Do cupcakes really need sprinkles? Does an ice cream sundae really need the cherry on top? These are the questions I have been asking myself lately.
Of course, we're talking soup here, which is a bit different from dessert, but maybe not. How many times have you decided to go ahead with a recipe, only to skip that little something that seems extravagant or unnecessary?
After all, soup, for the most part, is carefree. Who has time to whip up a little oregano cream or gremolata on a weeknight? Sometimes adding a roasted red pepper pistou or homemade parmesan croutes to the soup bowl doesn't fit into the family meal schedule. So you cut corners.
I've been there. Twice recently, I skipped a bit and both times, I went back and added the seemingly extraneous garnish to see whether it was worth the effort and expense.
First, I made a cheddar, onion and apple soup that called for Calvados, an apple brandy from France's Normandy region. I don't normally have Calvados on hand so I had a decision to make: forget that ingredient entirely, add regular brandy, or head out to the liquor store?
I made the soup without the brandy and it was creamy, hearty and slightly sweet. (For the recipe, see my blog at soupalooza.com.) After all, how can you go wrong with caramelized onions, sauteed Granny Smith apples and gooey cheddar? Still, I fretted that it might be missing something so I decided to splurge on a bottle of Calvados and made another batch. It was a tad better, but was it worth the extra $24? I'm still not really sure.
My next experiment involved a pumpkin and cranberry soup. It called for fresh pumpkin, but given the season, I went with canned. The "sprinkles on the cupcake" this time involved dried cranberries soaked in cream sherry. I didn't have either, but I made the soup anyway.
The finished product was one of those, "hmm, this is pretty good, but not over-the-top great" concoctions. So I ran off to the store and bought the cranberries and sherry. With a heavy dose of skepticism, I added the cranberries to the mixture. Holy cow! Those liquor-laden berries really made the flavor pop and they added texture, color and just the right bit of tartness to the soup.
In this case, going the extra mile was definitely worth the cost and minor effort of soaking the cranberries in the sherry. So how do you know when to splurge? Well, I suppose by experimenting and determining the value added. It's going to be different depending on the recipe and your resource.
The only advice I can offer for sure is always add the cranberries!
• M. Eileen Brown is the director of innovation for the Daily Herald and an incurable soup-a-holic. She specializes in vegetarian soups and blogs at soupalooza.com.