Do you remember when we were teenagers? Our parents would leave town for the weekend or something and IT WAS ON. You’d call up all your friends, they’d call their friends (“David’s parents are outta town for the weekend!”) and before you knew it people would be swinging from the rafters and dancing on your mother’s brand new, solid cherry dining table. But there were logistics involved, too; you had to pick up a truckload of junk food, select the perfect mixed CD (yeah) and find someone with a fake ID or an older brother that could get you the real party favors. Oh, and you can’t forget about keeping an eye on the neighbors’ activities to make sure nobody caught on and called your parents… or the cops. You also had to make sure nobody broke the proverbial antique vase, threw up in any flower pots, let the cat out, smashed any windows, or committed any other random acts of teenage debauchery. If a fight broke out it had to be broken up before any real damage was done or any blood was shed (and stained the carpet). Someone needed to be stationed in close proximity to the stairs to make sure no couples wandered up there, as well as someone at the door to play the roll of bouncer (“sorry–we’re at capacity”), keeping unwanted guests out. And when all the fun was over you had to make sure everything was spotless and looked like nothing had ever happened before mom and dad got home.
Okay… I never had a house party like that. No, when I had the house to myself there were no keggers. What I had instead; fondue party! I can’t honestly remember how it came about but my love for fondue was nothing new–I had long had a fascination of it. And really, if you think about it, what better food is there for a group of teenagers than a communal pot of hot, melted cheese and a myriad of things to dip in it? It’s the sort of thing you can all gather around a table and just mindlessly eat as you talk about who likes who, who said what about who and who has some dirty little secret they’re trying to keep quiet. But fondue isn’t exclusively for teenagers, and I have to say I’m sure I botched the once national dish of Switzerland. In an old note book that I wrote some recipes in, I found a page with the header “Fondue Party!” (I guess I haven’t changed much in 10+ years) where I listed “whole milk or white wine” as the base for the fondue; as I’m not sure where we would have gotten the wine from I’m inclined to believe I made a glorified béchamel-like sauce by using milk. At least that’s changed.
There’s a certain retro kitschiness to fondue that makes novel and fun, like you should all dress up in your best cardigan or pocketed dress, complete with retro Johnny collar, a la The Cleavers. But where as some retro food is not worth the campy fun (vegetable aspic, anyone? No), it’s only a perk of fondue. Not only is it ridiculously simple but it also tastes great, provided you use a decent wine and some really good cheese. And it’s fast to make, especially with the aid of a food processor to shred the cheese. Really, the chopping and cooking of the dippers are what take the longest time–and even that’s not lengthy. If you were pressed for time you could stick with dippers that need no cooking like pears, apples, fennel and bread–which I am in strong favor of–though I think roasted potatoes are essential (but those tiny baby new potatoes roast in under 20 minutes so they’re hardly worth worrying over).
The cheese: I like a mix of extra sharp cheddar, Gruyere and Jarlsberg. The cheddar gives it some, well, sharpness–like a gentle burn but without any actual heat. Gruyere is one of the traditional cheeses of fondue. It’s mellow, slightly nutty, slightly salty, and just the slightest funky. I’d compare it to our commercially made and vaguely named “Swiss cheese” but much better and more nuanced. Jarlsberg is mildest of the bunch. It’s the slightest bit nutty, and very creamy, buttery and sweet, adding an extra layer of creaminess.
And the wine has got to be Chardonnay. It’s dry but a little fruity, without being sweet, and is a perfect pair for these cheeses.
To make the fondue it’s really as simple as bring some wine, grated nutmeg, a small splash of cherry brandy, a little squirt of lemon, and a smashed clove of garlic to a boil. Typically you rub the inside of the fondue pot with a cut clove of garlic but I’m lazy. And I know the lemon sounds a bit strange but you don’t taste it; it’s not for flavor, but rather the citric acid in the juice help to emulsify the cheese a little better.
Once it comes to a boil, remove the garlic and turn the heat down to the lowest possible flame and let it simmer. Toss the grated cheeses with some cornstarch and, a handful at a time, whisk it into the simmering wine. Let the cheese completely melt before adding more.
For the dippers, I did everything listed in the recipe except the fennel (an oversight), but I did add sour dough bread to the platter. Carbs on carbs on carbs!
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