A French onion soup kind of day

Remember Daisy, the ever-expanding donkey? The one who was expecting a foal any minute now? We turns out, she’s not. Expecting, I mean.

At least we’re 90% sure she’s not expecting. Today, I spent the morning helping a very nice vet who specializes in equines ultrasound my donkey. Dr. Shane looked and looked but he couldn’t find any evidence that Daisy is bred, let alone due any time soon.

Why the rapidly expanding girth? Dr. Shane thinks that the pasture in Central Virginia are lush-er than those of her native Northern Virginia. Apparently keeping donkey from getting fat is a full-time job around these parts, and Daisy is going on a reducing plan right away.

I was terribly disappointed when Dr. Shane broke the news.. Terribly. I had spent a fair amount of time daydreaming about this little donk-to-be and coming up with names. Have you ever seen a newborn baby donkey? There is nothing on this earth cuter. And I know from cute, my friends!

I was also disappointed for Daisy. She is no a huge fan of sheep and goats and I’m sure she would love a friend of her own species.

So perhaps I will keep an eye on the new foals born this year at Tulip Hill Farm, the wonderful place from whence Daisy came, and find a companion for Miss Daisy this spring. Maybe even a boyfriend. I would awfully like to see a newborn mini donk.

I was already feeling blue and the weather was doing nothing to improve my mood. Today was cold, rainy, gray day, the kind best spent reading by a roaring fire with a dog at your feet.

There is only one thing that could make this kind of day better: French onion soup. Not the over-salted, thin, pale stuff that passes for French onion soup at most restaurants. No, the only thing that would do is real French onion soup, the kind Julia Child probably made when she found out her mini donkey wasn’t going to have a baby.

I like to use a variety of onions in my soup to add depth of flavor. I had sweet and yellow onions on hand. You’ll need about two pounds of onions sliced thin.

It’s not important to get them super thin; it’s more important that they be about the same width so they cook at the same rate.

Put the onions in a large dutch oven and toss them with two tablespoons of olive oil. Traditionally this recipe would be made with butter, but I was out of butter and olive oil works just fine.  Turn the burner on the lowest setting and cover, allowing the onions to sweat for about 15 minutes.

After 15 minutes, remove the lid and stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. The salt is for flavor, the sugar is going to help the onions caramelize. Turn the heat up to medium and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to an hour.

You may want to rush this step but it’s really important not to. The flavor of the soup really depends of the caramelization of the onions, so be patient.

It will seem like nothing is happening for the longest time. Then you will notice that your onions are shrinking.

Then they will start to get the slightest hint of color.

And then – BAM! -suddenly you’ve got caramelization. I like to let my onions get to a fairly deep golden brown, but do be careful that they don’t burn at this stage.

Next you’re going to sprinkle two tablespoons of flour over the onions and stir it in. Allow to cook for two minutes.

Now it’s time to add our liquids. White wine would be good, but I don’t tend to keep white wine in the house because I don’t drink it.

Let me introduce you to my good friend vermouth.Vermouth is white wine that has been fortified, which gives it a longer shelf life. Dry vermouth can be substituted for white wine in any recipe and it’s easy to always keep a bottle in your pantry. (Marsala functions the same way as a substitute for red wine.)

Add a half cup of vermouth or dry white wine to your onions (be sure to take the pan off the heat before adding any alcohol if you have a gas stove) and stir. Continue to stir over heat until most of the vermouth has evaporated.

Next, we’ll add our stock. For every two pounds of onions, I add two quarts of beef stock. In a perfect world, we would all make out own beef stock from bones obtained at the knowledgeable local butcher and slow roasted with a glaze of tomato paste, but this is not a perfect world. I know that because in a perfect world, my donkey would be pregnant.There’s nothing wrong with using boxed beef stock provided you look out for three things on the label. You want to be sure it says “stock” and not “broth” (broth is too weak and thin). You want to make sure the word “flavored” isn’t in evidence, as in “beef flavored stock”. And you want to buy stock that is low in sodium or, better yet, sodium-free. I found three perfectly acceptable stocks are my local grocery store.

Vegetarians wishing to make this soup should skip the vegetable stock (which will make a pallid soup) in favor of mushroom stock, a much richer, more unctuous substitute. If you can’t find mushroom stock, Better than Bouillon makes a Mushroom Base  that is a great substitute for beef stock.

Slowly add two quarts of the stock of your choice to the onion mixture, stirring well.

Let your soup simmer gently for about an hour, allowing all the lovely flavors to get to know each other.  Taste the soup for seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.

Now it’s time to add the coup de grace:

Stir 1/4 cup of brandy or cognac in to the soup and serve. (FYI, I used really cheap brandy in this recipe- not the fancy stuff pictured here. I forgot to take a picture of it though, so I swiped this one from the internet. You definitely don’t need to you high priced brandy or cognac in this soup.)

At this point you can add a slice of baguette and a quarter cup of shredded Gruyere cheese to your bowls and stick them under the broiler for a moment or two but it really isn’t necessary. Since I too am on a reducing plan, I added a few shavings of parmesan and ate it with a piece of crusty sourdough bread on the side. It was delicious and exactly what I needed today.

Here’s the ingredient list, in case you want to try this at home:

  • 2 pounds onions, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 cup vermouth or dry white wine
  • 2 quarts beef or mushroom stock
  • 1/4 cup brandy or cognac

I don’t know if it was the restorative soup, the blazing fire in the wood stove or the adoring Aussie at my feet, but something reminded me how lucky I am to have a donkey at all, pregnant or not.

I thank my lucky stars every day.


  1. It sounds as though Onion Soup is a great antidote to your disappointment on Daisy’s situation. I’m quite sure a wonderful friend for her will arrive before long. In the meantime, a diet is in order – you don’t want a donkey with laminitis!

  2. Gah! No baby donkey and NO BUTTER?!

    Isn’t that one of the signs of the apocalypse?

  3. If you ever run out of white wine (or vermouth) try a good dark beer. My MIL is allergic to sulfates in wine so we have to find substitutions and the beer is just as good, possibly even better.

  4. So sad there won’t be a baby mini donk for you to coo over.

    I usually skip over cooking posts since I don’t but this had my interest because I love love love onion soup…..call me stupid but I really appreciated the warning about removing the pot before adding alcohol if cooking on a gas stove. Inexperienced cook that I am, I would have added the alcohol without thinking twice about it. (I am very new to cooking on a gas stove)

    Thank you for including that note of warning – you probably just saved my life!

  5. Well POOP. No baby donk. I love Daisy. Whenever I come home from the farm and look at my pictures there are always more of Daisy then of goats or sheep! (Except yesterday, lots of baby cows!)

    Thanks so much for including the vegetarian tip for the soup. I’m totally making this one.

  6. No baby donk?!? When I first saw Daisy at last year’s Spring Shearing my immediately thought was “Is she pregnant?” Well, maybe someday soon…

  7. Aw, Susan, I’m sorry there will be no baby mini donk. The soup looks amazing, though. Yum.

  8. 1. Aaaaaaw, no baby mini donk to coo over!?!?! I call shenanigans on that one!

    2. French onion soup is one of the few things in this world that makes me wish I liked onions, and your’s looks amazing. Think anyone would notice if I spooned up all the broth and left a pile of onions in my bowl?

    3. Whyfor take the pot of the stove before adding the alcohol? I’ve… never had a problem with adding the booze?

    • Susan

      January 11, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Jenn, the flame can leap up and light the stream of alcohol, and then follow the stream up into the bottle, causing the bottle to explode. It was one of those things that were drilled into us in culinary school. I reflexively move the pot without even thinking now.

  9. but i felt the baby donk move! at fall shearing! now really, who are you going to believe – a muffin’s trained hands on your (apparently fat and gassy) mini-donk’s belly or this alleged equine vet ‘specialist’ and his newfangled ultrasound machine??

  10. Best line ever:

    “…But this is not a perfect world. I know that because in a perfect world, my donkey would be pregnant”

    The soup looks bloody fantastic. I didn’t even know mushroom base exists. Oh, America. So awesome.

  11. Funny story. Several years ago after I learned to knit and joined a knitting group that met at a place that had ice cream and a small band of very pregnant looking goats, I got married and started taking my wife with me. Now both of us are city girls and what do we know about goats except that they are cute and some of them have great hair. Well every week she would go out and talk to the goats and pet the goats. And every time she would come back into the group she would remark on how big the goats were getting and how she could see a hoof or how the goats side looked like it was moving with the baby inside. Finally one day after about 8 months she asked the woman that worked there when she thought the goats were going to give birth (she too was quite excited about seeing a tiny goat) only to be told by the clerk with a great deal of smiling and laughing that they were never going to give birth – they were boys and the reason that they were fat was because everyone fed them ice cream. Boy was her face red! But we all had a great laugh about it and she still loves the goats even if they are just fat and happy and not pregnant.

    Just thought you would like a cute story to make you smile. Daisy at least has a chance of having a baby someday – these goats (and my wife) can only dream.

  12. This part “I know that because in a perfect world, my donkey would be pregnant.” made me laugh so hard. I am so sorry Daisy is not preggo, but I am sure you have a baby mini donk in your future!

  13. Huh, I’d never heard that before!

    After accidentally over-pouring and ruining many many dishes, I almost always pour into a measuring cup before adding anything to my pots. I wonder if that makes it safer?

    But, perhaps now I’ll just be more careful and turn the heat off for a second when I am adding it in.

  14. It’s cold and rainy here on Long Island today, too. Your blog and the donkey picture made me smile. Here’s to donkeys, preggers or not!

  15. The soup looks soo good—cold, rainy and predicted snow here makes me want a cup even more.
    So sorry about daisy–baby donks are the best though so maybe in the future…everything in its own time:)

  16. Shocked.
    Just, shocked. :-(
    Thanks for posting the soup recipe – I’d been meaning to ask for a good recommendation.

  17. Aww… I was looking forward to baby pics.

    I was wondering… does Daisy have a job on the farm? Not that she isn’t adorable, but sometimes I wonder what the animals other than the sheep and goats and dogs do for the farm. Like the pigs? I know you don’t kill, so they’re not for ham.

  18. You’ve just made my son very happy. This is the French Onion Soup he has been describing to me but I have been unable to figure out how to do on the fly.

    I’m so sorry about Daisy.

  19. I’m sad for you (and us, who would have cooed from home) about no baby donk. But I’m grateful for the reminder that I should be eating French onion soup, and extra grateful for Laura’s comment about using dark beer. I have several bottles of porter that I probably won’t drink, and I don’t really like how sweet the sherry I have made the soup last time I made it.

  20. Bonjour bonjour, I can smell from here (that is France) your homemade onion soup!! My mum used to make one similar, and then she would add toast with grilled gruère on it which then makes the soup “gratinée”. No cognac or Brandy in my mum’s version though. I think in the remote country side, they add red wine and call it “chabrot”.

  21. Daisy is beautiful, and she was probably loving all the attention her belly was getting, so don’t stop rubbing it and wishing.
    I’m going to make that soup because I don’t even have a donkey, but I do have a picky daughter who would actually eat that–looks fantastic; thank you.
    Glad your day is looking up!

  22. I have a picky kid too–no soup! : – ( But he might try that. I’ll be making it next week anyway. How can a donkey get so fat on pasture? And how do you make her reduce? And do she & Aberdeen not get along? Seems like they ought to be able to be each other’s equine pals . . . Thanks for the soup recipe, you’ll feel better soon.

  23. Christina Del Villar

    January 13, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Really?!?!?! She’s not with donk-to-be?!? My, that is lush grass you have there. She was pretty darn big back in Oct. She did look a little lonely out there in the pasture, fighting with Jerry for Ken’s attention. Too bad. Pals are always good.

    As for French Onion soup, it’s my fav. Maybe I’ll make some this weekend.

  24. Just made this last night … with butter. I’ve only had French onion soup twice before and didn’t care for it either time. Your pictures looked so beautiful, though, that I had to try it. I put French bread slices with shaved Asiago under the broiler and then floated them on top of the soup. YUM!

  25. I made this soup yesterday (minus the brandy since I didn’t have any) and it was to die for, if I do say so myself!!! I never made French Onion Soup before. I thought it would be too hard and never tastes as good as restaurant soup. What a surprise – it was BETTER!!! I had a wonderful time with the whole process. Thanks for posting.

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