Onion Gratin


Last Christmas, my dad gave me a beautiful cooking book by Arabella Boxer, titled ’Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food’ (grandmother to Frank Boxer and Jackson Boxer). It is both a wonderful object, and an enlightening read about the composition and contents of menus in big ole aristocratic houses in England between the first and second world wars. The introduction is essential reading to any person interested in the history of the English cooking. The length of the lunches and dinners described in the book are long and elaborate by present standards of home cooking…such feats were achieved by their kitchens! Here are a few.

A dinner given by Chips Channon at Moir House,

St James’s Place, February 1925.

‘We began with blinis served with Swedish schnapps, to wash down the caviare. Then soup, followed by salmon, then an elaborate chicken. Then a sweet and a savoury. The candle light was reflected in my gold plate and the conversation was incessant. Eventually Cole Porter was sufficiently intoxicated to play the piano. He played for hours. I got to bed at 4.30 absolutely exhausted.’

Marcel Boulestin’s suggestion for a late supper,

November, 1928

‘Nothing better, say at 3 o’clock in the morning, than a boiling hot soupe au choux and cold meat, with a very fresh, crisp salad. And you should drink with this one of those little pink or white wines from Anjou our Touraine, which have such a pleasant, sharp taste. (This is more suitable, though, for Chelsea than Bayswater –unless you happen to feel, for once, delightfully Bohemian.)

Luncheon with Lady Mendl, 1930:

Cream of Green Pea Soup

Crayfish Gloucester

Baked Chicken

Vanilla Ice with Hot Cherry Sauce

A summer luncheon, suggested by Quaglino, 1935: 

Caviar de Sterlet, or Crab Cocktail

Goujons de Sole Frites, Sauce Dugléré

Noix de Veau en Aspic

Mousse de Jambon – Salad Niçoise

‘Fraises Monte Carlo – Biscuits à la Cuillère

Canapé Diane

One dish that caught my eye early-on was ‘Onions au gratin’, and more recently after a conversation with Patrick about a delicious-sounding dish he made, also ‘Endives en jus’. I liked the idea of making a vegetable like the onion, which usually plays the role of enhancing another central ingredient or in enriching a sauce, the focus.

The recipe I describe below is something like a combination of the two. I found Arabella’s onion recipe a bit too fiddly, and liked the idea of adding a bit of chicken stock as she does with the endives.

I thought this was delicious.


6 smallish-medium onions, peeled and left whole

2 heaped tablespoons, breadcrumbs

3 heaped tablespoons, finely grated strong cheddar

140 ml chicken stock, heated

For the white sauce (Béchamel):

6 cloves

2 bay leaves

½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg

1 pint, creamy milk

40g, unsalted butter

40g, plain flour

How to make:

Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.

Boil the onions whole for 10 minutes in salted water. Remove and slice in half. Lay cut side down in a buttered oven dish and season with salt and pepper. Pour in the hot chicken stock and cover with foil. Bake for 20 minutes covered and 30 minutes uncovered. 

Meanwhile, infuse the milk with the aromatics for the white sauce by heating up to boiling point then removing from the heat. Make the white sauce by melting the butter, adding the flour and cooking for a minute or two. Slowly add the infused milk having removed the aromatics, stirring or whisking vigourously. Cook while stirring until it has the thickness of Bird’s custard. If there are lumps, whisk them out, or failing that, pass it through a sieve. Season well with salt and pepper.

Remove the onions from the oven and check they are tender with a knife.

Cover them with white sauce, don’t worry if there’s a bit of stock still in the bottom of the oven dish. Then sprinkle over cheese, then breadcrumbs. Bake until browned on top.

Eaten with:

Either on their own with a salad, or on toast, or would be lovely with cooked ham or roast chicken or beef. 


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