Gazing into your beloved's eyes as you take turns dipping pieces of crusty bread into a pot of bubbling cheese by the glow of the fondue flame: Is there any meal as romantic on a frigid February night? Is there any meal as quick and easy?
Authentic Swiss fondue can be prepared with just a handful of readily available ingredients in less than 30 minutes, leaving you with plenty of time and energy to choose mood music and scatter rose petals.
For a silky and seductive fondue, do as Alpine cooks do:
Choose the right cheese, one that already has a tendency to melt into a smooth and flowing pool (Gruyère, Emmentaler, fontina, Cheddar, Monterey Jack), rather than into stringy strands (mozzarella) or hardly at all (feta and chèvre). Avoid aged cheeses, which are dry and salty compared to unaged cheeses.
Melt it, slowly, in liquid Traditional fondue contains white wine or, less frequently, beer, to thin the cheese and add flavor. Bring the liquid to a bare simmer and then add your cheese just a little bit at a time, stirring constantly. Heating the cheese too rapidly will cause it to separate. Once you've got a smooth mixture, let it bubble for a minute or two. Cheese will quickly harden if it isn't cooked long enough.
Don't forget the cornstarch
Cornstarch doesn't function in this recipe as a thickener. Rather, it helps to create a smooth emulsion of liquid and cheese. To distribute it evenly so it can do its job, place it in a zipper-lock bag with the shredded cheese and shake well before you begin to cook.
If you received a fondue pot as a holiday gift in the past 20 years, now's the time to bring it up from the basement. If you don't have one, don't rush out to buy one. Any heavy nonstick pot will do. Enamel-coated cast iron is the gold standard because of the way it gently and evenly heats cheese, and because it retains heat long after it is removed from the cooktop. Once you have cooked your fondue, transfer it to the fondue pot set over its heating element (most fondue pots are too flimsy and lightweight to melt cheese without scorching), or place the cooking pot on a trivet, reheating the mixture over a low flame once or twice during the meal if the cheese starts to cool.
Many recipes recommend a selection of bread chunks and raw, blanched and roasted vegetables. But in my experience, melted cheese has a tricky way of sliding right off the surface of vegetables. After a particularly frustrating attempt to get some cheese to stick to a boiled new potato, I gave up on using anything but bread -- which never fails to grip the cheese -- for dipping. I like seeded whole-grain bread, which is popular in northern Europe. Cubes of baguette work very well, too. To cut the richness of the cheese and bread, I serve a crisp green salad on the side.
If you've been keeping your fondue warm over a flame as you eat, you will notice a crusty disc of cheese at the bottom of the pot. It actually has a name, la religieuse (because it resembles a nun's cap, according to food historians). Share it with your dinner partner before moving on to dessert. If your pot hasn't been sitting over a flame during dinner, you don't have to go without this treat. Simply return the pot, with a small pool of cheese at its center, to the burner and heat until it is golden and crisp.
Helles-style lager, a flavorful but light style of beer popular in Switzerland, will add character to this fondue without overwhelming it, the way a darker brew might. Spaten and Paulaner are two widely available examples.
4 ounces Emmentaler cheese, shredded
4 ounces Gruyère cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 clove garlic, peeled
3/4 cup lager-style beer
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
Cubes of baguette and whole grain bread for dipping
1. Place cheese in a zipper-lock bag with cornstarch and shake to distribute cornstarch.
2. Cut garlic clove in half and rub against bottom and sides of a heavy nonstick saucepan. Add beer and lemon juice to pan and heat over low until liquid comes to a simmer. Slowly add cheese, a small handful at a time, stirring constantly. Stir in nutmeg.
3. Keep stirring until cheese is melted, smooth and just starting to bubble. Let it boil, stirring, for 2 minutes. Place pot on trivet and serve immediately directly from hot pot, rewarming on stovetop as necessary. Or transfer to a fondue pot to keep warm, stirring occasionally as you dip.
Makes 2 servings.