There’s something ‘treaty’ about being in Grandma’s bed when you’re eight years old. The sheets are crisp and clean and it’s a massive big bed; plus the ceiling is painted pale blue with clouds about a hundred feet above your head. So when your parents are away in America and she says you can sleep in her bed in the day because you’re home sick from school, you’re going to take that offer. You’re going to jump – sniffling and mopey, dragging a box of tissues over the duvet to put next to the Vicks Vaporub on the bedside table – at the chance.
From Grandma’s bed a VHS marathon played out on a 40cm–wide television. Annie, obviously, the 1982 classic with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks. The Sound of Music then, because the love of musicals rubbed off on my sister and me and I couldn’t really see the point of a movie if the characters didn’t stop mid-sentence to sing. And then I listened to the gulls on Goat Island in the middle of the harbour and watched the clouds in the ceiling until the sheets turned smelly in my feverish sweating, wriggling dreams. It was night-time when I woke up, disorientated. Grandma had been pressing me to eat all day and I didn’t want anything; not the grilled cheese on toast idea, not the porridge idea, not the plain rice. But French onion soup: ‘Yes, please, Grandma.’
She leaned in, gave me a squeeze and a kiss on the forehead, and then left. I fell back asleep.
Grandma’s version of onion soup (recipe below) involves seven cups of homemade beef stock. She picked up the pick-me-up in The Garrulous Gourmet book she had bought for her sister Jean in 1952, but after years of making the recipe for Woman’s Day and then New Idea, for us, for herself, she improved on it. Introducing extra virgin olive oil with the butter to sauté the sliced onions at the beginning not only increases the health benefits, but also stops the butter burning.
Just a little flour gives the stock a viscosity without thickening it, and without allowing it to be too light and fresh either. The flour has to be cooked properly in the beginning, or the soup ends up tasting like raw flour, the raw flavour permeating the lot, just as the onions also will, if they’re not properly reduced and close to caramelised before the stock is added. Lots and lots of pepper: essential.
When Grandma came back into the room, she carried a little classic French gratinée bowl on a plate, on a tray. The fragrant soup was sealed at the top with a round slice of sourdough baguette, soaked with broth and topped with grilled, toasted Swiss gruyère. Almost the best bit of the soup is when the crispy grilled-cheese bits cling to the bowl at the sides and you get to scratch them off when the soup is done.
‘It’s hot, darling, let it sit a moment.’
I rolled over, sat up, leaned into the bowl to smell it on my bedside table.
When I woke up, the bowl was gone, it was morning, and Grandma opened the wooden blinds to let in the sunshine. I didn’t get the soup. And so, years later, I still crave it when I am sick. I think of all the trouble she went to, making this elaborate homemade brew to heal. Maybe all I needed was the smell of the rich brown broth next to me, and the comfort of knowing that Grandma would make it for me.
French onion soup gratinée
Preparation 25 minutes
Cooking 1 hour
45 g (1¾ oz) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) brown onions, thinly sliced
2 litres (70 fl oz/8 cups) homemade beef stock
2 teaspoons plain
125 ml (4 fl oz/½ cup) dry white wine
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1–2 tablespoons brandy
10 thick slices sourdough baguette, toasted
100 g (3½ oz/1 cup) finely grated gruyère cheese
fresh thyme sprigs, to garnish
Melt the butter in a large, heavy-based saucepan, add the oil and onion and sauté gently for 30–40 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until softened and deeply golden.
Meanwhile, heat the stock in another saucepan until it is very hot.
Add the flour to the onion and stir over moderate heat for 3–5 minutes, to cook the flour. Add the hot stock and wine, season to taste and simmer for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat and stir in the brandy.
Turn the grill (broiler) to medium–high. Spoon the soup into 4 large or 6 small individual ovenproof bowls and place them on a baking tray. Divide the toasts between the bowls, overlapping a couple of slices to fit. Push the toasts down a little so they soak up the soup. Scatter over the cheese and place the tray under the grill until the cheese melts and turns golden.
Alternatively, if the bowls will not fit under the grill, divide the cheese between the bread slices, grill until melted and golden, then slip a slice or two into each bowl of hot soup.
Garnish each bowl with a thyme sprig and serve.
This is an extract from Kate's new book, Margaret and Me which you can buy here.
Let us know how you go in the comments.
Like this? Try: