My first visit to Paris, in 1979, had one item on its culinary list: onion soup from a traditional bistro. I have no idea why this concept was stuck in my head; I had never had any form of onion soup, and was not at a stage of my life in which I had any great interest in any food beyond roast and three vegies. And that was not just me. Creative food as a fundamental of daily life—as it was and is through Europe and Asia—was nowhere near Australia’s DNA. It’s hard to believe, four decades later, that main streets in Australia were not then lined by restaurants, and the concept of a food channel on TV was as likely then as a no-dimensional narcissist firming to become a 50-50 chance to be president of the United States.
That trip opened my eyes to the beauty of food, its importance to culture and history, and the opportunities that existed back home if excellence and proper techniques were applied to the entire offering—from food preparation and presentation, to service, and the total environment of the dining room. Three years after that trip I had opened my first restaurant, trying to apply what was second nature to the pros in France and Italy.
But that was to come, well after that first sip of soupe à l’oignon. Like so many firsts, the soup was a disappointment. The presentation was classically theatrical—a bubbling cauldron covered by thick toast, with molten cheese as its overcoat, presented to table with French flair. Anxious to get cracking, I hoed in, and burnt the top of my mouth, my tongue and my self-esteem.
Onions, always cheap and plentiful, form the basis of many of the great cuisines—from the great stocks of France to the rich curries of India. The onions in the classic French soup are generally cooked to a rich, brown darkness, all but disintegrated (French Laundry’s famed chef Thomas Keller’s recipe has the onions cooking for five hours). This soup, based on a recipe by Philippe Mouchel’s father Raymond, moderates not just the cooking of the onions, but also replaces the usual wine with the unusual cider. In his book More Than French (Slattery Media, 2011), Mouchel writes that his father “had no interest in wine. He never drank it, preferring instead to drink and cook with cider. His onion soup is lighter than many versions—the cider gives the soup freshness and its acidity cuts back the sweetness of the onions.”
That version I had in Paris all those years ago was finished under the salamander, that red-hot grill that is a fundamental in any bistro in any era. Finishing the soup in the home oven, either grilled or baked, will ensure the brioche is warmed through, the cheese is melted, and the soup is bubbling. Just take care with that first mouthful!
- Place cheese chopped in cubes in the bowl and grate 6 seconds/speed 7. Set aside and wipe the bowl clean.
- Melt the butter for 3 minutes/100 degrees/speed 2. Add the sliced onions and cook for 5 minutes/120 degrees/reverse/speed 1 MC off.
- Add brown sugar and cook a further 30 minutes/100 degrees/reverse/speed soft MC off.
- Pour in the cider and cook 5 minutes/100 degrees/reverse/speed soft. Add in beef stock (or water and stock paste), bouquet garni, salt and pepper and cook for 30 minutes/100 degrees/reverse/speed soft with the simmering basket instead of measuring cup. Remove the bouquet garni before serving.
- To serve, portion the onion soup into individual ovenproof bowls, top with a slice of toasted brioche or baguette and a generous amount of grated cheese before placing the dishes under a hot grill to gratinate. The cheese is ready when it is fully melted and turning a golden brown colour.
AND … For the lazy version you can place the halved peeled onion in the bowl and chop 5 seconds/speed 5. Note that Philippe Mouchel’s recipe is much lighter and more delicate than the traditional French onion soup. If you like yours to be a thicker texture, add two tablespoons of flour at the end of step 3; cook 3 minutes/100 degrees/reverse/speed soft before adding the cider.