Why do we have to take the good with the bad? I'd rather take the good and leave the bad. The same rules that apply to love also apply to French Onion Soup.
Everyone knows, indisputably, that the best part of French Onion Soup is the cheese. The cheese, that melts over the sides of the hot crock like thick, oozing curtains. That bubbles and browns and smells nutty and is like a huge welcome mat on a snowy evening. It's the greatest soup there is: renowned, indulgent. But would that be the case without the cheese? I don't think so.
So, I decided to do a little deconstruction and renovation on the old classic. The one part of French Onion Soup that I hate is the soggy bread: the raft on which the cheese floats over the onion soupy sea. That soggy bread becomes the buttery crisp outside of this grilled cheese sandwich. The gruyère is the runny, stringy, melting cheese on the inside, still nutty, still burnt around the edges, still perfect in every way. And on the inside of it all, a jam of onions flavored with bay leaf and cognac and beef stock, which tastes just like French Onion Soup. Together, it is one of the most flavorful, decadent, delicious grilled cheeses I've ever had.
If only I could take the good and leave the bad in everything in life! But as they say, life is like a bowl of cherries or a box of chocolates; not like the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. Tant pis.
French Onion Soup Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
3 tablespoons unsalted room temperature butter, divided
1 vidalia onion, sliced 1/8" thick on a mandoline
1 dried bay leaf
1 1/2 tablespoons cognac
1/4 cup beef stock
Freshly cracked black pepper
8 3/4-inch slices of sourdough bread, about 1 8" round loaf (see Note #1)
8 ounces gruyère, coarsely grated
8 ounces Italian fontina, coarsely grated (see Note #2)
1. Melt one tablespoon of butter in an 8.5-inch sauté pan over medium heat.
2. Add the thinly sliced onions, salt, and bay leaf. Cook 8 minutes, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until the onions are soft and golden, but not charred. If the onions begin to brown too quickly, add 2 tablespoons of water, and continue cooking.
3. Add the cognac off the heat, and allow to reduce 2 minutes over low heat.
4. Add the beef stock and cook on low heat for 3 minutes, until the onions are soft and jammy, and the pan is dry. Remove the bay leaf and discard.
5. Meanwhile, lightly butter one side of each slice of bread with the 2 remaining tablespoons of butter. Divide the cheese between all the unbuttered sides of bread, and scatter the onion mixture evenly on half of those slices. Then top each piece of onion and cheese bread with a slice of just cheese bread, so the butter is on the outside of the sandwich, and the onions are sandwiched between two layers of cheese.
6. Place in an 8.5-inch sauté pan on medium-low heat, place one sandwich at a time on the hot pan. Toast 2 minutes on the first side, lower the heat to low, and toast 4 minutes on the second, or until the outside of the sandwich is golden and crisp, and the cheese is melted. Cut in half, and serve immediately, with Dijon mustard and a few cornichons on the side.
1. You could also use a rustic French farmhouse round loaf.
2. Feel free to use either a mix of gruyère and fontina, or just 16 ounces gruyère.