Cooking For Others: An Almost Bistro Dinner

EVENT: Elyssa’s Very Belated Birthday Dinner
VENUE: Cara’s Apartment, Park Slope
TYPE: Weeknight Bistro Meal
MENU: French Onion Soup; Kabocha Risotto; Chocolate Madeleine Cake with Whipped Cream and Caramel Coffee Sauce

Kate, Elyssa, and I all went to camp together for seven summers, and as a result of eating so many meals and so many ice cream cones with the two of them, I have a pretty good idea of their likes, dislikes, and appetites. More importantly, I can still count on them to eat ice cream cones with me.
In the whir of the new year, Kate and I both realized we’d missed Elyssa’s birthday on January 7th. To remedy, I invited them over for dinner one night after work and/or classes. The first part of the menu that came to me was an appetizer, which I don’t usually serve at a quick-ish weeknight dinner. But I wanted to make onion soup. Even though it’s not something we were ever served at camp, it’s still something that to me evokes Kate.

When I was finishing my college semester in Paris, Kate arrived to start her own semester abroad, and we overlapped for a couple of weeks. I remember meeting up on her second or third day in Paris. She told me she and her mom, who’d come over with her, had eaten at a delicious bistro the night before, and she had ordered onion soup. Kate asked if I’d been there; I hadn’t. And that’s when I realized that in the course of five months I hadn’t had one crock of onion soup. I was too busy eating pastries. And ice cream.

So I went along with a French bistro-y kind of dinner, deciding about a week in advance I’d make a green salad topped with fried eggs and bacon lardons for a light main course. For dessert, Elyssa, the birthday girl, was easy inspiration. She loves chocolate absolutely.
And then an hour before dinner, with the greens washed and the dressing made, I realized I had made a gross oversight. Kate, whose brother Nick owns the three New York branches of make-your-own-salad joints, Just Salad, eats a salad every single day for lunch. No way was I going to confront her with even more greens. I made risotto instead, ruining my Frenchified theme in the process.
last minute dinner party main: risotto saves the meal
Though the meal no longer seemed like something some surly waiter would serve you in France, it was still celebratory, warm, and indulgent enough for a winter’s belated birthday.
From my kitchen, where rice is better than salad anyway, to yours,

P.S. Stay tuned for a recipe for squash risotto from Phoebe in the next few weeks!


French Onion Soup
Serves 3

3 onions
2 tablespoons butter
1 bay leaf
pinch dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups beef broth
1 cup water
3 slices good bread
1 clove garlic, halved
4 ounces gruyere or mixed gruyere and jarlsberg, grated

Over very low heat, cook the onions with the butter, thyme, and bay leaf for 45 minutes until very golden. You don’t have to stir constantly, but don’t let the onions burn. Add the salt.

Add the wine and raise the heat to bring to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes with the lid off, until much of the liquid has reduced and the smell of alcohol boiling off has mellowed. Add 1 cup of beef broth, bring that to a boil, and then lower the heat and cover the pot. Let simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the rest of the broth and the water. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered, for another 15 minutes. Taste for salt and maybe add a little pepper. Distribute among 3 oven-safe crocks.

To make the toasts: cut three slices of bread so they’re the right size to fit in your crocks. Brust with olive oil and toast in a 350°F oven for 5-10 minutes per side. You want the bread really crusty. Rub each toast with the halved clove of garlic.

When ready to eat, preheat the oven to broil. Place the crocks in a baking pan that will hold them steady. Put one toast on each soup and evenly distribute the cheese. Cook until the cheese is melted, just a few minutes–and keep an eye so the cheese doesn’t burn. Serve immediately.

(You can make the soup and toasts separately ahead of time. If the soup is cold when you go to cook it, warm the crocks in a 400°F oven for 15 minutes before adding the toasts and cheese and turning to broil.)

Chocolate Madeleine Cake
Makes 1 thin cake

12 tablespoons butter
2 ounces dark chocolate (80-90%)
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
pinch of salt

Melt the butter with the chocolate in the microwave or in a double boiler until just liquid. Set aside.
Whisk the eggs and sugar in a heatproof bowl over boiling water until they are about room temperature. Let a droplet fall onto your wrist: if you don’t feel it, that means you’re at the right temperature.

Remove from the heat. Beat until light, syrupy, and fluffy, about 10 minutes with a whisk or 2-3 minutes with a handheld mixer. Beat in the flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Stir to combine, then pour in the melted butter and chocolate. Fold in. Refrigerate for an hour or overnight.

When ready to bake, heat the oven to 400°F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan with removable sides. Cut a circle of parchment and lay it on the bottom; butter that too. Press the batter into the pan (you may need to use wet hands to press it in evenly). Bake for about 20 minutes until the top is firm and the sides are starting to crisp up. Cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then carefully remove the sides. Flip the cake, peel off the parchment, and transfer to a rack or a plate to cool.

Posted in: Cooking for Others
  • Kate

    With Madeleine in the title, I don't think I can not try this–they are my favorite, and, French onion soup is my always forgotten favorite. This meal sounds absolutely delicious, I only wish I had access to a kitchen to whip it up right now.

  • Maddie

    As a Madeleine myself, I of course think this cake is a great idea. I've got madeleine pans, but this sounds even easier.

    Out of curiosity, what exactly makes it a madeleine cake? Is it similar, texture-wise, to the cookie version?

  • Roxie

    that french onion soup looks delicious :)

  • Mommy Gourmet

    that cake! I swear, I can taste how good it is. sigh.

  • Lisa

    I think we're having FRSoup tomorrow for dinner. Now, as someone with only four bowls to my name and of very questionable quality at that, this may not be the wisest of choices; but I refuse to wait to try this recipe until we own better crockery. Here's to hoping we still have four bowls post-broiler tomorrow night!

  • mobi

    nice, thank her knowledge, I try at home

  • Phoebe and Cara, the Quarter-Life Cooks

    Maddie–I call it a madeleine cake because I use the same technique as making madeleines: beating in lots of melted butter after whisking the eggs and combining them with flour. The result is a dense crumb, so texturally a lot like the madeleine cookie!

  • Colleen

    You can never go wrong with risotto. It's my go-to dish for company.

  • Kate Kenner

    i love that i remind you of french onion soup. that is a fantastic honor. it was an amazing meal and out did our onion soup chez dome a paris. tres bien cara.

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