Carolyn Wong, who goes by @carolbeecooks on TikTok, is relatively new to the world of food blogging. It was a hobby she picked up during the pandemic as an outgrowth of her love of cooking and her desire to share that with others.
Her style embraces spontaneity. "In general, I just kind of like using ingredients I have on hand, since I just do it for fun," Wong said in a phone interview from her home in Columbus, Ohio. "A lot of times I don't really do a lot of planning things out. I just kind of think of things throughout the day and see what I have to try to get some inspiration using ingredients I like." In January 2022, after recently enjoying homemade French onion soup, she was inspired to make a one-pot French onion pasta - "I make a lot of pasta dishes in general," Wong said - and a viral recipe was born.
But Wong acknowledges she wasn't the first to come up with the idea. "There's definitely people that have thought of it before me, years and years ago, and I've seen a lot of people do it since," she said.
One of those people is Joy Wilson, a.k.a. Joy the Baker, who shared a version of the dish on her blog back in 2014. "French onion is one of my favorite flavor profiles just because it feels so luxurious, but it's actually pretty attainable with simple ingredients that I usually have in my pantry," Wilson told me. She was inspired to create the dish when she thought about "how to get the most luxury out of a box of pasta and some onions." While some might feel a sense of territorialism over their creation, as a veteran of the blogging world, Wilson acknowledges that's not how things work in the recipe sphere. "I never hold on to it so tight as mine, because I'm putting it out in the world for it to be everyone's."
Wilson said her recipe was popular when she originally posted it and continues to get attention whenever she reshares it. And now, with Wong's social media videos, the dish is gaining even more traction. "It is pretty cool that a whole new TikTok generation is finding these kinds of dishes and getting excited about it," she said. "I feel like this technique is a gateway for people who think that they don't know how or don't like to cook to feel chef-y."
Wong's original video from early 2022 has garnered more than 1 million views on TikTok - a veritable success. But when she shared it again last month, this time capitalizing on a trend in which people list three reasons they won't do something (with all of the reasons left blank), Wong's video took off again to even greater heights. "That video takes like 2 seconds to make and then it has like 17 million views between Instagram and TikTok," Wong said.
It's always interesting to see which recipes gain the most traction on social media. With some, such as baked feta pasta, it's clear as day why they become so popular. Others, such as the tortilla "hack" that is basically a folded quesadilla, required a bit more convincing for me to jump on the bandwagon. And few, such as pasta chips, still make zero sense to me. French onion pasta squarely falls into the first category. Why? Well, it's a confluence of factors.
"I think people like things that are simple and they feel like they can approach at home," Wong said. Timing also plays a role, as these cold weather months are affectionately known as soup season to some, and drawing on a classic soup is an instant pull. Combining that with a one-pot pasta ratchets the dish's intrigue level up a notch because of the ease and, well, pasta. And it's both saucy and cheesy, giving videos of this creation an intense visual appeal for viewers.
"I think it's so appealing because it's really simple and it's stuff that you can look around your kitchen and find without having to go to the grocery store for the most part," Wilson said. "It's fairly adaptable and it just is a very simple way to get a lot of comfort and flavor out of super simple ingredients. And it only uses one pot, so it's light on dishes, too."
Wong said she "was literally just using stuff that [she] had on hand," when she first made it. "I didn't buy specific ingredients for it, so I feel like people shouldn't be scared to experiment and see how it turns out." So experiment I did.
I followed Wong's recipe in my first pass, and while it was good, I thought it could better evoke the source material. The first thing I did was increase the amount of onions, because if we're going to call something French onion pasta, then I want to be smacked in the face with onion flavor. I also decided to use port to deglaze the pan instead of white wine for the caramel undertones port often has, which complement the sauteed onions. Other small tweaks I made include tying the thyme sprigs with twine to make them easier to fish out later and using chicken stock or broth instead of beef for a cleaner flavor that lets the onions shine through more. Lastly, while parmesan cheese is undoubtedly more likely to be in a home cook's fridge at any given time, I missed the distinct flavor profile of Gruyere cheese that typically accompanies the soup.
The result is a carby, saucy, cheesy, oniony bowl of pasta that lives up to the hype and my expectations. Give this recipe a try, and I'm sure it will do the same for you. Or, as Wong and Wilson suggest, use it as a blueprint to make use of the ingredients you already have on hand for a luxurious pasta that's easily within reach.
French Onion Pasta
Serves 2 to 4.
This dish, popularized on TikTok, turns French onion soup into a one-pot pasta. This recipe tweaks that viral version, increasing the onion flavor by using an entire pound of yellow onions and calling for Gruyère instead of Parmesan to better capture the flavor of the classic soup. The pasta will continue to absorb liquid as it sits, so it's OK if it is still saucy. From Aaron Hutcherson, Washington Post.
• 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
• 2 medium yellow onions (1 lb.), thinly sliced
• 1/2 tsp. fine salt, plus more to taste
• 1/4 c. tawny port (may substitute Madeira, sherry, dry vermouth, red wine or additional stock or broth)
• 3 c. chicken or vegetable stock or broth, preferably unsalted or reduced-sodium
• 8 oz. short dry pasta, such as rigatoni, fusilli or orecchiette
• 5 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together with kitchen twine, plus more for serving
• 1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
• 1/2 c. finely shredded Gruyère cheese, plus more for serving
In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions and salt, stir, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are nicely browned in spots and the bottom of the pot is covered with stuck-on bits, 20 to 25 minutes.
Add the port to deglaze by scraping up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
Add the stock or broth, pasta, thyme and pepper, partially cover and increase the heat to bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally and adjusting the heat to keep the mixture at a gentle boil, until the pasta is al dente and the liquid has reduced to coat the pasta, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat, discard the thyme, and stir in the cheese until melted. Taste, and season with more salt and/or pepper, if needed.
Divide among bowls, sprinkle with more cheese and fresh thyme leaves, if desired, and serve.