Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Our Regular Thursday Night Thing


This week’s blog post is coming to you from Las Vegas! A first time trip for both of us, Ben and I spent a fantastic weekend soaking up the city’s magical energy and marveling at the sheer hugeness and endless sparkle of the strip. We flew out together last Friday, and while I’ve stayed on for the rest of the week (attending the CaterSource catering conference), Ben returned home on Monday. It’s not quite as magical a place without him, but still, it’s pretty darn cool.

Before taking off for Vegas, we fit in a quick and relatively laid-back dinner party on Thursday night. To be honest, this post documents something more akin to a get-together than a dinner party. But let’s not get wrapped up in semantics. And hey, simple as it was, our little ‘get together’ involved some seriously delicious food, so no matter what, I think it fits the Scrumptious Company bill.

Last Thursday night, we did our Regular Thursday Night Thing. This involves getting together with Downstairs Matt and Sara for food eating and TV watching. We are all four infatuated with NBC’s Thursday night prime-time line-up. The Office alone makes my night (my week, actually). But all together, the four shows of this time slot compose what must be the best night of television since TGIF.  We’ll either eat and watch upstairs at our place or downstairs at theirs. Sometimes we’ll even make it progressive – splitting up dinner and dessert duties, and watching two shows up above, then two down below. We never fix anything more complicated than a regular weeknight dinner, or sometimes we’ll even order pizza or Chinese.  This week I cooked everything, but we carried it all down with us, and ate and watched at their place. And this is what we ate:

French Onion Soup with Toasted French Bread Croutons and Melted Gruyere

Pear and Dried Cherry Crisp with Almonds and Bittersweet Chocolate

No matter where I have it, be it Bouchon (where we were lucky enough to eat this weekend) or TGIFridays, French onion soup is always so incredibly good.  The sweet, dark broth is addictively delicious, and the blistery golden topping of oozing cheese is just out of this world, every last time.  No matter what you serve it with, it always ends up stealing the show.  And that’s why I thought it would make a great meal all by itself, and be the perfect, quick and easy selection for this all-too-short week.


Perfecting French onion soup has been at least a decade-long process for me. In pursuit of the best, I’ve tried every trick in the book.  I’ve experimented with Spanish onions, white onions and sweet Vidalia's, added a touch of sugar, a splash of Worcestershire, a boozy dose of cognac, tried chicken stock, beef stock and water.  But my results were never quite right – the broth was never quite dark or rich or savory enough.  The key I’ve learned is to slowly, thoroughly and very, very deeply caramelize your onions.  A few years ago, my trusty, rusty Cook’s Illustrate magazine published a French Onion Soup article, and the recipe within was just about as perfect as can be.  Hours of onion roasting, and repeated de-glazings give the soup an incredibly rich and complex flavor. My search had come to an end.  


With no fancy tricks or secret ingredients, this recipe is now my go-to French onion soup.  The onions are so deeply caramelized, and add so much rich depth, you don’t even need to use beef stock.  Chicken stock, which is always so much less a hassle to make, works superbly, and the end result is of such a deep brown shade and flavor, you’ll hardly notice the lack of beef.  I should note too, vegetable stock should work just as well – There’s no need any longer for meat stock to stand in the way of vegetarians enjoying the cheesy wonders of French onion soup. 

This soup itself is so delicious, it could stand alone without the cheesy croutons.  But who in their right mind would turn them down?  Buttery French bread toast, soaked with rich onion broth and  smothered in nutty melted Gruyere cheese.   It’s glorious.


The Pear and Cherry Crisp I made this week totally floored me.  I’d had a gloomy outlook for dessert from the start.  French Onion Soup’s tendency to outshine its fellow courses seemed to be extending even to dessert, and I just couldn’t think up something  that would both compliment and stand up to such a dominating dinner. I thought for days, but nothing seemed right.  Then I started thinking about crisps, and this recipe with dried tart cherries, sliced pears, slivered almonds and bittersweet chocolate sounded delicious.  But then, as soon as I’d purchased all the ingredients, I started second guessing myself again.  Don’t ask me why, because this dessert turned out to be something really wonderful.   Maybe one of the best desserts I’ve posted so far.  We all just went nuts over it. 

The flavor combinations were awesome – sweet, creamy slices of pear, with tart cherries and melty bittersweet chocolate, warm toasted nuts and buttery oat crumbles.  An ordinary fruit crisp, elevated to something truly spectacular, but still retaining the rustic simplicity of the classic dessert.  Be sure, I will make this again and again.  Perhaps this will be our new Regular Thursday Night Thing.  If so, I’m sure there’ll be no complaints. 



French Onion Soup
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, January 2008
Serves 6

Most people, including me, don’t have those fancy little oven-safe French Onion Soup dishes.  And while I really do love all that melty cheese that gets stuck all around the sides of the bowl, like how you find in restaurants, it’s hard to recreate that at home without the right serving pieces.  The following recipe is a tasty adaptation for home cooks and home kitchens. 

For the soup:
1/4 cup butter, cut into small pieces
6 large yellow onions (about 4 #), peeled and chopped (not sweet onions!) *
1/2 cup sherry
2 quarts chicken stock
6 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F and position an oven rack in the lower-middle position.  Generously spray bottom and sides of a large (about seven quarts), oven-safe Dutch oven with cooking spray.  Place the butter in the bottom of the pot and add the chopped onions.  Season with about 1 tsp salt.  Cover the Dutch oven and bake one hour.  (The onions will be moist, slightly browned and reduced in volume.)  Remove the pot form the oven and stir the onions, scraping up with a wooden spoon any browned bits sticking to the sides and bottom of the pot.  (Always return these browned bits, ugly as they are, back to the pot – it’s where all the flavor lies!)  Keeping the lid just slightly ajar, return the pot to the oven and continue to cook until the onions are very soft and deeply golden brown, about 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours, stirring the onions and scraping the bottom and sides of the pot every 30 minutes.

Remove the pot from the oven and place over medium-high heat.  Using mitts to handle the pot (Try not to forget that this is wicked hot!) cook the onions, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom and sides with a wooden spoon, until the onions are equally browned, about 15 minutes.  If the onions begin to brown too quickly, reduce the heat to medium, so they don’t blacken or burn.  Continue to cook, still stirring quite frequently, until a dark crust begins to coat the bottom of the pot.  Add 1/4 cup water and scrape the bottom and sides of the pot to loosen the crust.  Cook until the water evaporates and the pot develops another browned crust, stirring frequently if not constantly, about 5 minutes.  Repeat this process of deglazing 2-3 more times, until the onions are incredibly dark brown.  (Dark brown, NOT black!)

Stir in the sherry and cook, stirring and scraping, until the sherry evaporates, about 2-5 minutes.  Add the chicken stock, 2 cups water, thyme sprigs and bay leaf.  Bring to a simmer over high heat.  Reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer 30 minutes.  Remove and discard the thyme and bay leaf.  Taste and season as needed with salt and pepper.

For the croutons:
1/2 baguette
1/4 cup butter, melted
8 oz gruyere cheese, shredded

Slice the French bread at a slight diagonal angel into approximately 1-inch slices.  Brush liberally with melted butter on both sides, and arrange in a single layer on a sheet tray.  Bake in a 400°F oven until the bread is crisp and golden around the edges, about 10 minutes.  Flip over and bake another 5 minutes or so, until the other side is golden too.

To serve: Top each crouton with a generous clump of grated gruyere.  My little trick here is to give the grated cheese a little squeeze – it will stick together a bit, and you’ll be able to fit a lot on top of the crouton without most of it falling off.  Place the cheese-topped croutons on a sheet tray and broil, a few inches beneath the broiler, until the cheese is golden and bubbling.  Ladle the hot soup into serving bowls, and top each bowl with 1-2 cheesy croutons.  Serve immediately.

* Most recipes call for thinly sliced onions, and I suppose this is the traditional way to do things.  But chopped onions are Ben’s special request – he note, quite rightly, they’re easier to eat with a spoon – and so chopped onions remain a signature element of my French Onion Soup. 


Pear and Dried Cherry Crisp with Almonds and Bittersweet Chocolate
Adapted from Bon Appétit, January 1996 on
Serves 8


For the topping:
1 1/4 cup old-fashioned oats *
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup flour
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1/2-inch slices
3/4 cup sliced almonds
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, cut into small chunks

For the filling:
4# Anjou pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/3-inch slices
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 1/3 cups dried tart cherries (Make sure they’re tart, or the whole crisp will be too sweet.)
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tbl flour
1 tsp vanilla extract

Vanilla ice cream

For the topping, combine the oats, brown sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer.  Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed to just combine the ingredients.  Add the butter and mix on medium speed until the mixture begins to resemble coarse wet crumbs.  (At this point, the mixture should hold together loosely if you squeeze it in your hand, but should still easily crumble apart.  If you mix it for too long, the ingredients will become too thoroughly incorporated, and the mixture will turn dense like cookie dough, so don’t get carried away.)  Add the almonds and the chocolate and mix by hand to incorporate.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.  This topping can be stored for 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.  Butter a 9x13 inch glass baking dish.  In a large bowl, mix to combine the sliced pears and the lemon juice.  Add the dried cherries, sugar, flour and vanilla extract, and mix to combine thoroughly.  Transfer the pear filling to the prepared dish.  Sprinkle the topping over the filling.  There’s a trick to doing this:  Grab a handful of the topping and gently squeeze to make it somewhat stick together, then crumble this mass into coarse pieces, spreading the crumbs evenly over the filling.

Bake until the pears are tender and the crisp topping is golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes.  Cool about 20 minutes, then serve topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

* By ‘old fashioned oats’ I mean oats that aren’t instant oats.  I also don’t mean stone-cut oats.  Definitely not those.  Old fashion oats will look a lot like the flat, flaky instant oats, but are a little more substantial.  I like the brand Bob’s Red Mill, which is pretty easy to find in most good grocery stores.  But I don’t think the regular old Quaker Oats brand could be too bad either. 


  1. What a great article! (can it still be called that on a blog? I'm new to this...) My husband wooed me in college with French Onion soup. Make her cry, then make her swoon; that's basically the recipe for french onion soup, right?

    It was great meeting you in Vegas, can't wait to read all the rest of these glorious articles and to read about our shared love of our new careers! Good luck and keep in touch!

    Ciao Thyme Catering. Lakeport, CA

  2. Thanks, Monica! What a sweet quote for french onion soup :). I'm gonna use that some day!

    Really glad we had the chance to meet in the last few moments of the conference - How lucky was that! I'll most definitely keep in touch, and good luck to you too!