Maple-Rosemary Pairing

Every now and then I get a hankering for French toast. Visions of warm maple syrup tempt me more than usual right now because I know the sap of maple trees is running well (nights cold enough, days warm enough, correct differential). Plus, I had some bread that was two days old.

In the bakery section of my grocery store (and I don’t mean the bread-in-plastic-bags aisle) they sell a variety of in-store baked bread. I’m not naïve enough to believe that they mix up the dough there, but at least they bake it there, so it’s fresher, sometimes even still warm. You find a decent rye with caraway seeds, a crusty multigrain loaf and a lovely “country” white made with rosemary and olive oil.

Lightly toast a slice or two of that rosemary bread and top it with butter and honey – that’s some good eating! So on Saturday I said to myself: Why not French toast? Fairly thick (just under one inch) slices soaked in the egg-milk mixture, browned in butter and topped with maple syrup – hmmm, using the rosemary bread for this just might work. So I tried it.

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I love how the pieces puff up as the egg inside them cooks. I love the crispiness formed (especially on the edges) by the hot butter coming in contact with the soaked bread. I love warm, pure syrup dripped over top and then soaking into the soft inners.

Any meal, any occasion, any success, any failure happens because of the confluence of numerous factors, a specific alignment of the figurative stars. This specific breakfast is no different. For it to happen included 1. having this kind of bread on hand, 2. knowing how to turn bread into French toast and 3. being willing to experiment.

Let’s start with the bread. Somewhere along the line it occurred to someone to put jalapenos in pickles, sugar on corn flakes, barbeque flavoring on potato chips. Why not rosemary in bread? Who can doubt that Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme helped bring all these wonderful herbs into kitchens they had previously not entered, introducing a generation to flavors and aromas that enhance many foods? I’m not sure which is better in bread – kalamata olives or fresh rosemary – but I’ll take either on any day. If there is honey in the cabinet for drizzling on top, I am in heaven.

French toast is such a simple meal to prepare – I should make it more often. For the five pieces you see in the pan above, plus the two in a second pan (no point squishing French toast), I used four large eggs (my good eggs, which undoubtedly contributed to the amazing result) whisked up with half a cup of milk. This was a bit much – three would have done – but I took the extra egg mixture and carefully poured it onto each slice after I put them into the pan but before I flipped them, which maybe added to the puffiness. Oh, and I used about two tablespoons of butter in the large pan and one in the smaller and cooked them over a medium flame. Get the butter hot before you put the soaked bread in the pan.

The being willing to experiment part is, for me, both limited and expanding: Limited because I know what I like and what I don’t like (so I outright refuse to consider certain things like jalapenos, sorry to say), but expanding because 1. My experience over time has accumulated in a mysterious and wonderful way. New combinations occur to me that never would have. A new method I never used pops in my head for something I’ve made many times. It’s super cool! And 2. Let us always, at least in some benign thing, remain unpredictable. Life is just more fun 😊

Some of the world’s best things came about by similar alignment of stars, i.e. having/doing a thing routinely over time and then a need or a change or an idea turns it into a version of the original by way of experimentation. Ice cream cones come to mind. New Yorker Italo Marchiony sold ice cream off a pushcart to Wall Street customers looking for a quick snack. He served it in little (let’s assume fairly inexpensive) glass cups, but too often these either broke from being dropped or were not returned to him. He came up with an edible cup and was awarded the patent in 1903 for his ten-at-a-time cone-making mold. At the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition his cones were so popular he still couldn’t keep up with demand, so he reached out to fellow exhibitor Ernest Hamwi, who was selling a thin, waffle-like Syrian cookie. The cookies, molded while still warm, made great impromptu cones.

Oh, yum! Never mind French toast – who wants an ice cream cone??!!

Best Onion Soup Ever

I never planted onions before, but this year I went big: one hundred sets each of white, yellow and red. I never planted rosemary with success before, or thyme at all. But these essential ingredients for the best onion soup ever all grew well this year. I know this isn’t the fullest rosemary bush in the world, but for me, it’s phenomenal.

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The thyme might look like a weed, but those perfect little leaves strike joy in my heart.

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Onions, well, onions sit in the dirt. They are a mess when you bring them in and put them in the sink to clean them.

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But what’s inside the mess is glorious. They glisten like jewels.

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I learned how to make onion soup when I was 16. That year, I wanted to make a trip to Germany to meet Claudia. She and I had been pen-pals since we were 12, having met through my great aunt Lina, who was her father’s cousin and my mother’s aunt by marriage. Claudia used to say that she and I were related “around nine corners.”

Here we are during that trip, posing with two other (closer) relatives between us on top of a mountain we hiked in what I think was the foothills of the Alps. (Claudia, help me here, what mountain was that?) I didn’t plan this Onion Soup post to fall on this date, but I’m so glad to be able to say: Happy Birthday, Claudia!!

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This ties to my onion soup because I needed money to pay for my trip. For the nine months before my trip, throughout my senior year of high school, I held a weekend job at a French restaurant called Picot’s Place. It was there that I observed the chef making onion soup week after week. I have since made it myself countless times the same way he did. I LOVE onion soup, and I have never been disappointed in how mine turns out. Somewhere, I got the right kind of crocks long ago, and have always made it with the bread and melted cheese on top, the way it is often served in restaurants.

Nothing wrong with that. Well, except for how difficult it can be to eat it with the cheese adhering to the bowl the way it does, on and under the rim. And sometimes, when you get it in a restaurant, they put too much bread in there which soaks up all the broth, or sometimes too much cheese so that you are eating just gobs of melted cheese before you can get to the soup.

This past weekend, at the Inn at Mount Vernon, I had onion soup that was BETTER than mine. Not only was it better, it was better in a way that I thought I could duplicate, so I did, thinking there might be some onion soup fans out there. How was it better?

  1. The onions were cut up smaller than you often get it, meaning we did not deal with trying to get long floppy pieces of onion onto our spoons.
  2. It had been thickened! Never had onion soup except with a clear broth before, and this change was amazing.
  3. The bread-cheese on top was cheesy croutons – bread cubes on which cheese had been melted prior to simply putting them on top of the bowl of creamy, rich soup.

I promise that the fact of it being a nasty, rainy day this past Sunday at Mt. Vernon and our being finally inside, out of the weather, and into the warmth of the dining room had nothing to do with how good the soup was. On any day, this soup would be judged (by me, anyway) as outstanding.

For my version, I started with that bowl of onions above, minus the red ones, which turned out to be 5 full cups of chopped onions. Chop them as fine as you want. I asked Samuel to cut them up, which was rather a pain because they are so small and therefore it took a long time. All I said regarding what size to chop them was “not insanely fine,” which he interpreted as meaning the size could fall anywhere in the huge range of possibilities between no-longer-whole and minced. I realized my communication error, my inexactitude, when he asked me to confirm that he had judged “not insanely fine” correctly, which he realized he hadn’t when I simply stared at his pile and did not verbally approve in a glance.

All to say, cut them as big or as small as you want. Just don’t leave them whole.

Put the five cups of chopped onions in a large pot (my Dutch oven came in handy again) along with a stick (1/2 cup, or 113 grams) butter. Turn this on low and let it cook for about 45 minutes, stirring now and then. It will look like this in half an hour or so, but leave it a little longer, about 15 minutes longer, on real low for those onions to get super soft and transparent. They are like gold to me.

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Next I veered from onion soup tradition and added half a cup of flour, and stirred it in, making a pasty roux. Making a paste like this is the basic way to thicken something without ending up with lumps. Stir that flour in (a whisk works well) till the paste is smooth, then add four cups of chicken broth/stock and stir it up again. Then add four cups of  beef broth/stock and stir again.

That’s 8 cups of liquid total, and I split mine between chicken and beef broth because that’s how I was taught. You can use all chicken stock, homemade or purchased, or vegetable stock, or all beef stock or whatever combination you want. You can use 8 cups of water plus 8 bouillon cubes (4 chicken, 4 beef) if push comes to shove and that’s all you’ve got.

Then add half a cup of cooking sherry. I was running low and had only a quarter cup of cooking sherry so I added another quarter cup of this fine port, which is possibly why it turned out to be the best onion soup ever. I cannot be sure.

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If you happen to have a bit of leftover pork gravy from a roast you recently made, or beef or chicken gravy, feel free to put that in. I had about half a cup of pork gravy. Whether this contributed to it being the best onion soup ever, I also cannot be sure. But I think maybe.

Then add your herbs. My handful for this pot of soup looked like this. I picked the parsley because it looked so pretty, thinking I might use it in the soup, but I have never put parsley in onion soup, so in the end I used only the rosemary and thyme. (The parsley came into play later with chicken piccata.)

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Quantities of herbs: If using fresh, use the leaves of five 6”-long sprigs of rosemary, plus the leaves of five 5”-long sprigs of thyme. (I am trying to be exact here. A little more or less will be fine.) If using dried, use 1 ½ tsp each of rosemary and thyme. In my pot after adding the herbs, it looked like this.

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Let all of this cook for about an hour on a low simmer. That means the heat is high enough for there to be some bubbling along the edges of the pot but not a full boil. Salt and pepper to taste.

While all those flavors are working their magic in the pot and the soup is becoming delicious, you can make the croutons. Choose bread you think would make good croutons. A small baguette or a firm white loaf will work. I would avoid anything with seeds. I happened to have this lovely darker bread in my freezer, which might have had some rye flour in it, but I don’t know because I didn’t make it. It was small, only about 5 inches across.

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I let it thaw, then cubed it like this,

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then put the cubes on a cookie sheet, buttered them with a little melted butter (with a brush as you would butter corn on the cob), then sprinkled parmesan cheese on them. The butter is both for flavor and to help the cheese stick. You could probably use a different cheese like cheddar or swiss, as long as it’s finely grated.

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I preheated the oven to 400 degrees and baked the croutons for 20 minutes. Then I turned the oven off and left them in there. Leaving them in as the oven cools draws more of the moisture out of them and makes them crispier without being darker. Finished they looked like this.

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They are marvelous and would be marvelous on almost any soup, but on/in the onion soup, oh my!

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We were all in heaven. Samuel used four verys to describe how good it was, as in “very, very, very, very good.” I told him I’m not sure he ever used four verys before about anything I’ve made, and he said something to the effect that he was too overwhelmed with how good the soup was to bother with finding better descriptors.

The superlative soup found yet another use this morning. When making myself some scrambled eggs, I used a slotted spoon and took up some of the onion/herb part of the refrigerated soup and heated it up in a skillet. Then I added a handful of spinach chopped up a bit. Let that cook a couple minutes till the spinach got soft. Then added my two beat-up, positively orange-yolked eggs. How many verys? I’ll let you guess.