Onions cooking down in butter pull the gearhead to the kitchen on some invisible thread. It’s a path I liken to the mystery of bees buzzing toward the hearts of flowers. The barn, with all its metal trophies, becomes dull compared to the luminescent buttered onion. What an immensely satisfying, concentric, bit of power.
With layered skins, both thick and thin, the onion is a wonderful symbol of passing years. I know, I know, I made that leap from power to passing time with a bit of laissez faire jump. I assure you it was completely subconscious. The onion reveals it’s growth in rings at the first slice and exacts revenge by pulling salty tears from the eyes of the knife bearer. What power to evoke the symptoms of emotion where there is none [gearhead edits: you’re being way too artsy. Reel it in before you lose them.] [Wife edits: I suppose I am … just wanted to see where that thought might lead…into some surprising dark corner that I’ll have to explore another time].
What I mean to say is that the onion is a wonderful symbol of a new year. Experiences and lessons throughout the year become layered upon one another like paper-thin onion skins. To grow, it’s important to reflect and learn, to see and feel the weight of the whole year by looking through and across the layers. So, what lessons have I learned this year that I might share with you, dear readers? Two holiday themed gems. Don’t look too closely; they’ll reveal their shallow nature. I’ll risk everything for a joke. A lesson I choose to ignore in favour of the round, rumbling, reward of laughter. Perhaps that pierces the onion a little too deeply. [gearhead edits: get on with it already].
Last Christmas, in the spirit of tradition and family togetherness, I thought it would be a great idea to construct a Buche de Noel with the kids for xmas eve dessert. We had a grand time assembling the cake and I used a recipe I was familiar with, one that rolled espresso spiked mascarpone cream between the chocolate sponge. Delicious. I hadn’t factored in the effects of coffee on my then 9 year old. Santa hadn’t wrapped the presents and was forced to wait until 2 in the morning to do so. It was long past the point of the rum and eggnog fog when said 9 year old finally crashed. Santa was more savvy this year and managed to pre-wrap presents and avoid espresso laden desserts.
Here’s the other holiday lesson, best conveyed through imagery as opposed to words:
Am I crying? No, it’s the onions silly. One needs serious eye armor to slice ten onions. I wear contact lenses and this affords me some protection. If you don’t wear contacts, try storing your onions in the fridge. The cooler temperature seems to lessen the alliums’ vapourous sting. This recipe is adapted from one written by Diana Henry from her cookbook, Roast Figs Sugar Snow: winter food to warm the soul. Diana’s writing is beautiful and romantic – that title alone is enough to endure the frightful temperatures this last week! The success of this recipe is entirely dependent on caramelizing the onions – don’t rush it – the deeper the caramelization, the deeper the colour and flavour of the finished soup will be. It will take at least an hour over very low heat to get the onions to the right stage before finishing the soup.
Onion and Cider Soup
½ cup (240 g) unsalted butter
3 lb 5 oz (1.5 kg) onions, sliced very thinly (about 10 onions)
1 cup apple cider (I used hard cider that is dry; others might prefer sweet, or even non-alcoholic cider)
4 cups (1 L) chicken stock (I used duck stock because that’s what I had on hand)
leaves from 3 sprigs fresh thyme
slices of bread from baguette or day old country bread
sliced gruyere cheese
Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan and add the onions (I used a Dutch oven). Sauté them gently, turning them around in the butter, until they start to soften. Add a splash of water, cover with a lid, and sweat the onions until they are very soft and starting to carmelize. This can take up to 50 minutes. You may need to add a splash of water every so often to prevent them from sticking. Turn the onions over every now and then in the buttery juices.
Take the lid off and turn the heat up to medium so that the juices can evaporate and the onions can fully caramelize. When the onions are dark amber, add the cider, stock, thyme and bring to the boil. Simmer for 10 minutes.
I like to toast the baguette slices, top them with slices of cheese and then run them under the broiler until the cheese melts. I find this easier then heating soup bowls under the broiler to get the cheese and bread to melt and crisp up at the edges on already hot soup. Your preference. Diana’s recipe uses Camembert cheese, which might play up the apple cider nicely, but I love gruyere and so default to this every time. Ladle the soup into bowls, top with the melted cheese toasts, and serve.