We've been making authentic French Onion Soup for many years, mostly using Julia Child's techniques and ingredients. The last few years, I discovered that I preferred using a sharp Provolone cheese in place of the usual Gruyere, putting a slight Italian touch on the dish. But this year, I though I'd see just how Italian I could go, making our
Zuppa di Cipolle Italiano.
So first, instead of any type of onion, I thought I'd use my favorite sweet onion... Vidalia. It sounds Italian, doesn't it? I know, I know, the name isn't Italian--they are named after a town in Georgia, but they are very sweet. I thought I'd also swap out the Vermouth for Italian sweet Marsala wine. The two have very similar flavor profiles. I usually use a Cognac like in the original Child recipe, but this time I'd use Grappa. Pepperoncino (red pepper flakes) would add a bit of heat in the soup itself, and for the cheese, I would use creamy Italian Fontina... a sprinkle of Oregano to top it off.
I always hated the way most restaurants put one large, crusty-edged, crock-filling slab of bread on top of the soup, and then melt the cheese on top of that. First, it's nearly impossible--using a spoon--to cut a small piece of bread from the crusty, toasted slab. Secondly, the cheese often melted into a solid mat on top of the bread, often coming up in a thick sheet when you're trying to get just a small amount on your spoon. I've eaten French Onion Soup (they just call it "Onion Soup") in France where the cheese was grated and melted down into the soup, forming creamy strands of cheese that mixed with every spoonful. For the bread, I wouldn't use French baguettes slabs, but cubes of ciabatta. In this way, each and every spoonful gets some soup and a piece of bread, with the added bonus of the cheese melting down into the soup and becoming part of it. If you gently push the bread cubes down into the soup before putting the shredded Fontina on top, you'll get a texture similar to some of the bread soups alla povera (peasant style) I've had in Italy.
The other thing I changed was the texture and cut of the onions themselves. I've had some versions where the onions were cut so thick and in such long strands that they attempt to choke you as you swallow--especially if they weren't property caramelized. So, my method is taking half of the onions and cutting them into a dice, with the second half cut in quarter-circles, so the strands are much shorter. In this way, you still have a decent texture, but with the diced onions permeating every part of the soup.
8 cups onions (about 3 pounds), half diced/half quarter-julienne
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar (to help with caramelizing the onions)
1 teaspoon pepperoncino (red pepper flakes)
2 tablespoons flour
64 ounces (8 cups) beef stock (2 cups should be hot)
4 tablespoons Cognac, Brandy or Grappa
1-1/2 cups sweet Marsala wine (the real wine, NOT a "cooking Marsala")
1 leftover rind of Parmigiano Reggiano (or cut the rind from a new wedge)
Salt and fresh ground black pepper at the end to adjust the finished flavor
1 loaf of Ciabatta bread, cubed as need
Fontina (we used Bel Gioioso brand, or Fontina Val d'Aosta if you can find some)
Oregano for dusting the finished soup
When the soup is finished, taste it and adjust for salt and ground black pepper. I added only about 1 teaspoon of sea salt to mine, but it depends on if the stock was salty or not. Trust your palette. In the end, I think I added about 20 cracks of black pepper.
Ready to Serve
There you have it. The taste is luscious, rustic, hearty, sweet and definitely more Italiano than French.
I hope you enjoy my Zuppa di Cipolle Italiano...
Let me know how yours turned out...
Copyright 2017, Jerry Finzi/Grand Voyage Italy - All Rights Reserved