Monday, December 13, 2010

It isn't Christmas without Fondue

Making cheese fondue on Christmas Eve has been a tradition in my family for as long as I can remember. It just isn't Christmas without it, and it's what I'll be making again this year on December 24th.

If you're not familiar with it, the Swiss Fondue is a communal dish which consists of melted cheese traditionally served in an earthenware pot over a small burner. The word Fondue is taken from the French fondu, which means melted. Long-stemmed forks are used to spear whatever is going to get dipped, usually cubed bread, apple slices, cubes of potato or other dipping items. Garlic, wine and Kirsch are also part of the heavenly molten mixture, and all sorts of condiments can be served on the side.

Chinese Hot Pot
But fondue does not only have to be cheesy. There are also meat and seafood fondues, where meats and vegetables are cooked in a pot of either oil or broth. The Chinese Hot Pot is very similar. And then there's the dessert fondue, where chunks of cake, fruit, marshmallows or other sweets are dunked into warm, molten chocolate.

My favorite is the cheese fondue. Depending on where you eat it in Europe, the cheeses will vary. Swiss cheese fondues likely consist of Gruyere, Emmenthal, Vacherin, or Appenzeller cheese.  If you're in France, Comte, Beaufort or Emmenthal; and in Italy, Fontina. Sometimes vegetables are added such as tomatoes, bell peppers, chilis, or mushrooms. I like a blend of 2 cheeses, usually Gruyere and Emmenthal, as they are readily accessible in my local market at a reasonable price.

Special equipment is not required although there are fondue pots made just for the occasion. I used to have an enameled pot, but switched to an electric one after setting my dining room table on fire. No joke, I really did this. I overfilled the container underneath with too much liquid alcohol. Don't ask (table was fine, by the way. Refinished). Anyway, I go electric now. I find I can control the temperature better, as well as avoid setting the house on fire. The set pictured on the left above is the traditional serving pot; the one on the right is the electric one I have. Pots range in price but the more reasonably priced models start at about $30 (here's a link to comparison shop). If you're just 2 people, like we are, you could get a smaller one for a good price, but the larger ones you'll need for groups of 4 or more and that's when fondue is really fun!

Fondue is a great way to bring family and friends together. It engages everyone and keeps their attention, mainly because there's always the fear of losing your cube of bread in the cheese. If you do, there are penalties (you just have to sit out a turn or kiss the person to your left, or whatever rules you want to inflict on your guests). Since it's a unique dining experience, you can create fond,  lasting memories.

This is the recipe I use. We usually start with a mixed green salad with a housemade vinaigrette, and end with Christmas cookies.

Cheese Fondue

1 garlic clove, cut in half
Fondue with "the works"
1 lb. Emmenthal, or 1/2 lb. Emmenthal + 1/2 lb. Gruyere cheese (if you're serving 6 people, increase to 1 1/2 lbs. of cheese), grated
1 shot Kirsch (this is NOT a sweet cordial - this is a spirit or eau de vie), or substitute brandy or vodka
2 cups white wine, such as a Chablis
2 tsp. cornstarch
white pepper
a pinch of nutmeg

Take the 2 halves of garlic and rub them cut side down all over the inside of the fondue pot. Leave in the pot when done. Over moderate heat, add the wine. In a separate bowl, combine the Kirsch with the cornstarch (but don't add yet). You're ready for the next step when fine bubbles appear in the wine. Add the cheese gradually, stirring constantly (add a handful first, let that melt, then add another handful, let that melt, etc. When all the cheese is incorporated, turn the heat a bit higher, but don't allow the cheese to come to a boil. Continue stirring until you feel a slight resistance, then add the cornstarch/Kirsch mixture, allowing it to thicken your fondue. Stir in just a pinch of white pepper and nutmeg. Transfer to the table.

Dippables: French or sourdough bread cut in small pieces; cubes of cooked potato or cauliflower, apples, or grapes; cornichons, pearl onions or other marinated vegetables.
NOTE: It's important to use cheeses that are not pasteurized, because they don't melt properly.


Here's a recipe that I am also quite fond of. I actually make this one in a small enameled pot on the stove and my husband and I end up eating it in the kitchen - it never makes it to the table! It's great as an appetizer dip with crackers, cubes of French or sourdough bread, or apple slices. Do buy a really good white cheddar for this such as English Coastal Cheddar*. It makes all the difference.

Tomato and Cheddar Fondue

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 cloves roasted garlic
2 tomatoes, peeled, cored, seeded and cut into 1/4 inch dice
1 1/2 Tbsp. flour
3 cups (12 oz.) shredded white cheddar cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine

In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the garlic and tomatoes and saute, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes just begin to soften, about 2 minutes.
While the tomatoes are cooking, combine the flour and cheese in a bowl and toss to coat the cheese.
Add the wine to the tomato mixture, stir once, and then add the cheese, a handful at a time. Heat and stir until the cheese is completely melted. Transfer to a fondue pot set over an alcohol burner or sterno flame to keep it warm. Serve immediately.
If you want to know more about fondue, please click here.

* I purchase mine at either Costco or Trader Joe's.

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