Some recipes stand the test of time. If a recipe can stay close to its original incarnation for a decade, I am impressed with its longevity. When a recipe remains unchanged for 100 years, I’m rushing to the farmhouse kitchen to start gathering ingredients.
I first saw this recipe in 2007. I was happily reading a copy of The Sunday New York Times when I came across a photo of a Dutch Oven filled with a beautiful, caramelized dish. I went on to read the article and learned that the recipe was published in the French cookbook “Gastronomie Pratique” in 1907. It wasn’t translated into English until 1974. That same year, The Times published the recipe in an article by the infamous Craig Claiborne.
A century later, this recipe is still pitch perfect. It combines my favorite aspects of French Onion Soup and adds a few that I hadn’t even realized were missing. The end result is rich, comforting, and earthy.
Instead of the brothy French Onion Soups that I was accustomed to, this was by all accounts a savory bread pudding, studded with tomato and caramelized onions. It was sublime and almost defied description.
Craig Claiborne managed to sum it up in a sentence from his recipe, “The soup 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.” I won’t update his description. His choice of words is as perfect as the recipe itself.
I could go on and on attempting to describe the perfection that is this dish, but I don’t feel like I need to. The fact that it has survived over 100 years makes it the stuff of legends. One bite and you’ll be sure to add it to your recipe collection for the next century and beyond.
Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinèe
serves 6 as a main course
Originally Published in “Gastronomie Pratique” by Ali-Bab in 1907
Adapted from the Craig Claiborne’s recipe published in 1974 in The New York Times
12 ounces crusty bread
4 Tablespoons butter, softened
4 ounces Gruyère
3 pounds yellow onions (approximately 8 medium), sliced thinly
4 Tablespoons butter
6 ounces tomato paste
2 ounces water
4 ounces Gruyère, shredded
6 cups vegetable stock
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare two baking sheets by lining them with cooling racks. Slice the bread into 1/2″ thick slices and arrange them in a single layer on the cooling racks. Place the baking sheets in the preheated oven and bake until lightly toasted, approximately 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
Slice the Gruyère very thinly. I like to use a vegetable peeler to make paper-thin slices. You can choose to grate the cheese if you prefer.
Divide the 4 Tablespoons of butter among the bread slices, spreading it across the top of each slice. Divide the Gruyère among the slices, allowing the cheese to rest on top of the soft butter. Return the bread slices to the oven until the cheese is melted, around 5-10 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside as the other components are prepared.
In a large oven safe pot or Dutch Oven, melt 4 Tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat. When the butter is completely melted, add the onions and a pinch of salt. Saute the onions, stirring often, for 15 – 20 minutes. The onions will take on a beautiful, golden brown color as their natural sugars begin to caramelize. Remove the pot from the heat and transfer the caramelized onions to a large bowl.
Place the vegetable stock in a saucepan over medium heat. Warm the stock to a simmer.. Reduce the heat to low. In a small bowl, mix the tomato paste and water until fully combined into a tomato puree.
Arrange approximately one-third of the prepared bread slices in a single layer in the large pot used to cook the onions. Top the bread slices with 1/3 of the onions followed by 1/3 of the tomato mixture, spreading both to fully cover the layer beneath. Repeat by adding another layer of bread followed by onions and then tomato puree until there are three layers of each in the pot. The pot should not be more than 2/3 full in order to prevent it from boiling over in the oven.
Using a ladle, gently add the warm stock along the edge of the pot. Add the stock slowly in order to allow the bread slices to begin to absorb the liquid. Add liquid until it is at a level just below the top layer of onions. The amount of stock needed will vary depending on the size of your pot. Once the necessary liquid has been added, place the shredded cheese on top, distributing evenly.
Return the pot to a burner over medium heat. Bring the liquid to a gentle boil before reducing the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered for 15 – 20 minutes. Place the pot on top of a baking sheet and transfer the baking sheet to the oven. Bake uncovered for 45 – 60 minutes or until the soup matches Craig Claiborne’s description.
When finished, the top will brown and form a light crust and the bread beneath will have absorbed most of the liquid. The onions, tomato paste, and Gruyère will combine beautifully and impart their earthy flavor to each flavorful bite. Serve hot and marvel at the perfection of a dish that is still perfect after 100 years.