though the groom had expressed this wish in many an occasion, and we could not let him down right now. The onion soup would represent the taste of home in their newlywed family tradition, it would be the symbol of their union, of something done with love. It could be worse, he could have asked for stewed snails!
Though there was a problem, I had never made an onion soup before… So I browsed through all my cookbooks – and they are many – in search of a soup that could be traditional and in the same time tasty, a classic winter comfort food. Eventually I found it. I tried it, then I made it again and again, and every time I was amazed by how a dish so humble, nothing more than a cutting board full of onions and many tears, could be at the same time so full of flavours and different shades.
I decided to follow Jamie Oliver’s recipe for the English onion soup with sage and cheddar, a classic one very similar to the Italian and the French version, though I made it more mine, using a very good extra virgin Italian olive oil (my olive oil), Italian golden and red onions and especially an aged Tuscan pecorino cheese. This soup requires a long cooking time, but let me tell you this: each and every single minute you’ll spend listening to the pot simmering on the stove is worth of you patience. It takes time to have soft and sweet onions and a thick soup.
The best way to serve the onion soup is into individual heatproof serving bowls (enamel, cast iron or earthenware): place a slice of bread over each bowl to fit like a lid, then put them in the oven. If you do not have serving bowls suitable for the oven don’t worry, go ahead and make your soup: you can ladle it into simple bowls, the ones you would use every day, and toast the bread on its own in the oven, already sprinkled with grated pecorino cheese, sage and drizzled with olive oil.
- 4 medium-sized red onions
- 4 medium-sized golden onions
- 1 leek
- 4 shallots
- 1 clove of garlic
- 50 g of butter
- Extra virgin olive oil
- A few leaves of sage
- 600 ml of hot good-quality beef chicken or vegetable broth or or hot salted water
- Black pepper
- 4 slices of bread
- Tuscan pecorino cheese
Peel the onions and slice thinly, do the same with the shallot, then set it aside. Remove the outer leaves of the leek and slice thinly. Crush the garlic with the blade of a knife.
Pour a glug of olive oil in a large thick bottomed pot, then add the butter. Add the crushed garlic, the thinly sliced shallots and a few leaves of sage, then let it cook on low heat for a few minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon.
Add the onions and the leeks, stir again with the wooden spoon and add a pinch of salt.
Cook slowly on low heat for about 45 minutes.
When the onions are soft and silky add the broth and cook over low heat for about half an hour or until the soup is thick enough for you.
Preheat the oven or grill to maximum. Toast the bread on both sides, then ladle the soup into individual serving bowls and place the bread over each bowl. Sprinkle the bread with plenty of grated pecorino cheese, add a sage leaf and finish with a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil and some freshly ground black pepper.
But the bowl in the oven under the grill until the cheese is melting and golden, then carefully remove from the oven and serve immediately.
A few other ideas to make the perfect onion soup:
- a classic one, from Elle à table, soupe à l’oignon gratinée, made by the book
- another French onion soup made by Smitten Kitchen, inspired by Julia Child and her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking
- if you want to add skills and a good reading, How to cook perfect french onion soup, written by Felicity Cloak for The Guardian,
- last link, a very Tuscan and old onion soup, the carabaccia, the same soup that Caterina de’ Medici might have brought to France and that influenced the French soup à l’oignon, beautifully photographed by Alessandro Guerani.