For my money, there’s no better way to entertain during the holidays than fondue – even if you’re just entertaining your spouse and/or children. Fondue is not only delicious; it’s also a group activity, one that is low-key and relaxing. It’s even relaxing for the host: everything can be prepared ahead except for combining the cheese and wine, which takes only minutes. Preparation is easy, too, consisting mostly of cutting up the ingredients to be dipped. (The exception is if you’ll be making your own dipping sauces from scratch for oil fondue, more about which below.)
The three types of fondue are cheese, oil and dessert. The full fondue experience – cheese fondue for appetizer, oil fondue for main course and dessert fondue for, well, dessert, is wonderful. But two – or even one – are just fine. I’ve made all three numerous times for groups but more frequently make just a cheese fondue at home. One caveat: I wouldn’t recommend oil fondue if small children are participating. The oil has to be hot to cook the ingredients properly. Little hands can easily be burnt and, potentially even worse, the bubbling pot accidentally tipped over.
My first fondue experience was at Geja’s Café. Thirty-five years ago it was Chicago’s most romantic restaurant. And it’s still a serious contender for the title. Geja’s conjures up a host of happy memories for my husband and me because that’s where’d we’d go to reconnect when his dental-school pressures, our new baby and my performing schedule overwhelmed us. Other than salad and a cheese board, fondue is all Geja’s serves. Cheese fondue, oil fondue (meats, seafood and vegetables cooked by the diners in a pot of bubbling oil, then dipped in various sauces), and dessert fondue can be had individually or as a multicourse meal.
Not long ago a friend referred to fondue as “retro.” In a sense, that’s true – fondue was trendy in America during the 1960s and ’70s – but fondue was no passing fad. Its appeal remains strong, as Geja’s continuing existence demonstrates. Few restaurants have such longevity. Geja’s isn’t just limping along, either. Recently, when asked by newlyweds for restaurant recommendations for a romantic Chicago weekend, Geja’s was my first thought. But no reservations were available for two weeks before or after their trip.
Dessert fondues (chocolate was the original and is still the favorite) were created in the 1960s, but cheese and oil fondues have a much older history. A fondue-like recipe that combined goat cheese, wine and flour appears in the ancient Greek scrolls of Homer’s Iliad but cheese fondue, as known today, originated in 18th-century Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Eventually it was made all over Switzerland, each region using its own local cheeses. Today’s fondues are also made with many other kinds of cheeses, from cheddar to Stilton. The origin of oil fondue, or fondue bourguignonne, is even older. It was developed in Burgundy, France, by monks as a quick vineyard meal during harvest, using cubed beef and horse meat. Horse meat is no longer included in a typical fondue bourguignonne (at least in America), but the list of possible dipping ingredients has grown to just about any other type of meat or vegetable that can be cut into bite-size pieces and cooked in oil. There’s even a delectable and calorie-conscious relative made with broth or stock in place of oil; its antecedents are in an ancient Asian dish called hot pot. After the meats and vegetables cooked in the broth have been eaten, noodles (and sometimes greens) are added to the pot and the resulting soup is divided among the diners.
Good cheese is crucial to cheese fondue. Domestic Swiss cheeses such as Baby Swiss and Alpine Lace don’t have enough flavor. Fortunately, genuine Swiss cheeses such as Gruyère and Emmentaler can be found in the specialty-cheese sections of local groceries. A few Springfield-area groceries offer other good choices: the French equivalent, Comté, and stunningly good American artisanal versions; some have staff who can guide you. I especially appreciate the knowledge and advice of Leah Reel, who heads Montvale Schnucks’ specialty cheese department.
Classic swiss cheese fondue
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 1/2 c. dry white wine (A lighter, more acidic wine, such as a Sancerre or Fumé Blanc, is best as opposed to a chardonnay.)
- 1 T. fresh lemon juice
- 1 lb. Gruyère or Emmentaler cheese or a combination, coarsely grated
- 3 T. all-purpose flour
- Salt, optional
- Freshly ground pepper
- Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
Traditionally, the garlic clove is cut, rubbed around the interior of the fondue pot and discarded. If you’d prefer a slightly more garlicky fondue (as I do), mince the garlic to a paste and add it to the pot along with the wine and lemon juice. The use of an enameled fondue pot or other nonmetal heatproof pot, such as glass, and a wooden or plastic spoon is absolutely essential; otherwise the fondue will separate.
Toss the grated cheese with the flour and have it at hand. Heat the wine and lemon juice over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and, when the wine and lemon juice are just simmering, begin adding the cheese in handfuls, stirring to incorporate it completely before adding the next handful.
Once all the cheese has been added and the fondue is smooth, season it to taste with the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Usually the cheese has enough salt that more isn’t needed, but occasionally needs a bit. Cook a couple of minutes longer. Place the fondue pot on its stand over a candlelit warmer and serve.
The traditional accompaniments are crusty baguettes cut into 1-inch cubes and cubes of apple. (Traditionally, each bread cube should have at least one side of crust. Slightly stale bread works fine and is even preferred by many. Beware of breads with soft crusts and interiors which can fall apart when dipped). There are many other possibilities, among them boiled baby or fingerling potatoes, cubed ham, cooked shrimp, sautéed cubes of steak and cooked broccoli florets.
- 1 c. heavy cream
- 1 1/2 c. sugar
- 1 stick (8 T.) unsalted butter
- Pinch of salt
- 6 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
- 3 T. liqueur of your choice – Frangelico, Grand Marnier, Amaretto and Myers’s Rum all work well, or substitute 1 T. real vanilla extract
- Pound cake cubes (This is one case where store bought works best: Sara Lee All Butter Pound Cake has an especially dense texture that stands up better to dipping than homemade.)
- Banana chunks
- Fresh pineapple chunks
- Dried apricots
- Shortbread cookies
Note: Small, delicate fruits such as raspberries, blackberries and blueberries don’t dip well.
Heat the cream, sugar, butter and salt over medium-low heat in a heavy fondue pot or other small, heavy pot that can be presented at the table. Stir constantly until it just begins to simmer. Remove from the heat, add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate has melted completely. Place over low heat if the mixture cools too much to melt the chocolate.
When the ingredients are completely incorporated, place over medium low heat and bring to the barest simmer. Stir frequently until the fondue has thickened to the consistency of a rich fudge sauce. This will take 15 minutes or more.
Place pot on a warmer and serve with skewers and a variety of dipping ingredients. Fruits that may discolor if cut too far ahead or if they will set out for very long should be tossed with a little lemon juice after being cut.
Chocolate fondue can be made ahead of time (even a week or more) and reheated as needed. It freezes well and leftovers can be used for anything that requires a chocolate fudge sauce.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.