101 ways with a baguette #7: The Winter Warmer

January was the longest year ever. Sadly there’s no reward for enduring it, and cruel February turns up next in line with its capricious weather. But hey, at least it’s short. And it forces us to search for those little moments of pleasure buried deep in the cold, and a steaming bowl of soup has to be one of the most universal (and budget friendly). And what would a bowl of soup be without a baguette as its wingman? Now dunking is all well and good, and if you have time to whip up a batch of those crispy little dice we call croutons, more power to you. But if we’re talking the perfect cold-weather marriage between soup and bread; at this time of year, in this part of the world, there’s only one clear choice. French onion soup.

A favourite of the Romans and Greeks way back when, simple onion soup has been around for donkey’s years due the humble ingredient’s widespread availability, cheap price and restorative and nutritional powers (put those goji berries down!). Originally a chunk of bread was used as a type of absorbent submarine onto which the broth was poured, as with most soups in days of yore (this is where the word ‘soup’ comes from, referring to the ‘sop’ or piece of bread soaked in the liquid). Its promotion to cheese raft status is highly debated so we won’t enter into that, but simply bow down to the person whose ingenuity elevated a humble soup to a quite legendary culinary experience. Merci beaucoup stranger.

A staple of French cooking throughout the centuries, it’s perhaps America we can thank for its enduring popularity today on the world stage, being championed in the 1960s as part of a wider culture celebrating Gallic cuisine. A stalwart on brasserie blackboards throughout the land at this time of year, you’ll have no trouble finding it, but for even the wobbliest of cooks amongst us it’s a breeze to make, and though it technically takes a while on the hob, chef input is happily minimal. Recipe interpretation is as widespread as the soup’s appeal, and much freestyling is encouraged. I’ll give you the basics and you can let your inner Escoffier do all the rest.

Sliced regular yellow/Spanish onions enjoy a long caramelisation (like 45 minutes) followed by the addition of a liquid, be it a good beef, chicken or vegetable stock (or even a spoonful of marmite if you’re me) or for the purists out there (and Raymond Blanc) plain old water. An optional alcoholic element is next in the pan, choose from white wine, cider, Cognac, port, Madeira, Calvados or whatever your booze cabinet dictates. Use flour to thicken, or not, and leave to bubble away whilst you slice the baguette and prepare the cheese rafts (toasted beforehand to make them sturdier). The traditional cheese choice is Gruyère but Emmental works just as well, or even a dog-end of Cheddar or Comté could be put to good use.

The final steps are as divisive as the rest, and the simplest is probably to place pre-grilled or baked cheese rafts on top of a full bowl and leave it at that. The renegades take it one step further by placing the toasts on top and covering the whole thing in grated cheese with reckless abandon, then baking bowl and all in the oven until bubbly and delicious. Though this option includes a 30 minute wait staring at said delicious bowl of soup before it cools down enough for your mouth to enjoy it. In Lyon they go off piste further and get a blender and egg yolks involved, choosing it specifically as an after-pub crawl snack. I’ll leave you and your googling skills to find the recipe that suits you and your own particular culinary persuasions.

If we’re talking Valentine’s Day on a budget, cook up a batch of this steamy stuff served alongside a bottle of non-Champagne fizz (see here for a quick guide) and any self-respecting partner will be putty in your hands. Plus it works excellently as a hangover cure apparently so save a bit for the morning after, if you can muster the willpower. Or what better way to administer a self-hug in you’re riding solo? Retro onion soup bowl à la Granny Flat, optional.

Bon appétit on Blue Monday

So whether you believe the pseudoscience or not, today is ‘officially’ Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year. Taking into account the weather, debt, the time since Christmas, failed new year’s resolutions, low motivational levels and the fact that bank holidays and celebration days seem to be a million miles away, we’re all supposed to be at our most melancholy today.

Now, there are many solutions for wrenching ourselves out of the dumps, and a shopping spree at Chanel would probably go quite a long way to putting a smile back on your face. But, my debit card isn’t quite that ready for action, and hell, it’s far too cold to go outside now the temperature is creeping lower and lower. My solution? Cook up a massive batch of onion soup. What could be more French than that?

Now I consider myself pas mal du tout in the kitchen, but even for those who aren’t, onion soup is pretty easy to master. Onions are the main ingredient, bien sur, and the key is in the slow cooking time, making them all caramelised and delicious. Bung a bit of cheesy toast on the top, whack it under the grill, and voila! Winter blues melt into submission like the Gruyère on top.

Now onion soup is a highly subjective undertaking, no two recipes seem to be the same. But here’s a general guide. You’ll need:

4 onions (more if small, and not the red kind)
1 litre of beef stock, though chicken works too, or at a push, good ol’ plain water
Butter
Salt and pepper
Slices of baguette (or any other bread you have to hand, slightly stale is quite ok)
Gruyère cheese, or any other good melting cheese you have to hand if you’re not fussy

Slice the onions and add to the melted butter in a pan on a heat that’s quite low – the key is to cook them slowly for 30 minutes or so (more if you have time), until they’re golden brown. Don’t for get to stir from time to time, or they’ll stick. Add the stock and bring to the boil, simmering for 40 minutes to an hour, generally the longer you cook it for, the better it’ll be. Once it’s ready, ladle into bowls and add a toasted slice of bread covered in grated cheese. Traditionally it’s then finished under the grill to melt the cheese, but you can finish the toast separately if it’s easier. Bon appétit!