Friday, February 15, 2013

La Cuisine Lyonnaise: La Gratinée

A café down by Syracuse Stage served a rich French onion soup in white porcelain terrines that caught the light in a rich sort of way, topped with a hot gooey mess of cheese melted over thick slices of crusty bread soaking up the broth from the bottom. This was luxury for me, a starving student. After the post show ritual of slathering cold cream on my face and removing 30 years from my face, I made a big deal out of fishing up the cash for a bowl of it on a thick damp snow laden evening and stepped through the velvet curtain into Pheobe's barside dining area. I dared to eat it alone, at a window table, glancing now and again to the bar to see who came in together.

Burning the top of my mouth was part of eating this soup, mainly because it was so delicious in its varying textures and flavors that I didn't have the sense to wait until it cooled down. I didn't realize it at the time, but this recipe is Lyonnais. Perhaps it had a spiritual draw for the sole reason that I was meant to devote my life's work to the study of this city's cuisine.

You will find varying recipes for this soup in every collection and treatise on La Cuisine Lyonnaise, old and new. Don't look for "Soupe a l'oignion", rather search the index for a "Gratinée Lyonnaise". Not all stagieres adopt the habits of their masters, as I see that Paul Bocuse did not from the kitchen notebooks of La Mere Brazier. She used stock, he uses water, she enriched with yolks and port, he creates a floury roux after browning the onions and enriched with yolks and Madiera. She stacked layers of bread and cheese and soaked this with veal stock enriched with the slow cooked onions, he put the flour thickened onion veloute in terrines and topped them with one layer of bread. She preferred baguette, he chose the flute, and so on.

This soup gained notoriety in the wholesale produce markets of Paris, Les Halles and then Rungis, commonly served in the early morning hours at the bistros on their peripheries there. I like to think that Phoebe's Garden Café by Syracuse Stage gave a nod to Lyon when they chose the tall soup terrines with the lions on each side to serve it. This is my recipe for La Gratinée Lyonnaise.  It features La Mere Brazier's good enrichment of egg yolk and Port, and also the stacked bread-rich hearty soup which is almost identical to the one described by Mathieu Varille in his treatise on La Cuisine Lyonnaise.

I had some leftover tete de veau, and made stock from that at an extremely low simmer all day, resulting in a beautiful clear flavorful broth which I used in today's soup, but you should use whatever stock you have on hand. Even a vegetable broth or a court bouillon should yield you nice results. Most of the flavor comes from the onions and last enrichments. Whichever way you make it, it's great served from a communal bowl on damp cold winter days like these.

Recipe: La Gratinée Lyonnaise
Serves 6

4 to 5 large firm juicy yellow onions
1 tbsp. butter
1.5 liters of whatever stock you have on hand
1 flute (a double sized baguette) or two baguettes
200 grams half grated and half thinly sliced gruyere, comte or emmenthal
salt and pepper
6 egg yolks
200 ml Port, brandy or Madiera

Peel and slice the onions thinly, and melt the butter in a saute pan. Add the onions and cook over medium low heat, stirring occasionally and keeping the heat low to avoid their turning color without fully softening first. Slowly cook the onions for at least 45 minutes and up to two hours, until they are completely wilted and have turned a rich brown color. Keep stirring them at the end to make sure they reach a deep even brown hue. Add the stock to the onions and season rectify the seasoning with salt and pepper, and let that simmer for 5 minutes while you prepare the terrine.

Line the bottom of an ovenproof dish that you will eventually serve this soup in  with thin slices of bread and top each layer of bread with a light sprinkling of cheese. Continue this process, layering the bread and cheese, dispersing the cheese slices you have in addition to the grated cheese throughout , until the pot is almost full. Pour the oniony broth over the bread slices until the liquid reaches the top of the bread, using all of the onions, which will rest on top as the broth seeps down to saturate the rest, and then add one last layer of bread slices to the top. Cover the bread top completely with the rest of the grated cheese. Bake in a hot oven (400F/200C) until the bread on top turns brown and the cheese melts, fusing the top layer of bread slices together.

In a small soup or breakfast bowl, whisk the egg yolks and wine together. If you have any stock leftover, you can add it to the yolk mixture. Remove the terrine from the oven, and with a pair of spatulas, temporarily transfer the entire crisped top layer of bread to a plate on the side, which should stay together in one piece, fused by the melted and browned cheese.

Whisk the bread, onion and broth underneath, to turn it into a thick homogenous soup, and transfer a ladleful of the hot soup into the egg yolk mixture. Whisk the yolks and bread-thickened porridge together until smooth, and then whisk this into the soup in the terrine, distributing the onions throughout. It will be a hearty and thick soup. Turn off the oven, replace the bread and cheese lid and return the terrine to the oven to stay warm until service. When serving, break pieces of the top layer of bread to give some to each person as you serve this along with a ladleful of the enriched onion soup. A salad rounds this out as a meal.



Blogger RachelD said...

We just came in from the home-from-school-in-the-snowfall ride, Sweetpea and I, and my idea of Heaven-to-come would be walking into the warm house, dusting off our coats, and coming down the stairs to the aroma of this soup.

Oh. My. What an ideal warmer, comforter, sustainer, refresher, and downright guest-impresser that would be!

My first-ever making of proper French Onion Soup came from a recipe in Bon Appetit perhaps thirty years ago. It was the midnight fortifier for the homeward-going guests at a small dance at the hosts' home, and my main memory is of couples pictured dimly dancing, each lady holding a small candelabrum over her partner's shoulder. Isn't that a silly memory.

Today would have been a perfect day for this marvel, but there are still more snowy days to come, I think.

9:08 PM, February 15, 2013  
Blogger L Vanel said...

This soup, Rachel, is the kind that will meet you at the door. At the foot of the stairs, you might get a glimmer of the heady flavor of the port just mixed in.

It's a family soup, best when you have stock leftover from a fancy guest meal, and also something that will put a hungry baby who has had a long day in winter straight to sleep.

When you have a basket of good onions and a loaf of country bread, this will fit the bill. Don't forget to check and see if you have something like Port to give it that touch.

11:29 PM, February 15, 2013  
Blogger Unknown said...

Oh, yum. Just the type of stick-to-your-ribs dish for these cold winter days. And -- I wish I could remove 10 years from my face with a mere swipe of cold cream! :)

8:50 PM, February 20, 2013  
Blogger L Vanel said...

I played a 50 year old cockney charwoman in a rather tragic dramatic 3 woman production, it was so easy to remove years and years from my face, Ann! The best thing was that in another theater in the complex at the same time, there was a fabulous performance of the broadway musical Chicago, and we three were pleasantly surprised to find that when we went out afterwards, smelling of cold cream with leg warmers on and looking all clean, men would say "just coming out of the show?" and buy us drinks. Little did they know.

12:48 AM, February 21, 2013  

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