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A reboot of classic creamed onions

Tweaks of Dean’s 1954 recipe yield velvety, rich results

For an updated take on Dorothy Dean’s classic creamed onions, use white wine, stock, fresh herbs, spices and maybe even some sharp white cheddar in the sauce. (Adriana Janovich)
For an updated take on Dorothy Dean’s classic creamed onions, use white wine, stock, fresh herbs, spices and maybe even some sharp white cheddar in the sauce. (Adriana Janovich)

Creamed onions are a holiday classic.

Rich, creamy and mild, they complement every dish on the table – from light and dark turkey meat to savory stuffing and bright and crisp cranberries.

They’re also super-simple to make.

But they can be a bit bland – like Dorothy Dean’s recipe from 1954. Some recipes call for a little nutmeg, which helps – but not these midcentury instructions, which are extremely basic.

So I set out on an Internet search to see how I might best modernize this longtime holiday favorite, which I planned to pair with a Dorothy Dean recipe for roast duck. (See main story.)

The dish traces its roots to England, where it was traditionally served with fowl. In the 1769 cookbook, “The Experienced English Housekeeper,” Elizabeth Raffald advises home cooks to boil and chop eight or 10 large onions, then, “Put them in a saucepan with a quarter of a pound of butter, two spoonfuls of thick cream, boil it a little and pour it over the ducks.”

Onion recipes in the early 19th century add flour and milk, the basic ingredients for modern-day Béchamel – or white – sauce. But it isn’t until the end of the 19th century that recipes distinctly identified as “creamed onions” appear in American cookbooks. In the 20th century, recipes for creamed onions became quite common, particularly at the holidays.

The one I ultimately adapted came from a blog which described the same blandness problem that I was trying to remedy. Instead of boiling the onions à la Dorothy Dean, I browned them in the butter. I also added more ingredients – fresh herbs and spices, white wine, beef stock and sharp white cheddar. I loosely followed the instructions from the blog, adding a few ingredients of my own and consolidating a step or two.

The result was velvety and rich – almost too rich – and not at all bland.

Below, find my method as well as Dorothy Dean’s original version, plus a few other recipes for sides and stuffing from the 1930s through 1950s.

Creamed Onions

Adapted from “A Cooking Life” at acookinglife.typepad.com

This recipe turned out incredibly creamy, flavorful and super-rich.

The stock and white wine replaces milk in a traditional white sauce and adds flavor. I used homemade beef stock, but chicken stock or vegetable broth would also work. The cheddar adds lots of saltiness, so sprinkle salt sparingly.

I was generally happy with the way this dish turned out with the cheddar. But the second time, to cut some of the richness, I used half of the cheese and got what I thought were better results.

A third time, I left out the cheese altogether and added just a pinch of cinnamon. That was my favorite variation, so I’m making the cheese optional in this recipe. Use it for a thicker, richer, saltier, cheesy sauce. Or, leave it out for a silkier but still flavorful white sauce.

2 pounds golden pearl onions

4 to 5 whole cloves

1/4 cup butter, plus 2 tablespoons

1 cup beef stock

1 bay leaf

3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme, plus more for (optional) garnish

3 to 5 fresh sage leaves

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons flour

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch cinnamon

1/2 cup sharp white cheddar, grated (optional)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Add onions to boiling pot of water. Cook for 1 minute to soften skins. Drain off the water. Using a sharp paring knife, trim off root, leaving a little of the hard pad intact. Starting at the root end, peel outer layer of skin, then trim the tip.

Stud one peeled onion with whole cloves. Melt butter in skillet, add onions – included the clove-studded onion – and sauté over medium heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions to help them brown as uniformly as possible and taking care to not break their skins.

Pour in beef stock, add bay leaf, thyme and sage tied together into a bouquet. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes, until beef stock is reduced by about half. (If too salty, thin with a little water.)

Add white wine and cream. Bring to a simmer, then turn off heat and let steep for about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove onions and set aside. Remove herb bouquet.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 2 tablespoons butter. Add flour. Pour in wine and cream mixture, whisking until thickened and well-combined. Stir in nutmeg and cinnamon. Whisk in cheese, if using. Season with salt (sparingly) and pepper to taste. Using a slotted spoon, carefully transfer onions into sauce and stir gently to coat. Keep warm on lowest heat setting, transferring to dish just before serving. Garnish with fresh thyme.

Creamed Onions, 1954

12 medium-sized white onions

1/4 cup butter or margarine

3 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup light cream

1 cup milk

Chopped parsley, for garnish

Peel onions; cook in a little salted boiling water, tightly covered, for about 25 minutes, or until tender. Drain. Melt butter, blend in flour, salt pepper; add cream and milk slowly, stirring constantly; cook until thickened. Add onions; heat to serving temperature. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.

Cranberry Relish, 1937

4 cups cranberries

1 1/2 cups sugar

Grind cranberries, and add them to a large saucepan. Stir in sugar and boil just 5 minutes.

Candied Sweet Potatoes, 1945

6 medium-size sweet potatoes

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon salt

Select potatoes of uniform size. Scrub clean with vegetable brush but do not peel.

Steam potatoes until almost tender, about 20 minutes. If a kettle with rack is not available, use a small amount of water, about 2/3 cup, in a saucepan with cover. Start on high heat and reduce to low as soon as steam is formed and water comes to a boil.

When almost tender, drain the potatoes and cool. Run cold water over the potatoes, peel and slice lengthwise about ½-inch thick.

Heat butter and brown sugar in heavy frying pan. Add potatoes and cook in syrup until brown on both sides. Add water and salt, cover closely, reduce heat and cook until delicately glazed, 8 to 10 minutes. Or potatoes may be placed in casserole and baked in a moderate oven, 375 degrees, about 30 minutes.

Mushroom Scalloped Potatoes, 1957

3 large potatoes, thinly sliced (about 4 cups)

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup thinly sliced celery

Salt

Pepper

1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup

1/2 cup milk

Cook potatoes in boiling salted water 8 to 10 minutes until barely tender; drain. Butter a 2-quart baking dish; fill with alternate layers of potatoes; season each layer with salt and pepper. Combine mushroom soup and milk; blend until smooth; pour over vegetable layers; cover. Bake at 350 degrees about 30 minutes; remove cover; continue baking 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender.

Yield: 6 servings

Good Giblet Gravy, 1959

Giblets

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to season

1/4 cup turkey drippings

1/4 cup flour

Pepper

Ahead of time: Cover giblets with water and add 1 teaspoon salt; simmer 2 to 3 hours until tender. Refrigerate broth and giblets; chop when cold.

At serving time: Remove turkey from roaster; pour drippings into bowl. Skim off fat and measure ¼ cup fat back into roaster (refrigerate remaining fat to use as desired). Add ¼ cup flour, blending thoroughly. Cook till bubbly, stirring constantly until gravy is thickened. Add chopped giblets; season to taste with salt and pepper.

Yield: 3 cups gravy (allow ¼ cup per person)

Celery Almond Stuffing, 1938

8 cups bread crumbs

3 cups diced celery

1/2 cup shredded celery leaves

1 1/2 cups blanched, sliced almonds

2/3 cup melted butter

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning

1/3 cup finely minced parsley

2 eggs, beaten

Cold water to moisten

Combine bread crumbs, celery, celery leaves, almonds and melted butter with the salt, pepper, poultry seasoning and minced parsley. Blend thoroughly. Add the beaten eggs and enough cold water to dampen, without making the stuffing wet or soggy.

Bake in the oven during last hour of turkey roasting, basting with broth from giblets. Allow 1 to 1 ¼ cups stuffing per pound of turkey. Sufficient to stuff a 10- to 12-pound bird.

French Chestnut Stuffing, 1939

1 quart chestnuts

Boiling salted water

1/2 pound sausage

1/2 cup diced onion

1 1/2 cups diced celery

1/2 cup minced celery leaves

8 cups bread cubes

1/3 cup melted butter

1/2 cup minced parsley

1 tablespoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon marjoram

1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning

Cold water to moisten

Make a gash in the shell of each chestnut. Place in a pan in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 10 minutes, or until the shells and skins can be removed easily. Cool, remove shells and skins, and cook the nut meats by simmering in a small amount of salted water for 20 minutes or until very tender. Drain, and chop very fine.

Cook the sausage, remove from fat, and cook the onion and celery lightly in the sausage drippings; then drain. Blend with all ingredients, moistening with the cold water, without making wet or soggy.

Bake in individual greased molds or small greased baking pan.

Sufficient to stuff a 12-pound turkey, allowing 1 ¼ cups stuffing per pound of turkey.

Cranberry-Apple Stuffing, 1939

2 cups ground raw cranberries

2 cups diced apples

1/2 cup butter

1/2 cup better or cane sugar

1 1/2 cups diced celery

2 tablespoons minced onion

1/4 cup parsley

1/3 cup minced celery leaves

8 cups bread cubes

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon marjoram

1/2 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

Cold water to moisten

Grind the cranberries, combine with the apples, and cook in the melted butter with the sugar for 5 minutes. Add the celery and onion, and continue cooking for several minutes. Remove from heat, combine with remaining ingredients, adding just enough cold water to slightly moisten. Do not make too damp. Bake in greased pan.

Note: Dorothy Dean recommended this recipe for stuffing goose.

Wild Rice Stuffing, 1940

2 cups wild rice (uncooked)

2 cups seedless raisins

2/3 cup melted butter

2 cups diced celery

3 tablespoons minced onion

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup chopped celery leaves

2 teaspoons salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons poultry seasoning

1/4 teaspoon marjoram or savory

Cook the thoroughly washed wild rice in a large amount of boiling salted water until tender. Add the raisins which have been washed in warm water and dried. Melt the butter and cook the celery, onion, parsley and celery leaves in it. Add to the rice and raisins along with the seasonings, mixing well. Bake in baking pan, basting with broth or soup stock. Sufficient for a 6- to 8-pound duck or goose.

Apricot Rice Stuffing, 1948

3/4 cup chopped celery

3/4 cup minced onion

3/4 cup chopped mushrooms

1/2 cup butter or margarine

2 1/4 cups uncooked rice

1 tablespoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons poultry seasoning

3 cups sliced, dried apricots

Lightly brown celery, onions and mushrooms in melted butter or margarine, add rice and brown until rice is a deep golden color. Add seasonings, then add water until it is ½-inch above the rice, cover and steam for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add apricots. Bake in baking pan, basting with broth or soup stock. Sufficient to stuff 10- to 12-pound turkey.

Note: Stuffing may be made early and kept in the refrigerator until time to stuff the bird for roasting.

Yield: 12 cups

Oyster Stuffing, 1959

2 cups chopped celery

1 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup butter

2 to 3 quarts toasted bread cubes

1/4 cup minced parsley

1 quart fresh or canned oysters

1 bay leaf, optional

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon poultry seasoning

2 eggs, beaten

Oyster liquor, as needed

Milk, as needed

Cook celery and onion in butter until soft but not brown. Stir in bread cubes and parsley. Drain and chop oysters; reserve liquor. Add chopped oysters, bay leaf, seasonings and eggs; add enough liquid to moisten. Sufficient to stuff 12- to 14-pound turkey.

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