Onion soups have probably been eaten as a sustaining meal with a crust of bread since Roman times. French onion soup with croutes of melted cheese on top is thought to have originated in Lyon in the 18th century. It was considered a restorative meal after a long night out.
French onion soup was a popular bistro dish in the 1960s, but I think is just as appealing now on a cold winter's night. Traditionally it is made with butter, onions and beef stock cooked together slowly for a long time. It is sometimes then enriched with egg yolks. Today's recipe is for a lighter, but still hearty and delicious version. Serve the soup with a leafy green salad and perhaps the yoghurt cake with strawberries or sliced oranges to follow.
If you haven't discovered the terrific French yoghurt cake before now, I'm sure you will love it. It is easy enough for a child to make. In France, this is one of the few cakes or desserts made at home, as these are usually bought at the local patisserie. A small yoghurt pot (half a cup) is used there to measure the ingredients, which are then combined by hand. I have used a half-cup measure in the recipe instead.
This is a moist cake with a tender crumb that is made with oil rather than butter. It is a versatile basic recipe that can be flavoured and glazed as you choose. The cake goes very well with berries, sliced oranges or ripe stone fruits. You could serve it with creme fraiche or yoghurt if you like. It keeps well for a few days.
FRENCH ONION SOUP
4 large brown onions (about 750g), sliced
2-3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1-2 tsp butter
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tbsp plain flour
½ cup white wine, preferably chardonnay
4-5 cups vegetable or water and stock powder
1 bouquet garni: bay leaf, thyme and parsley
dash of brandy (optional)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (125g) coarsely grated Swiss-style cheese
chives or fine spring onion tops
Heat the olive oil and butter in a large heavy-based saucepan or cast-iron casserole and add the sliced onions. Cover and cook gently for 10 minutes to soften, stirring from time to time. Take off the lid, turn the heat up a bit and continue frying and stirring until the onions are golden brown and caramelised.
Add the garlic now and sprinkle in the flour and cook briefly, stirring. Tip in the wine to deglaze the pan and scrape up any brown bits on the bottom. Pour in four cups (at first) of stock and add the bouquet garni and seasoning. Bring to the boil and simmer slowly, partly covered, for 30 minutes or longer. Add more stock as needed. Taste and adjust the seasoning. You could add a pinch of sugar or quarter teaspoon of vegemite (dissolved). Remove the bouquet garni.
Meanwhile cut the bread for the croutes into slices, about 1.5cm thick, at an angle. Toast them in the oven at 180C for 20 to 30 minutes until crisp and lightly golden, turning halfway. Alternatively toast them on both sides under the grill at serving time.
Close to serving, put the soup on to reheat and turn on the grill. Add a dash of brandy to the soup now, if desired. A little of the grated cheese can also be stirred in. Serve the soup either from the pot it has been cooked in or ladle it into individual ovenproof bowls. Arrange the toasts on top of the soup and sprinkle over the cheese. Place under the grill to melt the cheese and serve straight away. Sprinkle with cut chives or spring onion greens for a fresh onion taste.
Alternatively, grill and serve the cheese on toast separately.
FRENCH YOGHURT CAKE
1 ½ cups self-raising flour (or use 1 cup flour, ½ cup ground almonds)
pinch of salt
1 cup sugar
½ cup plain yoghurt (whole milk or low fat)
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil
3 free-range eggs
grated zest of 1 lemon or orange
½ tsp orange blossom water or vanilla
2 tbsp marmalade or jam melted with 1 tsp water, or juice from 1 lemon and 3 tsp caster sugar
Line a loaf tin or 22.5cm round cake tin with baking paper or place papers in muffin tin and brush with oil. Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the salt and sugar.
In another bowl, lightly whisk the eggs, yoghurt, oil and lemon zest together. Then tip the wet ingredients into the dry and mix together gently. Don't over-mix as it will affect the texture of the cake.
Preheat the oven to 160C fan or 180C regular. Tip the mixture into the prepared tin and bake in the centre of the oven until firm and golden brown. The cake will take 35 to 40 minutes and the small cakes about 20 minutes. If necessary, turn the pan for the last few minutes to brown evenly. Leave standing on a rack for about five minutes before turning out.
Glaze while warm - brush the warm jam glaze over the cake. Alternatively, mix the lemon juice and caster sugar and gradually spoon over the cake (best done in the tin) until absorbed.
Serve as a snack with tea or for dessert with strawberries or other soft fruits.
Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer, firstname.lastname@example.org