French Onion Soup: Lost and Found

            Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée–skip the story and get the recipe here

I married at 20 in 1974, and while I had a basic knowledge of cooking thanks to my food-loving parents, being in total charge of making sure there was food on the table for two people every day came as a bit of a shock.

After all, I had other things to do. There were two part-time jobs (one in a university office and one at a local restaurant–an old school red sauce place, by the way) and I went to school full time. I had a million books I wanted to read (and did) and I sang wherever and whenever I could. There were friends to hang out with, walks to take, dreams to make.  And I had to student teach sometime if I wanted to graduate!  What a body-blow it was to assume most of the burden for shopping, housework, and laundry because, well, that’s how things were despite my finest efforts to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. There were more than a few battles over those things, you could rightly assume. Perhaps an issue or two still occasionally floats to the surface because, well, I guess life has to remain interesting and we’re sometimes still working something out.  (Who is cleaning out the laundry room this week, by the way?)

Alyce and Dave 1974

One way or another, perhaps because I had a terrible habit — I liked to eat — we did find a way to snarf down two or three meals a day, mostly at home. Fast food simply wasn’t as easily available then as now and we had little cash for restaurant meals fast or slow. A treat was coffee at the university union. One fine boon was working regularly at a restaurant that provided dinner for staff. I rarely finished that huge free meal, so made a habit of taking it home for the next day or for my always-hungry, size 28-waist husband. When someone didn’t pick up their pizza (usually a prank), that sweet box found its way into the back eat of my car thanks to a kind-hearted boss. Once in a while Dave subbed for the pizza delivery guy; we were oh-so-thankful for those nights when we both snagged a free dinner.

below: snazzy Dave at left with old friend Frank Grzych in his best leisure suit.

Credit, Danny Izzo

But, of course, there were all the other meals and nights when dinner had to somehow magically occur.  Could Dave cook? Of course he could. He made Hamburger Helper, though even then that wasn’t something I was going to eat much of. I had $15 a week to feed us and feed us I was going to do. We had two cookbooks, one of which was full of recipes I had mostly never heard of or for which I couldn’t afford the ingredients, and the other was BETTY CROCKER, which became my bible. I luckily had the home kitchen muscle-memory knowledge, as well, even if I could only barely drum up vague memories of how to make something. To top it all off, the kitchen and dining room equipment — all shower and wedding gifts — somehow “belonged” to me. If you own it, you deal with it; isn’t that how it is? (To be fair, Dave “owned” the lawnmower and other assorted power tools we later acquired.)  In those days, there were few worries about calories, fat, or carbs; we simply needed food. Starting out with obvious homey dishes from my childhood like fried chicken with mashed potatoes or rice and gravy, I quickly graduated to attempting worldly dinners (think Pepper Steak on rice) that put unheard of items such as ginger and soy sauce on my shopping list.  Soon we were having professors and friends or family to dinner, showing off our beautiful dishes, new silverware, and flowered tablecloths with matching napkins. I repeated some dishes frequently enough that I could get them on the table without any teeth grinding, but trying out something new on the university choir director –my lifelong hero, Bob Hills, was no problem either. I had no idea there should be angst over cooking for people or serving them a meal. Or that maybe you figure out how to make a sauce before 6pm on a Saturday night when the living room is full of guests. My own family had lived to cook and eat together and I could not imagine any other sort of life.

Alyce and Mom, 1954

An inveterate soup maker, my Dad in cold weather nearly always had a pot of something going. You’ll remember this if you’ve read this blog for very long.  I had little idea just how he did that, but it held my lifelong interest. No vegetable-beef soup (one of his big claims to fame) for me right then, oh, no; one of my next cooking attempts was French Onion Soup–Oo la la!  It wasn’t in either of my two cookbooks…

(above: see those two and a few more besides in a recent photo) but while it’s hard to imagine a world without the internet, it just didn’t exist when we married. There were borrowed recipes you sat and copied onto 3×5 or 4×6 cards or, if you were really devoted to the idea, you might go to the library and see what you could find. I did neither to figure out that soup. I just made it up, which was about what most folks did. I cooked onions in butter, added water and a can or two of Campbell’s condensed beef consommé, and poured the whole gloppy mess over the only bread I could find in the house (stale toasted English muffins with butter), adding some sort of cheese on top. I have no memory of what it was, though it may have been a can of — horror of horrors– grated Kraft Parmesan. I liked it. So did Dave. So did everyone who ate it. I mean, who knew from French Onion Soup in 1975? (If only I had been reading the NYT more regularly then. I could have saved myself a lot of trouble here.) The only other possibility (a no-go for me) was the wildly popular dried onion soup that also made our chip dip when we were flush enough to buy sour cream, which wasn’t often.  The pièce de résistance was this:  I had received handled oven-safe soup bowls (typical French Onion soup bowls) as a shower gift. So I baked that soup in the oven and if it’s in the right bowls, it must the real deal, right? (I still have the bowls out in the garage, though I’ve replaced a few and added a slew more over the years.)

As years went by, though, we moved all around for a total of 25 times. I received cook books for Christmas presents every year and bought every other volume I could and couldn’t afford. We ended up in Europe for a couple of years where we met more people who cooked (I borrowed ideas and recipes freely from them as did they from me) and my onion soup recipe improved.  At some point I realized there should be wine in the soup (WINE??!!) and that maybe the broth could be chicken and perhaps homemade–an expensive endeavor then as now. Oh, and baguettes and olive oil and real Parmigiano-Reggiano began to make appearances in the places I shopped stateside. I hadn’t yet heard of Gruyère, though I bought it as soon as I did. And then I stopped making French Onion Soup. I don’t know why, except that by then I had four kids.

Here we are with my sisters and their kids, mid-90’s. Some things never change.

Perhaps it didn’t appeal as children rarely like onions unless they can’t see them.  I began, instead, making hearty soup-stews (Vegetable Beef for sure), 2 pork tenderloins at a time with 6 cups of rice, spaghetti, chili, tacos, chicken and dumplings, ground beef stroganoff, chicken-broccoli casserole. I became pretty adept at making birthday cakes and even better at baking pies.

Dave and Alyce 1985 — Spokane, WA

You get the gist. Much later I’d even write a soup book and…no, there was no French Onion Soup in it. (There was Ribollita, though–another lovely bread-soup.) I mean, why? That was stuff I made before the kids; onion soup felt passé and pretty old school. Boring enough versions were served nearly everywhere–even in France, where is should have been top-drawer every time, but wasn’t.  It even occurred to me that it was darned caloric and it was; it still is. Imagine a six-inch deep grilled cheese sandwich with fried onions and you have the picture. I mean, how many calories is that???

Fast forward years. My good friend and neighbor Jim Mahoney (pictured above), who has done several cooking classes with me over time and lives cattywampus from us with his lovely wife Christa, handed me a recipe one day and said, “I’ve always wanted to make this, but just haven’t. Could we have a private class and do it?”  “Sure,” says I, little knowing that time would go on and on — how embarrassing — and I couldn’t get it scheduled. Jim would go to Germany; we’d fly to France.  I’d visit friends in St. Paul; Jim headed for Hilton Head with Christa. Over last Christmas, we just assigned a January day to do it — and still ended up postponing it one more week!

Jim’s recipe, stored in his kitchen for 12 years and through 2 kitchen remodels, was from Amanda Hesser’s article,  “Recipe Redux –1907: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée”. (New York Times Magazine, February 11, 2007)  Note:  You can look it up if you take the NEW YORK TIMES or have bought a subscription for the recipes. I glanced briefly at it and without much thought assumed that while it looked like onion soup, perhaps it was more of a pie or a gratin? I had puff pastry or something in my mind, but didn’t look closely enough to figure it out. I did, though, as time went on, and we still hadn’t had our class, save a new onion tart recipe, and also tore out Samin Nosrat ‘s “The Ancestor of French Onion Soup” (NYT Magazine, February  4, 2018)  meaning to compare them all at some point. Good intentions had I.  Last week, and none too soon, I read the entire article, re-read and saw we were making a savory bread pudding or a panade, as a Samin Nosrat would call it in her article, but it still wasn’t a soup, per se.

Noun. panade f (plural panades) A soup boiled in water from bread, butter, sometimes also egg yolk and milk. A paste, typically made of milk and bread. (figuratively) A state or experience of misery, poverty.

–courtesy Wiktionary

(You might, as cooks, think of a panade as something we use to tenderize meatballs –milk soaked in bread and squeezed dry — and you’d be right. In this case, it’s just a bit different.)

Insert squinty eyes.  To settle my hash –and later Jim’s — I went in search of regular old French Onion Soup recipes. What was the difference between the 1907 recipe and what I thought of as more typical ones? I didn’t need many to figure it out. There were two in my 1971 Harper and Row edition of THE NEW YORK TIMES INTERNATIONAL COOKBOOK by Craig Claiborne (drawings by James J. Spanfeller)…and I had my favorite Frenchy go-tos, Patricia Wells’ BISTRO COOKBOOK and Jacques Pépin’s ESSENTIAL PEPIN to check while I was at it.

While there were differences, naturally, what it boiled down to (ha), wasn’t seriously much. Maybe we could call it style or time or texture or even ingredients available.  Stock instead of water–and how much of it.  Wine or not. (Patricia:  yay and Jacques: no) Higher/lower oven temperature.  Garlic: yes or no?  (Claiborne: yay; Patricia and Jacques: no) Whether or not to use old stale or toasted bread. Simmer atop the stove and bake or simmer only? In small crocks or in a big “casserole” (a cast iron pot or dutch oven for Americans). Jacque Pépin and Craig Claibourne’s Lyonnaise-style version included egg yolks and port wine poured in at the end–perhaps this is the foundation for the widely-held idea that French Onion Soup is the perfect hangover cure. (Let me know if you find out.)   And, by the way, I seem to remember from old photos and stories that Jacques Pépin and Craig Claiborne (Food editor and often restaurant critic for the New York Times for 29 years) were long-time cooking friends back in the day. If those recipes are similar, it shouldn’t surprise us.

The most basic and helpful knowledge might be this darned pot full of goodness was born out of economy and necessity to feed masses of people working long dark hours at Les Halles, the long-gone, but still famous Paris market. (Scroll down to read a short article about that.) A thin brothy meal mustn’t have been enough and anyway, where was all that old bread going except into soup to thicken it up. The French are notoriously picky about the freshness of their bread and rightfully so as it doesn’t keep worth a _ _ _ _. Hence “French” toast (pain perdu or “lost bread”) and so on.

I deduced the following. It was finally just so tasty, though, its goodness spread far beyond Paris, all through France, and then into the world, and finally to many of my small kitchens–and yours– throughout the U.S. Whether it’s a soup or a casserole might be for you to decide. My own idea of definition finally sits comfortably around the feeling that Onion Soup is Onion Soup–no matter where that soup is made. (Hungarian Onion Soup, for instance, can have little dumplings in it. German Onion Soup could feature bacon and caraway.) Its bottom-line ingredients are fat, onions, herbs, salt, pepper, and lots of some sort of liquid whether it’s bubbling in Jerusalem or Berlin.  Add to that vegetable soup stale bread, butter, and cheese, put it all in the oven until it’s crispy, you then have Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée, (a gratin of onion soup) or what we Americans fondly call FRENCH ONION SOUP.  How soupy it is might be up to the cook and how long it bubbles in the oven. Maybe everyone else but me got that from the start, but I had to figure it out. It took nearly 45 years, too. Deep sigh.

 ( below, photo 3 is from my copy of Claiborne’s NYT INTERNATIONAL COOKBOOK) 

I did, of course made the dish ahead of the class, realized it was absolutely a main course — not a soup or a side –and fell in love with it all over again. Maybe because it was somewhat of an improved recipe over my young bride attempts or maybe because my early cook’s dreams resurfaced in the happiest of ways. What’s not to love when God’s own amount of salty butter meets that much bread and celebrates by showering itself with cheese? For consistency in this particular version, think trés (very) moist bread pudding without the smallest trace of sweetness or milk, for that matter. For taste, simply remember–can you?–the best French Onion Soup you’ve ever had or could dream of (it may not have been in France.) When you make it, don’t cave and use broth instead of water; believe and trust in the power of water here. For addiction, well, just hold that thought and know you’ll want more. Hot, warm, cool, cold, leftover, frozen and reheated–you’ll truly hanker after this just about any way you can get it.

below:  after simmering stove top and before baking (yes, there’s tomato in this)

Ok, then. Back to Jim and me cooking together. After a long and fun afternoon of cooking, our lucky spouses joined us to reap the rewards of our hard work.  Here’s the menu…

Dave and Alyce with Jim and Christa in Paris:  Fall, 2017

We began the meal with an appetizer side of salmon Dave had smoked, served with a Sancerre rosé.  (Close readers will note Dave’s cooking has really come along over the years.) I next served the onion gratinée together with only lemony green beans in large shallow bowls and a top-favorite Sineann Pinot Noir from Oregon.  Caesar salad (no croutons, but just as old school) followed with a Santa Barbara California Chardonnay gifted from friend Sara Hillman, and–believe it or not– we then shared a nearly flourless chocolate-hazelnut cake, a torta gianduja, garnished with out of season raspberries and barely sweetened whipped cream, for dessert. You see it below just out of the oven by its own lonesome self. (Sorry as that picture doesn’t do it justice. I’ll have to plate it and photograph it another time.) I include a pic of the salmon from another time we served it–obviously during the holiday season.

And what about the “soup” recipe? Here it is– the recipe for a dish well worth its weight in onions as an entree which could easily be the updated star of a small dinner party with a few courses. Likewise, you could make only it for two lucky stiffs and live off the leftovers for a couple of days as Dave, still the love of my life, and I did. Just don’t forget the Oregon Pinot Noir, or even a yummy French Burgundy if you’re really in the money. Try it now:

below:  this is not the time to be stingy with the cheese

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée  (French Onion Soup)

Serves 6

The original recipe appeared in The Times in a 1974 article by Richard Olney and was later featured in an article by Amanda Hesser in the Times in 2007. I’ve adapted their luscious soup (or savory bread pudding or panade here), incorporating my own changes and additions. Thanks particularly to Samin Nosrat for a couple of ideas discovered and utilized from her smart and fun February 4, 2018, article in the NYT Magazine, “The Ancestor of French Onion Soup.” Give yourself a good 2 1/2 hours to make the dish, depending on how quickly you can slice 12 cups of onions or grate 9 ounces of cheese!  (That’s why God made food processors.) Once it’s in the oven, you have an hour to do as you please.  Please read through carefully before beginning.  If you have really stale baguette, skip the toasting.

  • 4 medium yellow onions, cut in half and  thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
  • 4 medium white onions, cut in half and thinly sliced  (about 6 cups)
  • 9 tablespoons salted butter, softened–divided (4 tablespoons for cooking onions, 5 tablespoons for spreading on bread)
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices (about 24 pieces)
  • 4 ounces Emmental cheese, finely grated (save 1/4 cup out for topping)
  • 5 ounces Gruyere cheese, finely grated (save 1/4 cup out for topping)
  • 1 1/2 quarts water (may need a bit less or more depending on size on pot)
  • 1 cup tomato purée (easiest: drain a can of chopped tomatoes and purée in the food processor)

1. In a 5 or 6 -quart sauté pan*, melt 4 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add the onions, season with 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until nearly soft.  Remove lid, raise heat a bit and continue to cook, watching carefully, until golden brown–perhaps as long as an 30-40 minutes or more. Patience is your finest virtue. Don’t give up and raise the heat in the interest of time as the onions may burn.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place slices of bread on a rimmed baking sheet and toast the them for 10 minutes.  Remove sheet from oven. Flip each piece of bread over, return to oven, and let toast another 5 minutes.  Remove to a rack and let them cool. Spread a generous layer of butter on each slice (you will need about 5 tablespoons), then lay the slices close together on a baking sheet and top with all but 1/2 cup of cheese–1/4 cup of each kind. (You’ll top the dish with that reserved cheese in a moment.)

3. In a saucepan or kettle, bring 1 1/2 quarts water to a boil and stir in 1 tablespoon kosher salt for a couple minutes until melted. No, it’s not too much salt.

4. While the water comes to a boil:   In a 5-quart casserole or heavy, oven-safe pot (I use a 5 1/2-quart cast iron Le Creuset pot), arrange a layer of buttered bread and cheese slices (about 1/3 of them). Spread 1/3 of the cooked onions on top, followed by 1/3 of the tomato purée. Repeat for two more layers. Sprinkle with the reserved 1/2 cup cheese. To avoid boiling over, the casserole must not be more than 2/3 full.

5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees again if you haven’t left it on. At the edge of the bread, butter, and cheese, gently push back the layers from top to bottom to create a small space (about 1″ x 2″) to add the hot water. Very slowly and carefully pour the hot salted water– using the space you’ve created–into the casserole so that the liquid rises just to the top layer of cheese without covering it. You may need to stop, press down the bread layers, allow the water to absorb, and then continue pouring. (Depending on the size of your casserole, you may need more or less water.)

6. Put the casserole or pot on the stove and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, transfer to a baking sheet, and place the oven and bake uncovered for 1 hour. The soup or panade is ready when the surface looks like a crusty, golden cake and the inside is unctuous and so well blended that it is impossible to discern either cheese or onion. Each person is served some of the baked crust and some of the inside, which should be thick but not completely without liquid.

*If you don’t have a sauté pan 4 or so inches deep, you can accomplish this in two large skillets or in a heavy soup pot, thought the soup pot could take even longer.  There are 12 cups of onions that you don’t want to cook in too deep of a layer or they may never brown.

{printable recipe}


So Where Did French Onion Soup Come From?

Fun and fast background/history–“The Curious History of French Onion Soup, Paris’ Timeless Hangover Cure” –Munchies

Wherever the original recipe came from, however, it was in the restaurants surrounding les Halles—the Poule au Pot, Chez Baratte, the Pied de Cochon—that this soup gained its acclaim, thanks to the addition of one key element: the gratinée.  ( courtesy — Munchies)

gratinée (plural gratinées)

  1. Synonym of gratin quotations ▼

gratinée (third-person singular simple present gratinées, present participle gratinéeing, simple past and past participle gratinéed)

  1. To bake a dish so that it has a gratinée (crust) on top

defintion courtesy: wiktionary

New York Times, 1974

“In Praise of La Panade”  —  Richard Olney, New York Times, December 1, 1974

How About another French Onion Soup Recipe?

Jacque Pepin’s Onion Soup Gratinée Lyonnaise

RIP Mary Oliver

“What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?”


4 thoughts on “French Onion Soup: Lost and Found

  1. I loved reading this “story” – so many people from back in the day and how we all began with the Noritake china and silver candle sticks holders! My cooking certainly has not progressed like yours but those fancy new things made me want to put on the dog with company and try those recipes in Betty Crocker. How wonderful that your passion for cooking and living all over the world plays into your creative talent and knowledge about cooking – not to give less credit for all those ideas in those cookbooks. What a fun read!!! Thank you and hope all is well with you and yours! Love you ~ Froncie

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