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Say Cheese: Do you fondue?

Cheese and Best Brown Ale Fondue. (Domenica Marchetti)

Why do I love the Swiss? Two reasons:

1. Roger Federer
2. Cheese fondue

Because this is a cheese blog, I guess I should stick to Reason No. 2. Fondue, as you may well know, is that wonderful communal dish of melted cheese mixed with white wine — or beer (more on that in a bit) — and served with chunks of bread and long forks for skewering and dunking. It is said to have originated in 18th century in the Swiss Alps as hearty peasant winter fare and as a way of using up hardening cheese, but is now enjoyed by tourists as an apres-ski snack.

Recipe Included

I have never been to the Swiss Alps, but what with all the snow and the frigid temperatures we’ve been subjected to this winter, I found myself craving, more than a few times, the warmth and comfort of a good fondue shared with friends. Now, I do not profess to be a fondue expert; indeed, I am a novice, or at least very rusty. Like so many American families in the 1970s, ours was gifted at some point with a fondue set. I remember it well: very Scandinavian-looking, with a red pot and long slender forks, each with a different colored handle. We used it regularly for quite awhile. My mother made both cheese fondue and the hot oil version, in which cubes of meat, bread and chunks of vegetable are quickly fried in the oil and then dipped in sauce. Eventually, though, the fondue pot ended up in the basement, along with the yogurt maker and the crepe pan.

Until recently that was the extent of my dealings with fondue. At last, the other day I gave into my craving, purchased a fondue set at La Cuisine and got busy.

Classic cheese fondue is made with a combination of Swiss cheeses, typically a medium-aged Gruyere, more mild Emmental, and/or Appenzeller and a fruity white wine such as Riesling. A splash of kirsch is often added. But, of course, there are countless variations. Italian fonduta Valdostana is made with fontina, egg yolk and white truffle, and a French version has Comte and Beaufort, which is similar to Gruyere.

That is just the beginning. There are now riffs that are made with brie, blue cheese, or cheddar and beer, and some that are enhanced with chopped herbs, garlic, dry mustard or Worcestershire sauce.

For my version, I wanted to shake things up, but not too much. On the suggestion of Sebastien Tavel, the owner of La Fromagerie, I decided on a combination of both Swiss and domestic Gruyere cheeses, the latter from Roth Käse in Wisconsin. To punch up the flavor a bit I decided to throw some sharp cheddar from Fiscalini Cheese Co., in California (whose owner has Swiss roots). With that combination of cheeses I decided to forgo the white wine and use beer instead. We had, in our fridge, a bottle of Best Brown Ale, from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Mich. It’s malty rather than hoppy, and not as overpowering as a stout. Into the pot it went, along with a couple of shakes of cayenne pepper and a grating of nutmeg.

As it turns out, you don’t actually need a fondue set to make a good fondue (though I am a pushover for such things and like having the set with the wrought-iron stand and the long-handled forks). A good medium-size enameled cast-iron pot or heavy-bottomed saucepan works just as well. The ideal shape is a pot with a rounded bottom, so that it will be easy to dip your bread and swipe it around the inside of the pot. That way you can catch every last gooey drop.

The trick to making a successful fondue is to make sure that the cheese melts properly, so that you end up with a sauce that is smooth, glistening and deliciously unctuous; one that will coat your bread or vegetables in a lovely velvet cloak rather than in clumps. The alcohol in the wine or beer helps achieve this smoothness by lowering the boiling point of the cheese, which helps to prevent the proteins from curdling (take care not to let the melted cheese boil or it may indeed separate). Tossing the shredded cheese with a couple of tablespoons of cornstarch (or flour) before adding it to the pot also helps to keep the cheese stable.

In the end, the process turned out to be far easier than I had feared. I put the beer and spices in the fondue pot and heated the liquid on the stovetop. I added the shredded cheeses (tossed with cornstarch) slowly, by the handful, stirring the pot gently until the cheese melted. As soon as the melted cheese started to bubble I took the pot off the stove and put it on the little iron stand over the lit rechaud. Then eight of us got down to the business of dunking: cubes of baguette and multi-grain bread, apple slices, blanched broccoli and cauliflower, sliced red bell pepper, baby-cut carrots and chorizo that I had previously sliced and sauteed.

Fondue devotees know the real prize comes at the end of eating fondue, in the form of a golden-brown crust of cheese that sometimes forms on the bottom of the fondue pot. In our case that did not happen, and I can only assume it is because the fondue vanished too quickly.

-- Domenica Marchetti is the author of "Big Night In." Follow her on Twitter.

Cheese and Best Brown Ale Fondue
8 servings

1 pound Gruyere cheese, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
8 ounces sharp white cheddar, shredded on the large holes of a box grater
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 medium clove garlic, lightly crushed (but left whole)
12 ounces (1 bottle) Bell's Best Brown Ale or other good-quality ale, at room temperature
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg

Toss the cheeses with the cornstarch in a bowl to coat evenly.

Rub the garlic clove on the inside of an enameled cast-iron fondue pot or a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan; discard or save or another use. Add the beer, cayenne pepper and nutmeg; stir to combine. Place over medium heat.

When the beer has bubbles at the edges, add a handful of the cheese mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula until it has melted. Continue to add the cheese by the handful, stirring and allowing it to melt as you go. Cook until the mixture just begins to bubble, then remove from the heat.

If you are using a fondue pot, transfer it to the rechaud (the stand that sits over the small heating element). Serve immediately, with your choice of dipping foods.

Per serving: 361 calories, 24 g protein, 4 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 16 g saturated fat, 92 mg cholesterol, 372 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  January 12, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, fondue, recipes  
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Awfully tempting. I remember our fondue set as a kid. It was one of those with a sterno can underneath and we cooked the meat in hot oil. Cheese fondue sounds more fun.

On a related topic, perhaps a raclette post in the near future?


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | January 12, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

This looks so good, I'll have to dig out the old fondue pot. We once did a pizza fondue with tomato sauce mixed in with the cheese, then used pizza toppings instead of just bread. It was a big hit with the kids.

I'd love to see a post on raclette as well. We had our first one of the year a few weeks ago and it was wonderful.

Posted by: tlc2614 | January 12, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Wow. Two votes for raclette! And love the pizza fondue idea, tlc2614. Thanks for posting

Posted by: Domenica1 | January 12, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

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