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COOKING FOR TWO: Viral French Onion Pasta born of cook’s spontaneity

by Aaron Hutcherson The Washington Post | September 13, 2023 at 1:50 a.m.
French Onion Pasta (For The Washington Post/Scott Suchman)

Carolyn Wong, who goes by carolbeecooks on TikTok, is relatively new to the world of food blogging. It was a hobby she picked up during the pandemic as an outgrowth of her love of cooking and her desire to share that with others.

Her style embraces spontaneity. "In general, I just kind of like using ingredients I have on hand, since I just do it for fun," Wong said from her home in Columbus, Ohio. "A lot of times I don't really do a lot of planning things out. I just kind of think of things throughout the day and see what I have to try to get some inspiration using ingredients I like." In January 2022, after enjoying homemade French onion soup, she was inspired to make a one-pot French onion pasta -- "I make a lot of pasta dishes in general," Wong said -- and a viral recipe was born.

But Wong acknowledges she wasn't the first to come up with the idea. "There are definitely people who have thought of it before me, years and years ago, and I've seen a lot of people do it since," she said.

One of those people is Joy Wilson, aka Joy the Baker, who shared a version of the dish on her blog back in 2014. "French onion is one of my favorite flavor profiles just because it feels so luxurious, but it's actually pretty attainable with simple ingredients that I usually have in my pantry," Wilson told me. She was inspired to create the dish when she thought about "how to get the most luxury out of a box of pasta and some onions." While some might feel a sense of territorialism over their creation, as a veteran of the blogging world, Wilson acknowledges that's not how things work in the recipe sphere. "I never hold on to it so tight as mine, because I'm putting it out in the world for it to be everyone's."

I followed Wong's recipe in my first pass, and while it was good, I thought it could better evoke the source material. The first thing I did was increase the amount of onions, because if we're going to call something French onion pasta, then I want to be smacked in the face with onion flavor. I also decided to use port to deglaze the pan instead of white wine for the caramel undertones port often has, which complement the sauteed onions. Other small tweaks I made include tying the thyme sprigs with twine to make them easier to fish out later and using chicken stock or broth instead of beef for a cleaner flavor that lets the onions shine through more. Lastly, while parmesan cheese is undoubtedly more likely to be in a home cook's fridge at any given time, I missed the distinct flavor profile of gruyere cheese that typically accompanies the soup.

The result is a carby, saucy, cheesy, oniony bowl of pasta that lives up to the hype and my expectations. Give this recipe a try, and I'm sure it will do the same for you. Or, as Wong and Wilson suggest, use it as a blueprint to make use of the ingredients you already have on hand for a luxurious pasta that's easily within reach.

  photo  Add the port to deglaze by scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot. (For The Washington Post/Scott Suchman)  

French Onion Pasta

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 medium yellow onions (1 pound), thinly sliced
  • Salt
  • ¼ cup tawny port (may substitute madeira, sherry, dry vermouth, red wine, or additional stock or broth)
  • 3 cups chicken or vegetable stock or broth, preferably unsalted or reduced-sodium, if store-bought
  • 8 ounces short dry pasta, such as rigatoni, fusilli or orecchiette
  • 5 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with twine, plus more for serving
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more to taste
  • 2 ounces (about ½ cup) finely shredded gruyere cheese, plus more for serving

In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and a good pinch of salt, stir, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely browned in spots and the bottom of the pot is covered with stuck-on bits, 20 to 25 minutes.

Add the port to deglaze by scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.

Add the stock or broth, pasta, thyme, and pepper, cover partially and increase the heat to bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat as needed to keep the mixture at a gentle, not rolling, boil, until the pasta is al dente and the liquid has reduced to coat the pasta, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, discard the thyme, and stir in the cheese until melted. Taste, and season with more salt and pepper, if needed.

Divide among bowls, sprinkle with more cheese and fresh thyme leaves, if desired, and serve.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

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