Fondue Fantasies

Undoubtedly, this blog has begun and will continue to paint me as a die hard cheese lover (I have not one but three large books all dedicated to that magical foodstuff).  As a kid I was a devotee of the American standbys monterey jack, sharp cheddar, swiss and their menu incarnatons macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, tacos, cheese burgers, etc..  My family’s signature hors d’oeuvre, something I grew up eating every trip to Grandmother and Grandfather’s, is called a “cheese dream” and involves melting slices of sharp white cheddar on a Keebler Club cracker until bubbly and crispy.  It took living in France as a young adult to open my eyes to the stinkier, more complex fromages, but I like to think that even as a five year old, I turned my nose up on Kraft Singles.

But I’m sure to have offer ample opportunities to discuss the wonderful world of moldy curds with you all; today I want to discuss fondue.  The first great fondue I ever ate, and the benchmark by which I’ve judged all subsequent fondues, was served in a turkish bath house-come fondue restaurant out in the middle of Lake Geneva.  Here’s a brief excerpt from my travel journal to give you a glimpse of the dinner: “We sit down to an exquisitely delectable dinner of hot, bubbling, cheese fondue with hunks of crusty on the outside, spongy on the inside bread and white wine.  The fondue is eaten up shockingly fast and we proceed to scrape and poke at the enameled, cast iron fondue pot until every crumb of hardened cheese is freed and consumed.”  What I remember as the most important features of that fondue were the thick, melted cheese texture (not too liquid), the pungent but not overpowering aroma of the white wine in the cheese, and the temperature. The fondue was hot enough, bubbling at times, to leave a browned, crispy lace of golden cheese at the bottom of the pot.  Scraped up, it was like a fine savory dessert. The swiss fondues are predominantly made of Gruyere cheese, and I’ve stuck to that theme ever since.  (Speaking of gruyère, the cheese comes from happy alpine cows that munch on grasses and flowers around the the medieval mountain top town of Gruyères.  And in the town you can taste the famed thick and silky Gruyère double cream, but I’ll save that for another entry.)

After my trip to Switzerland, I retired my tinny 1970’s fondue pot, and invested in a Swissmar enameled cast iron monster- cherry red with a hefty handle and wrought iron stand.  It’s the same pot we were served with in Geneva, and it warms my heart (and my belly) to take it out for an evening.  I start by rubbing the inside of the pot with a halved garlic clove, then add 1-1/2 cups dry white wine.
When the wine comes to a simmer, gradually add a pound of grated cheese (I usually stick to all gruyère since it has such a rich, nutty flavor), stirring gently in a zig zag pattern to keep the cheese from clumping.  Once the cheese is melted, add one tablespoon of cornstarch that’s been dissolved in 2 teaspoons of liquid (wine, calvados, kirsch, water), bring the fondue to a simmer and keep stirring (in your zig zag) for about 8 minutes, until thick and creamy.  Light your sterno and lift your forks!

In Switzerland, you’ll be served bread alone for dipping, but I often also roast up some red potatoes until crispy.  The most important thing to remember, though, is that your fondue will only be as good as the ingredients you use.  So good cheese, and really good bread are a must.  You might also want to cook up a green vegetable to eat along side- if only to cut the guilt factor of eating a whole meal of melted cheese.

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