This past Christmas, Big Brother and Big Sister gave me a most amazing gift: The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Written by Amanda Hesser, author of the Grey Lady's beloved "Recipe Redux" column, It appeals to my many sensibilities. For the historian, it is brimming with timelines and each chapter is chronologically organized. For the writer, Hesser highlights changes in the ingredients, method, and fashion of American cuisine with engaging commentary and first-person anecdotes, such as my favorite quip, "With Humboldt Fog and Garratxa cheese now at our fingertips, it's hard to remember why we were all once so smitten with Brie." (285) For the foodie, there is a nice blend of recipes to challenge and conquer with those that magnify the importance of simplicity and quality (for Carmelized Bacon: "Go to a butcher and spend as much money as you have on very good bacon" (93)). There are recipes from the finest American chefs, from the Times' adored minimalist Mark Bittman to the revered Alice Waters (with tons of vintage food columnists and notables in between). And there is a delicious, but not overwhelming, bit of pretense. This is not just a cookbook full of recipes; it is a cookbook to be read.
My family graciously tolerated my reading of the cookbook out loud. One result of this exercise was my encounter with the recipe for Soupe A' L'Oignon Gratine'e (120). Christmas was weeks ago, and indeed, I have been waiting, waiting, WAITING to get home for long enough to make this recipe. After reading Hesser's commentary that it was "almost too strange and too delicious to describe: imagine a fusion of bread pudding, grilled cheese, and souffle'" I couldn't not make this dish.
The project consumed my afternoon-- at Hesser's recommendation that "it's worth tracking down Emmental cheese and a decent baguette" and to serve with red wine, I took to the Reading Terminal Market. I spent quite a while grating cheese and spilling tears over chopped onions. I tempered the time commitment with cookies from Termini Brothers Bakery. I have no regrets.
Soupe A' L'Oignon Gratine'e
adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook
1 baguette, cut into 1/2 inch slices (25-30) (I got mine at Le Bus, it was divine)
9 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
9 oz Emmental cheese, finely grated (I used 12 because it's who I am) (about 2 1/4 cups) (I got my French Emmental cheese from Downtown Cheese)
8 medium yellow onions, thinly slices (about 12 cups)
1 tbsp kosher salt, plus more to taste
1 cup tomato puree (I bought the fresh pack brand Cento from New Jersey- so yummy that it can be eaten with a spoon right out of the can) (not that I did that)
6 cups water
1. Toast the baguette slices 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 the cheese.
2. Melt the remaining butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, season with salt to taste, and saute', stirring occasionally, until very soft and golden, about 15 minutes. Revolve from the heat. (don't be a spaz like me and add the tablespoon of salt in this step- oops. I have a notoriously high salt tolerance and it was almost a little much)
3. Arrange a layer of bread slices butter side up (about 1/3 of them) in a 5 quart casserole (I wish I had buttered our Le Creuset-ish pan first). Spread one-third of the onions on top, followed by one-third of the tomato puree. Repeat for 3 more layers. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup cheese. (To prevent boiling over, the casserole must not be more than two-thirds full) (I squished mine down a bit)
4. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan and add 1 tablespoon salt. Very slowly por the salted water into the casserole, near the edge, so that the liquid rises just to the top layer of cheese without covering it. (Depending on the size of your casserole, you may need more or less water) (I used around 4.5 cups and wished for a little more liquid when I ate it).
5. Put the casserole on the stove, bring to a simmer ON LOW HEAT and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes (I for some reason kicked up the jam to medium-high heat and burned the bottom. Fortunately it didn't matter too much for me- I was lucky that the bread bottoms were very darkly carmelized but not smoky burnt when I realized my mistake).
6. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Transfer the pot to the oven and bake uncovered for about 1 hour. '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 onions' (Ali-Bab). Serve each person some of the baked crust and some of the inside, which should de thick but not completley without liquid.
It's ugly but I promise it's totally good.
And don't forget to serve it with wine.
And don't forget to serve it with wine.