Surprisingly a can would still be involved. I turned, as I often do, to the good folks at Cook's Illustrated. In their massive cookbook, The New Best Recipe, they too described the memories of the Campbell's Soup version of their youth. With that in mind, they came up with the following recipe.
Cream of Tomato Soup
2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes packed in juice, drained, 3 cups juice reserved
1 1/2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Pinch ground allspice
2 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups chicken stock, homemade or canned low-sodium
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons brandy or dry sherry
Salt and cayenne pepper
1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450°F. Lined rimmed baking sheet with foil. With fingers, carefully open whole tomatoes over strainer set in bowl and push out seeds, allowing juices to fall through strainer into bowl. Spread seeded tomatoes in single layer on foil. Sprinkle evenly with brown sugar. Bake until all liquid has evaporated and tomatoes begin to color, about 30 minutes. Let tomatoes cool slightly, then peel them off foil; transfer to small bowl and set aside.
2. Heat butter over medium heat in large saucepan until foaming. Add shallots, tomato paste and allspice. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until shallots are softened, 7 to 10 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Gradually add chicken stock, whisking constantly to combine; stir in reserved tomato juice and roasted tomatoes. Cover, increase heat to medium, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, to blend flavors, about 10 minutes.
3. Pour mixture through strainer and into medium bowl; rinse out saucepan. Transfer tomatoes and solids in strainer to blender; add 1 cup strained liquid and puree until smooth. Place pureed mixture and remaining strained liquid in saucepan. Add cream and warm over low heat until hot, about 3 minutes. Off heat, stir in brandy and season with salt and cayenne. Serve immediately.
Roasting your tomatoes is a crucial step. It definitely adds a depth of flavor that you're not going to get even when using winter fresh grocery store tomatoes. Don't skip this step. Once you get past the tomato prep, this soup goes together quickly and simply. As I finished off the soup I wondered if I really needed the brandy. The soup to that point tasted wonderful, rich with tomato flavor. How would the brandy help? I added the brandy just a little at a time and tasted after each addition. It was with this simple dish that I finally got to taste what Unami means. Unami is often talked about as the fifth taste. My soup was fine before the brandy but after the addition there was a savory depth, a complexity that lingered on the tongue and expanded into my sinuses. I never imagined a can of tomatoes could taste so good. It made a simple grilled cheese into a work of art. It even made my sweet gherkin pickles taste a little sharper and tangier.
As long as you have a decent can of whole tomatoes in your pantry, you will be ready for anything a snow day can throw at you.