This soup was, to be frank, a catalogue of disasters. I am not sure that I’ve ever got into such a mess making such a simple dish. It is therefore testament to how fantastically satisfying and delicious it is that, rather than write off this weekend’s culinary escapades and do my very best to repress all memories of them, I’ve instead chosen to immortalise the recipe.
Having jacked in a perfectly good career as a criminal barrister, I now find myself at Le Cordon Bleu, trussed up in a set of whites that do little for my butter-saturated figure, studying pastry.
The first week at Le Cordon Bleu is spent learning about proper mise en place, the various stages of cooking sugar, and a whole lot of food hygiene. I’ve made a fruit salad so fancy that it was almost criminal to eat it. I’ve cooked litres of custard, destined for pastry creams I’ve never heard of, and puddings that I think may actually be made up.
The first practical patisserie class at Le Cordon Bleu is almost literally a baptism of fire. Students are instructed to take their sugar syrup to thread stage, soft ball, hard ball, and finally, crack stage. Normally, these are determined using a thermometer, as all of these stages are clearly delineated by their temperatures; sugar thermometers will often even have the specific French or English names of those stages written on the thermometer. Not so at Le Cordon Bleu.
Here, we use our hands. We use our hands to determine the temperatures of molten sugar. In my old life, a boiling sugar solution was known as prison napalm. Here, it’s known as Basic Patisserie Practical 1. Incredibly, I survived the practical unscathed. I survived picking up molten sugar with my fingers, but homemade soup was my undoing.
I should have quit while I was ahead. I was wrong-footed first of all by the sour cream jumping out of the fridge at me, and leaving a white streak in its wake. Shaken but not stirred, I cleared up, and bounced back, but things were about to take a turn for the worse.
I started frying some bacon and then moved onto the chive oil. Chives were blanched and refreshed without incident, and I quietly congratulated myself on having an ice bath ready when they came out of the pan: one week, two practical sessions down and look at my organisation! I was practically a professional. I began blitzing the chives with the oil, and realised I could smell burning. I put the stick blender down to tend to the now carbonised bacon.
It was at that point that things started to go badly wrong. The blender, unbalanced, flipped 270° in the air, splattering about 7/8 of every kitchen surface with bright green, oily pulp.
Dancing around the greasy ice rink that was now my kitchen, and remaining resolutely stoic about my decision not to wear an apron, I was reminded of the burning bacon. I lifted the pan flattening the rashers and found four perfectly flat, completely blackened strips.
Quickly, starting to feel exasperated, I chucked the bacon in the bin, grabbed some kitchen roll and wiped out the burnt fat from the pan, ready to start again. Except, in my slapdash desperation to get back on track, I hadn’t actually paid attention to what was going on. The bacon had given up all of its fat, which was now boiling. And the kitchen paper I’d used to wipe it didn’t stand a chance. I had a split second of realisation before the pain set in: I’d just dipped three fingers of my dominant hand into boiling bacon fat.
I fumbled my way through the final stages of making this soup, dashing between the stove and cold running water, cursing my clumsiness and stupidity. But then I sat down with this bowl of soup, and (almost) all was forgiven: this soup, without wishing to state the obvious, tastes exactly like buttery potatoes baked in their jackets. If you haven’t had your first baked potato of the season yet (and it is a season, and it extends all the way to at least March) I urge you to try this. And if you have already had your first baked potato, you are clearly a true devotee and will need little persuasion to diversify into soups.
This is a real weekend soup: when I make it, I get up, turn the oven on, make a cup of tea, bung the potatoes in, and then go back to bed for an hour. When I get up properly, the potatoes are ready to be taken out and cooled, and the soup is ready for lunch. Plus it means my kitchen’s warm when I come down to make breakfast. Of course, you don’t really need to faff about with the various accoutrements if you can’t be bothered, a generous grinding of black pepper and a wedge of bread will happily do the trick. It goes like this…
Baked Potato Soup (with crispy bacon, sour cream, cheddar, and chive oil)
Makes: 6 generous portions
Takes: 45 minutes
Bakes: 1 hour 10
4 baking potatoes
1 medium onion
1 parmesan rind (optional)*
1.25 litres chicken stock
6 rashers smoked streaky bacon
A handful of mature cheddar (grated 4 tablespoons)
A handful of chives
100ml flavourless oil
*Parmesan rinds are brilliant in soups like this, giving a salty savoury depth. I chuck mine in the freezer whenever I get to the end of a piece of parmesan. You’ll need to remove it before blitzing the soup, at which point it feels a bit like searching for a beige wedge in a sea of beige wedges, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?
1. Preheat your oven to 220°C. Cut a broad cross into the tops of potatoes, and place them on a baking tray. Bake for 1 hour 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and, using a tea towel to protect your fingers, splay the potatoes by pressing the four areas around the cross; this will allow the potatoes to cool quicker. Set aside to cool until you can safely touch them.
2. Roughly dice an onion, and sweat it over a low heat in a small amount of vegetable oil until translucent.
3. Cut the potatoes roughly into chunks. Add these chunks to the sweated onion, and a parmesan rind if you are using one. Pop the lid on the pan and leave over a very low heat for five minutes.
4. Add a litre of the stock, and bring to a simmer. Turn the heat down and cook for 30 minutes.
5.Fish out the parmesan rind and, when cool enough, blitz the soup. If it is too thick for your liking, add chicken stock or hot water until it reaches the consistency you prefer. Depending on your potatoes, the soup can be quite sticky until it’s let down with the stock. Season to taste, but be generous with the black pepper.
6. Meanwhile, place a frying pan over a medium high heat. Lay your bacon flat in the pan, put a round of baking paper over the interior of the pan, and place a heavy pan that will fit inside your frying pan on top of that. This will allow the bacon to fry into crispy, flat rashers: do keep peaking to make sure the bacon hasn’t burnt, and most definitely do not dip your fingers in the bacon fat.
7. Chive oil, if you’re feeling fancy, is as follows: blanche the chives in hot water for 30 seconds. Immediately plunge into ice water. Drain and place in a tall beaker with the oil. Blitz with an immersion blender. Strain through a sieve into a jar.
8. Serve the soup piping hot with the sour cream, grated cheddar, and crispy bacon piled up in the centre, and dot with chive oil.
9. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
I ate this with my hand submerged in icy water and still enjoyed every single mouthful.