Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Le Cordon Bleu French Onion Soup (Soupe a l'Oignon)

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When my parents moved to Europe after I was married, my mother attended the Cordon Bleu school in Brussels.  This was one of the many recipes on the course  and the only one she ever graced us with. I wonder what ever happened to the rest...

Onion soup is the quintessential French comfort soup and another great remedy for a hangover.  Cookbooks are fond of saying that onion soup was a favorite of locals stopping by the central Paris open markets after the theater or cabaret. As famous as the onion soup of Les Halles may have been, I have not been able to find a recipe purporting to be actually from this famous marketplace.

Interior of Les Halles, 1835, a painting by Max Berthelin.
In this recipe beef consomme rather than beef broth is used.  There has been a lot of argument going back and forth between American versions that use beef broth and french versions that use water. Supposedly, the french version tastes more "oniony"  than ours; so be aware when ordering in France.  I checked out Balthazar's (chicken stock) and Julia Child's (beef broth) cookbooks.  Both recipes are almost identical to this one with the exception of the stock, so Vive La Difference!

 If you live in Paris, you can find wonderful French onion soup at the Brasserie Balzar or at Au Pied de Cochon, a two minute walk from Les Halles.  This is actually where the workers went for their soup late at night. Similarly in New York,  I understand Artisanal and Balthazar serve a delicious one, although I have never had it...I have other fish to fry when I go there.  Here at the lake we make my mother's Cordon Bleu recipe and frankly, it is the best I've ever had, particularly on a cold winter night. A tarte au citron or a pear or apple crisp for dessert is all you need to wrap up the meal.

Serves 2 - 3


2 large Spanish onions, total weight about 500 g (1 lb)

2 x 295 g cans condensed beef consommé (I use Campbell's)

90 g (3 oz) butter

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 teaspoons plain flour

125 ml (4 fl oz) dry white wine

1 bouquet garni*

6 - 9 slices of baguette

60 - 90 g (2 - 3 oz) Emmental, Gruyère of Jarlsberg cheese

2 - 3 tablespoons Port or Madeira*


1. Halve the onions lengthways and finely slice them. Make the consommé up to 1.2 litres (2 pints or 1 quart) with water and heat to boiling. Keep hot.

2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the onions, stir well and season with a generous pinch of salt. Cover and cook gently for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, increase the heat to moderate and cook the onions until light golden brown in colour, 12 - 15 minutes. Stir frequently during this time and watch carefully towards the end of cooking, to prevent the onions catching on the bottom of the pan.

3. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 - 2 minutes, then add the wine and bring to the boil. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly to loosen the browned pieces of onion on the bottom of the pan. Add the hot consommé and the bouquet garni, stir well and bring to the boil. Cover and simmer gently for 30 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, preheat the broiler and lightly toast the slices of baguette on both sides. Leave the broiler on. Thinly slice the cheese and arrange it on top of the baguette. Remove the bouquet garni from the soup, stir in the port or Madeira (if using), then season the soup to taste.

To serve: Ladle the soup into individual flameproof bowls. Top each serving with 3 slices of baguette and put under the broiler until the cheese melts and bubbles. Serve.

Chef's Tips

Don't skimp on the browning time for the onions - this is essential to give the soup a good colour and flavour

*If you don't have Port or Madeira, you can use Sherry or Brandy but it won't quite be the same.  I STRONGLY SUGGEST PORT.

*The bouquet garni is parsley, thyme and laurel leaf.  Tie some together with a string so you can remove easily.

I use Gruyere cheese.

If making the day before, cook the soup up to the end of step 3, then remove the bouquet garni. Cool over and refrigerate the soup. Before serving, reheat the soup until bubbling, preheat the grill and prepare the croûtons.

Source: Le Cordon Bleu


  1. This is a favorite soup of ours! And I've not made it in a while -- I may just have to try your recipe instead of the one I usually use.

  2. Oh I wouldn't think it would make such a huge difference if you used beef or chicken or water or bouillon or consommé, just as long as it looks like your does! (Wish they'd get this darn internet up to speed so I could taste as I browse.) I think the tradition is that the French eat this before the hangover that is surely on the way.

  3. Kim,

    ah yes, when is the internet going to catch up and let us taste as we browse! thnx for visiting.

  4. My husband has longed for a delicious french onion soup he tasted in Viet Nam years ago. This will be one I try for him to see if it measures up to his memory.

  5. Carole,

    I don't know if this onion soup will remind him of the one he tasted in Vietnam, even though it was a french colony at one time! It is a good one, and who knows, you might start something new!!

  6. As far as I know from reading widely, there never was a French onion soup of Les Halles, for the market in those times was within the precincts of Au Pied de Cochon. This is where the workers would go for the famous soup or anyone returning home in the early hours. I have had their soup,I felt I was experiencing the whole deal by visiting there. It was memorable, & served in its classic white french onion soup bowl.

  7. AT LAST. Back in the 60s I was living in Chicago and found a recipe for onion soup in the International Herald Tribune for the most delicious onion soup I had ever made. It was from Les Halles and was before they closed that revered landmark.
    Now that I have somehow lived to nearly 80 and live in Spain, I have searched and searched for that recipe (which I of course lost in the shuffle). I have looked and looked and finally came across this recipe that is practically it! The only thing that I could remember precisely is that the soup used beef stock instead of chicken. And for my culinary memory, that is the secret.
    Thank you so much for publishing this.

    1. My pleasure. Thank you for your kind comment. I am about to make some for my 93 year old mother who adores it.


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