I’m getting to this point in my cooking career where I’ve begun to actually create my own recipes based on techniques I’ve learned from cookbooks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to make a recipe from a cookbook and have it turn out just right (especially if it’s something you’ve never attempted), but it’s a different level of satisfaction to conceive a recipe and have it turn out perfectly the first time. This is so exciting to me- kind of like when I first started writing songs after just playing other people’s for years. I’ve never had much problem making up recipes for simple things like soup, pasta, salad or salad dressing. But this past year I’ve been branching out and creating slightly more advanced recipes based on ideas I have for flavor combinations. One of the first times I did this was for these scrambled eggs with scallops & bacon (which, incidentally, would be a fabulous Valentine’s breakfast!). I did refer to another recipe, kind of like a musician refers to certain chord progressions to write a pop song, but the cool thing for me was that I thought up the idea independently and that it worked! Since then, I’ve written other recipes, each time getting a little more confident and feeling less like I need to consult a cookbook. Some are very simple, like this saffron-citrus risotto or this Chinese-style kale (probably my most popular recipe), while others, like this venison & porcini ragu, are a little more involved.
Last weekend I got together with some girlfriends for Soup Swap Mach II (you can go here to check out last year’s Soup Swap) and after flipping through tons of cookbooks for soup recipes, decided to just make one up. The flavors for this soup were inspired by an onion tart I made last year from the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook which contained onions, cheese, and the somewhat unexpected element (for French cuisine, anyway) of cumin. I really loved these flavors together and thought they’d be wonderful in a soup. The depth and intensity of this soup was unlike any cheese soup I’ve ever had- I caramelized the onions for almost an hour until they reached a deep amber color, toasted the cumin seeds, and used a pound of cheese. Decadent, perhaps a bit, but this soup reaches a level of savory that makes it all worthwhile. Don’t be put off by its somewhat drab appearance- what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste. Serve it with a salad, some fruit (apples or pears would be good) and crusty bread or croutons.
Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin
6 cups diced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
4-5 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken stock (substitute a mild vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
2 cups lowfat milk
1 lb shredded cheese such as Cheddar or Emmenthaler (see notes)
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
kosher or sea salt
optional for serving: chopped parsley and croutons
Notes: If you’d like detailed instructions on caramelizing onions, I used the techniques described in this post, using wine to deglaze the pan instead of water. For the cheese, you can use whatever you like- Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Emmenthaler or another hard cheese like Comte… Just make sure whatever you choose is not going to have a funky flavor once melted, as some Swiss-style cheeses are prone to do. I used a mixture of 3/4 Wisconsin white Cheddar and 1/4 Emmenthaler (because I had some in the fridge to use up) but I think you could play with the proportions or try other cheeses. I wouldn’t use anything too strong or too mild unless you plan to mix two cheeses. The Emmenthaler on its own would be lovely, but it’s a bit spendy; the Cheddar is much more affordable.
Directions: Melt 2 Tbs of the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven. Whatever you choose, make sure it has a light-colored bottom so you can monitor the browning process. Most importantly, do NOT use a non-stick pan! When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, add the onions. Sprinkle them generously with salt- this will help to draw out the water, which is the first step to getting them browned. Stir often with a wooden spoon or spatula. Be patient- the caramelization process will take quite a long time (45 minutes to an hour), but it’s not difficult and the flavor is so worth it! Some cooks like to read while they stir… The hotter you keep the heat, the faster things will go, but the more you’ll have to be vigilant with your stirring. Towards the end, you may have to reduce the heat a little to keep things from scorching. After the water has started to cook out, the onions will become a pale brown and an amber-colored residue will gradually begin to build up on the bottom of the pan. When you can no longer scrape the browned part up with your spoon alone, start using the wine to deglaze the pan. To start off, you’ll want to deglaze every 45-60 seconds or so; as the onions cook, the intervals will become shorter. Every time a “crust” accumulates, add a SMALL splash of the wine (no more than a tablespoon; less if possible) and stir and scrape the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions. The sugars from the wine will assist the browning process and give you a gorgeous deep amber color.
When you’ve used up all the wine and the onions have become quite dark (see photos), reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbs butter to the pot. When the butter has melted, sprinkle the flour over the onions 1 Tbs at a time, stirring to incorporate and making sure there are no lumps. Cook the floured onions for 2-3 minutes so that the flour loses its “raw” taste.
Increase the heat back to medium high, add the chicken stock, and bring to a low simmer; the soup will thicken slightly. Add the milk; when the soup comes back up to temperature, add the cheese. If you like, you can reserve a little of the cheese for garnish. Stir gently until the cheese has melted. Cover the soup and reduce the heat to low.
Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, being very careful not to burn them. (If they seem at all burned, toss them out and start over; burnt cumin is very bitter and will ruin your soup!) When they have cooled, crush them a bit in a mortar & pestle to release their flavor. Add the cumin to the soup along with the white pepper. Taste for salt, but it likely won’t need any.
If you want to leave your soup as-is, you’re done. If you want a smooth soup, transfer to a blender in 2 batches and puree until very smooth. Alternately (and I think I’d do this next time), puree half the soup and stir it back in- this will give you some body, but you’ll retain the texture of some of the onions.
Ladle into bowls and top with croutons, a little chopped parsley, and a pinch of grated cheese if desired.