The first recipe on my “50 Dishes by 50” quest was French onion soup. This decadently rich soup is a blend of beef broth and caramelized onions topped with toasted bread and melted cheese.

One down, 49 to go.

The first recipe on my “50 Dishes by 50” quest was French onion soup, one of the most popular soup recipes in restaurants and one I’ve never attempted to make at home. Why? Because plenty of area restaurants make such killer French onion, I figured, why not just eat theirs?

This decadently rich soup is a blend of beef broth and caramelized onions topped with toasted bread and melted cheese. Simple, yes, but there are gads of variations. Some chefs, such as Alton Brown, use white wine in the broth. Others, such as Tyler Florence, suggest red. Some recipes call for so much cheese it melts like lava down the sides of a soup crock. Other cooks, such as myself, prefer to float cheesy toast islands atop the amber-hued broth.

To come up with my own variation, I took tips from several sources, including Alton, Tyler and “Soup Bowl” by Parragon Books. The result was my own killer French onion soup.

Caramelizing the onions is key in this classic dish. It may sound mysterious and tricky, but it is not at all. You simply slow-cook the onions until they are tender and brown and release their natural sugars. Surprisingly, it takes a while, about 30 to 40 minutes, but the taste is delicious. Also, homemade beef stock is always best, but I used Kitchen Basics stock from the supermarket, and it was perfectly fine.

As far as cheese, imported Swiss Gruyère is the authentic cheese for this dish, but it’s expensive. Domestic Swiss is terrific. Some eateries use provolone. It’s all what you like. Don’t get hung up on the bread, either. Baguettes are nice, but so are slices of Italian bread. Taste and tweak until you get it just how you like it.

French Onion Soup

1 stick unsalted butter 5 large sweet onions, such as Vidalia, peeled and thinly sliced 2 bay leaves 2 sprigs fresh thyme 1⁄4 teaspoon sugar 2 cloves garlic, minced 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour 2 quarts beef stock 1⁄2 cup of dry vermouth or dry white wine Salt and pepper to taste 1 baguette or bread of choice 1 1⁄2 cups of grated Gruyere or Swiss

Use a large saucepan or broad-bottomed pot. Over medium heat, melt the stick of butter. Add the onions, bay leaves and thyme. Sauté the onions over medium-high heat until well browned but not burned, about 30 minutes or longer. Add the sugar about 10 minutes into the process to help with the caramelization. Be sure to turn onions frequently, scraping any browned butter and bits from pan bottom.

Once the onions are caramelized, add garlic and sauté for 1 minute. Dust the onions with the flour and give them a stir. Add the stock and vermouth (or wine) and stir. Simmer until the flavors are blended, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Discard the bay leaf and thyme stem.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Slice bread into rounds and place on a cookie sheet. Bake until bread is crisp and toasted, turning so each side is lightly toasted. Remove pan from oven and place a mound of cheese atop each toast. Set the oven to broil and melt the cheese until it bubbles and is slightly browned. Place one or two toasts in soup bowls and serve.

If you prefer the cheese-covered crock version, pour soup into oven-proof bowls or crocks. Top each with 2 slices of bread and pile on the cheese. You can also drape thin slices of cheese across the top and over sides of bowls. Broil until cheese is melted.