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November 21, 2012

l'espoir fleurit au ciel de Paris | french onion soup

More so than perhaps any other year, I'm feeling the year race away from me. In the coming weeks I'm travelling to the other end of the country and back, twice, as well as a flying visit to my grandparents this weekend to celebrate a significant birthday. There are end of year dinners, work social occasions, a youth conference/festival on climate change, a brief stop in my home town, two more weeks of work down South, Christmas with the family, and I'll end up at the northernmost tip of the North Island to say goodbye to 2012. Phew!

While it is nice to have plenty of social occasions and dinners out, it's also nice to make the most of a simple dinner at home, cooked in the light and eaten in the light. Evenings stretch out at this time of year, when it's still light at 9pm, and I love waking up early to the sun coming in my open window. I almost always sleep with my window open, only closing it for the iciest winter nights. Mum tells me this is something I inherited from my dad.

Come Monday afternoon, I had a strong craving for french onion soup. As a meal, it seems to be a compromise between seasons - light but hearty, warming and delicious but not too heavy either. I left work and purchased onions on my way home. As I cooked in the late afternoon light, the grey shower clouds parted briefly and sunlight came streaming through our kitchen windows. Soup was cooking and the sun was shining and all was right with the world. 

french onion soup | soupe à l'oignon

The French have a certain culinary class like no other. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to make a soup consisting almost solely of one of the most common vegetables, and legitimately call it cuisine. But it is deliciously good, even when you replace the traditionally used beef consommé with a homemade vegetable stock. Don't let that put you off: you will hardly even notice the extra effort to make vegetable stock from scratch!

for the soup:
10 medium sized white onions
50 grams butter (or oil to make this recipe vegan)
a good cup of dry white wine
a sprig of flat leaf parsley
a sprig of aromatic fennel
a sprig of sage
2 bay leaves
brown miso paste
sea salt
cracked pepper

for the stock:
a variety of left-over vegetable pieces: cabbage hearts, the thick cauliflower stems, broccoli stalks if you don't eat them, the green leafy part of a leek.. We keep these left overs in the fridge for stock purposes!
3 garlic cloves
sprig of parsley
bay leaves
1 medium onion
4-5 mushrooms, preferably a flat, dark type such as portobello.

to serve
two pieces of good, solid bread per person
a little olive oil
3 garlic cloves
cheddar cheese

Begin by making the stock. Add all the vegetables to a big pot, cover with water and gently simmer. If I'm making stock for other purposes I sometimes add a little sea salt, but it's not necessary for this soup. I don't always make stock with mushrooms either, but for french onion soup the hearty taste they add is a delicious addition - although it's still pretty delicious without mushrooms. Keep this heated on low while you caramelise the onions.

Slice the onions en lyonnaise - which is, as shown below, sliced in half and then north to south slicing down the axis, so you end up with little onion crescent moons. It doesn't take long once you get in the rhythm of it, promise! 

Melt the butter in a heavy frypan - I used a cast iron one - over a medium heat. Let it sizzle a little. I used some raw butter we had and it smelled delicious - when it begins to smell nutty, it's time to add the onions. Add the onions in layers and sprinkle a little salt on between each layer. We don't add any salt later: salt at this point draws the moisture out of the onions so they caramelise in their own juices. 

Let the onions bubble away for a good 20 minutes before stirring them. They will release a lot of liquid - this is a good thing! This cooking process is "sweating" the onions, not sautéeing them. If they are sizzling too much, turn the heat down until they just bubble. They will most likely catch on the bottom of the pan, but this is ok. Cook for a further 40 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until the onions are a golden brown colour. Don't be tempted to cut this step short - the flavours that are developing here are integral to the soup, and you'll regret it if you end up with a light onion-y broth.

Strain the vegetable stock and return it to the pot. Turn up the heat on the onions and add the dry white wine. It will sizzle and steam a lot, and probably turn a dark brown colour. This is excellent! Stir for about five minutes, then add all the onions to the stock and heat. At this stage, add the fresh herbs. If you like, you can tie them together with some string to make a bouquet garni, which means it is easier to remove before serving. This is when you also add the brown miso paste. If you don't have miso paste to hand, you could use vegemite/marmite instead.

While the soup bubbles away on the stove, slice up some good solid bread. I've used our bought homemade bread - it's a wholemeal/rye blend made by a local who stone grinds his own flour. It's delicious but good and substantial too. Smush the garlic cloves to a paste in a mortar and pestle - add a little olive oil to them. Mix the ground coriander in too. Rub this paste over both sides of the bread, then toast under a hot grill for 2 minutes. Turn over, add sliced cheddar to the top, and return to the oven for another 2 minutes.

To serve, fill a bowl with the soup, avoiding the herbs, then float the toasted bread and cheese on top. The bread should be crunchy enough to withstand soaking up some of the soup. Eat immediately. It's amazing how filling this is - a friend told me that the best french onion soups have enough bread so that there is a bit of bread for every mouthful of soup. It's warming, filling and amazingly delicious considering it's just made with onions, wine, and herbs.


title from Édith Piaf (who else?) - sous le ciel de Paris. The translation of the lyrics used in the title is "Hope springs again under the Paris sky."


  1. Edith Piaf,I love, the year racing away..happening here too! and as always, when I visit here, I am entranced by your beautiful food! x

  2. I've always wanted to try french onion soup. I too find it so funny that onions can make a meal.

    This year is flying. I purchased my first christmas presents today!

    1. oh gosh, I am yet to begin Christmas shopping - although for me, I think it will be more along the lines of making Christmas preserves .. x

  3. Oh absolute heaven! I think I ate this every other day when we travelled around France. It simply can't be beaten. Thanks so much for sharing this recipe and also for your beautiful comment on my blog just now. You made me smile...and get teary at the same time! Hope your tomorrow is a gorgeous one. Steph :) x

    1. Aw, not a problem at all - hope your day is wonderful too. x

  4. Oh my yum, does that look simply amazing right now! What a perfect autumn meal... I may be trying this recipe sometime very soon! Hope you're having a great week, and if we don't chat before Thanksgiving, I hope yours is extra special. x

  5. I'm with you on the speed of time passing lately. It's worse than usual. Beautiful soup. I'm inspired to make some of my own.

  6. One of my most favourite soups ever and so warming for this time of the year.

    Nina x

  7. Hello G! Thanks for your comments on my blog, and how very lovely to have found yours. I am captivated by your french onion soup recipe - I have never made it but I want to eat a bowl of it so much right now. And thank you for suggesting marmite instead of miso paste - I know our local supermarket wont stock miso paste, but I have a jar of marmite right here in the cupboard. And I've got onions, and bread and cheese...I've got no excuse now, have I?

    Gillian x

  8. Haha Moyra also sleeps with the windows wide open, I have adopted this too. Definitely a Hampton trait. This looks delicious! You are a clever cook.. feel free to cook for me any time ;) This looks deeelish! Your summer plans sound exciting- I hope your Northland adventure will make you fall in love with the beautiful North- my absolute favourite destination.

    1. love those hampton traits. Also the stubby thumbs are another Hampton trait I've been endowed with.

      I did think of you when I decided to go to Paihia x

  9. THANKS for your help in deciding what to wear for the fair! I went for the dark blue dress today... don't know yet about tomorrow :)
    I love this post! Looking at the pictures make me feel at home, haha. Such a cozy, nice atmosphere you captured!
    Have a great evening!

  10. That last photo is incredible! I can almost feel the steam rising, I must try your recipe for this french classic :)

  11. Goodness gracious me, that looks sooooo good.
    Wish I could come visit your kitchen sometime. :)
    Ronnie xo

  12. I can smell it from here. I used to make French onion soup all the time in England before we moved to Oz. All that incredible depth of flavour, sometimes with a little brandy, sometimes not. And the way the bread goes soggy and the cheese oozes... I might have to forget about the fact it's sweltering here (and the fact my children won't it) and make it anyway... x