Rethink buttermilk soup

You might not always be sure where Thomas Keller is leading you — and you probably won't be able to make out all four types of allium in the end — but you can count on everything working together to surprise you.

It's why his restaurants are worth the price, his books points for reference and inspiration, but not necessarily meant to be cooked through. (I once — emphatically once — made his boeuf bourguignon, which necessitated the use of a spreadsheet, ended at 3 a.m., and was what I imagine running a Tough Mudder might be like.)

Keller’s recipe for butternut squash soup, however, will not keep you up past your bedtime. It likely has a few more ingredients and steps than other smooth soups you’ve made, but you will want to make it again as soon as it’s gone. The only time it would feel laborious is if you decided at 5 p.m. to get it on the table tonight. So, from 3 AM beef girl, I give you are a couple of ways to plan better.

It’s a perfect recipe to make for incoming guests, by yourself in the quiet days leading up to their arrival. Its flavors sweeten and develop with a day or two in the fridge, and will go over very well in mixed company: You’ll take care of the omnivores, the vegetarians, the gluten-averse, and the elderly relatives on soft food diets, all with one pot.

The extra care and Kellerish attention to detail also makes the soup perfect to cook with family over the holidays. I made it with my dad over Thanksgiving and, though it wasn’t a project nearly on the level of the Turducken of ‘05, the shared prep work made the recipe seem downright quick and easy, just a good reason to hang out in the kitchen.

To start, Keller splits the squash in two: He roasts the bulb stuffed with sprigs of sage, and peels and cubes the neck to sweat with a cushion of other chopped vegetables. The former condenses and breathes in the roasting sage that’s trapped in its middle; the latter stays a cleaner form of the fruit.

The recipe proceeds in a similar fashion — precise, but no single step asking much more of you than paying attention. Vegetables are sautéed and simmered in a couple of stages, then puréed and strained.

Someone in the Food52 test kitchen asked why you pass the purée through a fine strainer, and my answer, a little too quick and cheeky, was "It's a Thomas Keller recipe." But really, it's because it's justified in outcome. Straining out the rough matter clarifies the soup in both texture and flavor — what's left behind is dull-tasting and scraggly by comparison, the resulting soup its purer, brighter form.

At the very end, Keller pours a sputtering pan of browning butter into the otherwise finished soup. Brown butter can do mystical things — making sliced tomatoes taste like lobster and fresh raspberries like pie. It won’t stay pooled on top of the soup, but swirl in like cream would — with a different sort of richness, nuttier and more deeply flavored. “You may take shortcuts the next time around,” Amanda wrote nearly ten years ago in the New York Times, “But you won’t skip this step.”

More: Look! It’s Amanda dressed up as Thomas Keller.

The soup is served with a profusion of garnishes that might seem like just a flashy way to impress your relatives — like an unconventional centerpiece or a stack of tastefully-wrapped presents — but each topping is as intentional as the rest of the recipe: Black pepper, chives, and olive oil each play off the soup in their own way, and the nutmeg crème fraîche does them one better. When a little blob of it melts in the hot soup, the scent of nutmeg is unleashed as the tart cream swirls in.

Like any good Keller recipe, it will also give you ideas for the next time you cook. You might tuck a sage leaf or a thyme sprig or wedge of lime into the belly of your squash, just like you would a roast chicken. Or stir cinnamon into your crème fraîche before plopping it on your apple crisp, or lime zest and cumin into your sour cream before putting it on black bean soup, or a scrape of vanilla bean into your mascarpone before it hits your French toast.

And the next time you taste your soup and think it falls flat, you won’t just grab the cream, or sriracha, or salt. You’ll make it better, and a lot more memorable, with a slip of brown butter, the best secret ingredient of all.

Thomas Keller’s Butternut Squash Soup with Brown Butter

Recipe adapted slightly from Bouchon (Artisan, 2004)

Serves 6

One 3 to 3 1/2-lb. butternut squash

2 Tbsp. canola oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 sage sprigs

1 cup thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) leeks, white and light green parts only

1/2 cup thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) carrots

1/2 cup thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) shallots

1/2 cup thinly sliced (1/8-inch thick) onions

6 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

2 Tbsp. honey

6 cups vegetable stock, plus extra if necessary

Bouquet Garni made of 8 sprigs thyme, 2 sprigs Italian parsley, 2 bay leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, all wrapped in a packet made of 2 green leek leaves

4 Tbsp. (2 oz.) unsalted butter

1/4 cup crème fraîche

Freshly grated nutmeg

Canola oil (if using sage leaves)

8 sage leaves or 1 tablespoon minced chives

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

For the soup: Preheat the oven to 350° F. Line a small baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment.

Cut the neck off the squash and set it aside. Cut the bulb in half and scoop out and discard the seeds. Brush each half inside and out with about 1 1/2 teaspoons of the canola oil. Sprinkle the cavities with salt and pepper and tuck a sprig of sage into each. Place cut side down on the baking sheet and roast for about 1 hour, or until completely tender.

Remove the squash from the oven and let cool, then scoop out and reserve the flesh (discard sage).

Meanwhile, using a paring knife or a peeler, carefully peel away the skin from the neck of the squash until you reach the bright orange flesh. Cut the flesh into 1/2-inch pieces (you should have about 4 cups).

Put the remaining canola oil in a stockpot over medium-high heat, add the leeks, carrots, shallots, and onions and cook, stirring often, for about 6 minutes. Add the diced squash, garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook gently for 3 minutes, reducing the heat as necessary to keep the garlic and squash from coloring. Stir in the honey and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock and bouquet garni, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes or until the squash is tender.

Add the roasted squash and simmer gently for about 30 minutes for the flavors to blend. Remove from the heat and discard the bouquet garni. Transfer the soup to a blender, in batches, and puree. Strain the soup through a fine sieve into a bowl. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. Let the soup cool, then refrigerate until ready to serve.

To complete: Place the crème fraîche in a chilled small metal bowl and stir in nutmeg to taste. Whisk with a small whisk until the crème fraîche holds a shape. Cover and refrigerate.

Reheat the soup. If it is too thick, add a little more vegetable stock. Heat a medium skillet over high heat. When it is very hot, add the butter and rotate the skillet over the heat as necessary to brown the butter evenly, scraping up any bits that settle in the bottom. As soon as the foaming has subsided and the butter is a hazelnut brown, pour it into the pot of soup. Be careful not to leave the butter over the heat too long, as it can change from rich brown to black in seconds.

Meanwhile, if using sage leaves, heat 1/8 inch of canola oil in a small skillet. When the oil is very hot, add the sage and cook for 30 to 45 seconds, turning the leaves to crisp them on both sides. When the bubbling stops, the moisture in the leaves will have evaporated and the leaves will be crisp. Drain the sage on paper towels and sprinkle with salt.

Ladle the soup into six serving bowls. Top each with a dollop of crème fraîche. Grind some black pepper over the top and garnish each with 2 sage leaves or some minced chives. Drizzle a little olive oil over the top.

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