- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Fondue is a Swiss creation, probably evolving from a simpler melted-cheese dish called “raclette,” for which a half-wheel of cheese is held up to a fire and the melted cheese scraped onto a plate.

Raclette and fondue are thought to have originated in the Valais canton in Switzerland, where the dairy farmers stayed with their herds during the long summers while the cows ate the abundant Alpine grasses and gave good milk, which was made into cheese daily.

The farmers’ diet consisted primarily of cheese and rough country bread because few vegetables or other forms of protein were available in the Alpine heights. It was inevitable that the dairymen, bored with the bread-and-cheese fare, would decide to melt the cheese to make the simple meal a little more interesting.

This is probably how raclette, and later the more complicated fondue, were born. Raclette it still enjoyed, primarily in Valais and ski resorts, and served traditionally with new potatoes boiled in their skins, along with cornichon pickles and onions.

Fondue is a bit more intricate. It may be made with a variety of cheeses, although Gruyere (which has no holes or just tiny ones) and Emmenthal (big holes, the typical Swiss cheese) are the standards. It also contains other ingredients besides cheese, notably a hint of garlic; white wine mixed with lemon juice (a little extra acidity keeps the cheese from becoming stringy); ground pepper; a pinch of nutmeg; a little starch to bind it; and a small glass of kirsch, a distilled cherry brandy, to heighten the flavors.

Real Swiss kirsch may be difficult to find, but don’t despair if this proves impossible. The fondue will still be delicious. In addition to the ingredients just listed, you’ll need some good crusty bread for dunking in the fondue. Ingredientwise, you’re all set.

Fondue can be made with specialized cooking equipment, but you also can improvise.

Fondue sets usually include the pot stand with a heat source, the pot to keep the fondue warm and long forks for dunking the bread. These are available in many cookware and department stores. Or you can create your own set with an electric or butane hot plate, an enameled-iron saucepan and plain old forks. You’ll just have to reach a little farther with regular forks.

If you decide to make a meal of fondue, you can start in a variety of ways. A large tossed salad is a perfect first course before the rich delights of fondue. The Swiss often begin a fondue meal with a Valais plate of sliced cured ham and dried sausages.

Choice of beverage is also important. A cool, crisp white wine is selected by many who love fondue, but purists insist on plain, unsweetened black tea, fearing that a cold beverage will make the cheese congeal in the stomach and make digestion difficult. Yet I have to confess: I’ve never noticed much difference between white wine and tea with fondue, maybe because I never drink that much wine.

For dessert, if you want to be cute, you can follow the cheese fondue meal with a chocolate fondue, although my choice just might be some perfect apples or pears. The chocolate fondue is luscious enough to stand alone after a lighter meal or at a dessert party.

There is only one important technique connected with fondue eating. Remember to dip the bread all the way to the bottom of the pan and stir it around, scraping the bottom gently. This prevents the pan from developing a thick layer of scorched fondue. The result of such careful eating is that after the fondue is finished, the browned but unburned crust on the pan bottom can be scraped off and enjoyed as a special treat.

Fondue is a great way to break the ice with a group of guests who might not know each other, as well as a fairly inexpensive way to entertain longtime friends.

Fondue Neuchateloise(Classic cheese fondue)

1 large clove garlic, peeled and halved

11/4 cups dry white wine

2 teaspoons strained lemon juice

11/4 pounds total (about 5 cups) coarsely grated Gruyere and Emmenthal cheeses in equal quantities, or 12 ounces Gruyere and 8 ounces Emmenthal

1 tablespoon cornstarch

3 tablespoons kirsch

Freshly ground pepper and nutmeg

1-inch cubes of good crusty bread

Before beginning to make the fondue, make sure the tabletop heat source is ready and functioning. Set the heater in the center of the table, and turn it on or light it.

Rub the inside of the fondue pot thoroughly with the garlic. Some people like to leave a piece of garlic in the pot.

Place fondue pot over low heat on top of the stove. Pour in wine, lemon juice and a handful of the cheese. Stir gently but constantly so that the cheese melts evenly as the wine heats. Continue adding the cheese a handful at a time until it is all incorporated.

While the cheese is melting, mix the cornstarch with the kirsch. As soon as the wine-and-cheese mixture begins to boil gently, add the kirsch and cornstarch in a stream and continue stirring constantly for a minute more, or until the fondue is bubbling gently.

Add a big pinch each of pepper and nutmeg.

Transfer fondue pan to the tabletop heater, and adjust the temperature so that the fondue continues to bubble gently. Diners use forks to immerse the bread in the cheese, gently scraping the bottom of the pot as explained above.

After the fondue is finished, turn off the heat source and let the pan cool for a few minutes, then use a metal spatula to scrape away the slightly browned cheese in the bottom of the pan. This is passed around as finger food to be enjoyed by guests. Makes 4 servings as an entree.

Chocolate fondue

This recipe was adapted from “Retro Desserts” by Wayne Harley Brachman (Morrow).

cup hot brewed coffee

cup sugar

3/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

cup light corn syrup

4 ounces semisweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Cubed, sliced or whole fruit and berries, such as mango, papaya, pineapple, star fruit and strawberries

Cubes of vanilla or chocolate pound cake

Cookies and marshmallow for dipping

In a medium bowl, whisk together coffee, sugar and cocoa. Whisk in the corn syrup until smooth.

Place chocolate and butter in a large, dry bowl or in the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water. When the chocolate has melted, whisk in the coffee-cocoa mixture until smooth, blended and heated through.

Pour into a fondue pot placed over very low heat so that the chocolate mixture does not scorch and separate. Use long forks to dunk the fruit and other sweets into the chocolate. Makes 4 generous servings.

Nick Malgieri is the author of “Perfect Cakes” (HarperCollins).

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