Among my Christmas presents a few weeks ago was a book that any/every home cook worth his or her salt should own: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (the very nice 40th anniversary edition). As my readers know by now, I love to cook, but I’m more of an improvisational, adaptive cook than someone who cracks open a book and follows a recipe to the letter. But, thumbing through Julia’s book, I suddenly was struck by the urge to do exactly what she said—I mean, this is the woman who taught America how to do right by fine ingredients, and who am I to improve on her instructions? So last night I set about making her soupe à l’oignon gratinée, something that, as a child, I would order in restaurants every chance I got. To my young eyes and palate, the idea of soup baked with chewy croutons and bubbling cheese was the height of classy decadence. I’d never made it before, and so I placed myself in Julia’s hands and trusted her to steer me right through the 3+ hour process.

First, I wept furiously as I sliced 6 cups of onions; I tossed them in my Dutch oven with a blob of butter and a slug of oil and then sweated them, covered, over low heat for 15 minutes. Here they are at that stage, reduced in volume by about a third:

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Then I raised the heat for the caramelization that gives onion soup its wonderfully deep flavor. Here they are after about 15 minutes of higher heat:

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And after yet another 15 minutes, almost ready for the next step:

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Once the onions were properly caramelized I sprinkled 3 tablespoons of flour over them and stirred them (vigorously, as they really wanted to scorch at that point) for a few minutes. Then I removed them from the heat and stirred in 2 quarts of broth. Julia says to use beef broth, but I had some chicken broth that needed to be used up, so I did a combo of chicken and beef broths, which made the soup a little paler than my restaurant memories:

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I also stirred in a half-cup of dry vermouth (per Julia, who gave the choice of white wine or vermouth). Then I set the pot back on the heat and simmered for 45 minutes. It was ominously thin-looking soup to my stew-loving eyes, but I trusted all would come out well. Meanwhile, I made some hard toast rounds (sliced baguette toasted on a baking sheet for 25 minutes in a 325 oven):

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Then, with toast toasted (rock hard, but that’s what she told me to do!) and soup simmered (still watery), I preheated the oven again, grated approximately equal portions of Parmesan and cheddar cheeses (Julia specifies Swiss, but cheddar was at hand), stirred 3 tablespoons of dry sherry (Julia prefers cognac) into the soup, and put the whole package together. I set the bowls in the oven to bake for about 15 minutes, then turned on the broiler and let that do its thing for about another 5 minutes, et voilà!

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Maybe not as pretty as the restaurant version, but, if I do say so, quite a bit tastier. The consistency of the soup turned out to be perfect: the rock-hard toasts absorbed a huge amount of broth, so they became chewy—but not soggy—treats, and the rest of the soup was thickened accordingly. So, aside from a couple of ingredient substitutions, I followed directions very closely for once, and made something really delicious. I think this may signal the onset of more classic Frenchness from my kitchen…

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