When you want something filling and warming but don’t feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen, cheese fondue is your ticket. ‘Fondue’ means melted in French and, indeed, cheese fondue is basically melted cheese, flavored with just a hint of garlic and thinned out a bit with white wine and kirsch, into which you dip some good, crusty bread. It’s comfort food without the effort!
The only complication is that you need some special equipment, namely a fondue set. These used to be very easy to come by, back in the days when fondue was ‘trendy’. They are still available in finer cookware shops and online. For cheese fondue, by far the best choice is the kind of set that includes a terracotta pot (called a caquelon) like this one from Emile Henry. Terracotta ensures even cooking and much reduces your chances of burning the cheese.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1 clove of garlic, cut in half
800g-1 kilo (1-1/2-2 lbs.) of melting cheese (see Notes below), shredded or cut into small dice
A generous splash of dry white wine (traditionally, half as much as the cheese by weight)
1 shot of kirsch, mixed with a teaspoonful or two of potato or corn starch
A baguette or other crusty bread with firm crumb, cut into bite-sized cubes
Rub the inside of your caquelon with the cut end of a halved garlic clove. (Use both halves if you want a more emphatic garlic flavor.)
Place the caquelon on the stove. Add the cheese and the wine. Melt the cheese over gentle heat until it forms a smooth mixture. Add the kirsch and starch and continue to cooking for 5 minutes more, stirring from time to time. Throughout the cooking process, be careful of the heat; the mixture should never boil, only bubble very gently.
When you are ready to serve, light the heating element and place the caquelon on its stand. As you eat, adjusting the flame to make sure the cheese mixture just barely bubbles.
NOTES: To eat your fondue, each diner skewers a piece of bread (through the crust) with a special, elongated fondue fork and dips it into pot, scraping the bottom of the pot (this helps ensure that the cheese at the bottom does not burn) and lifting out the cheese-coated bread onto individual plates. Some sources I’ve read say that you should never use the fondue fork to eat with, only to dip. Other sources will say that, at least among family, it’s OK to place your bread into your mouth, as long as you take care not to let your lips touch the fork—which is good advice as well as good etiquette, since the fork can get very hot!
When the cheese is almost used up, you will notice that, even if you have been dliigently scraping the bottom of your caquelon, a round crust will have formed at the center, called la religieuse, or the ‘nun’. You can lift this out with a fondue fork—and eat it like a cracker. It is considered the best part of the fondue, a bit like the socarrat of a properly made paella.
The choice of cheese is, of course, the key to a good cheese fondue. A combination of at least two cheeses is usual; the easiest classic fondue to pull off in the US being a half and half combination of gruyère and Emmenthal, which is called fondue neufchâteloise. Resist the temptation, by the way, to use only Emmenthal (aka ‘Swiss cheese’) as it tends to be bland and a bit stringy. Emmenthal is great as a ‘filler’ but you should combine it with a more assertive cheese for flavor. Other common cheeses for fondue include Appenzeller, Conté and Vacherin. If you can’t find these, you can also use Butterkäse, or even non-Alpine cheeses like Gouda or Cheddar. For an Italian touch, some fontina adds a wonderful, if distinctive, flavor. (Remember that Italian fonduta is made with fontina.) The important thing is that the cheese be meltable. And on this score, make sure to get the real thing. I’ve tried cheaper domestic forms of gruyère thinking I’d save a little money, with disastrous results.
The wine should be very dry and, ideally, a bit sour. I understand that in Switzerland a Chasselas or Sauvignon Blanc is typical but in a pinch you can add a bit of lemon juice (just a few drops!) to lend a bit of sourness to an otherwise smooth wine.
The best bread, in my opinion, for fondue is a good quality baguette. You cut it into sections, then lengthwise into fours, then across, into cubes. This way, each piece has a bit of crust, which will help ‘anchor’ the bread on your fondue fork. If you try to dip a piece of bread that is entirely crumb into hot cheese, it is bound to slip off your fork. An old tradition, by the way, has it that a diner who loses his/her bread in the fondue pot has to buy drinks all around (if a man) or kiss everyone at the table (if a woman).
I understand that in Switzerland bread, and only bread, is used to dip into the cheese. But in France they are apparently a bit less strict about this. I find that boiled new potatoes are perfectly delicious for dipping. And I like to have some pickled onions and cornichons on hand to nibble on once in a while; they cut the richness of the cheese very nicely. It is traditional to accompany a cheese fondue with more of the same white wine you used to make it, but this being a winter dish, I also drink red wine—probably a sacrilege for fondue aficionados, but it actually goes very well.
I’m not one to pay much attention to proportions, but the classic recipe calls for 150-200g of cheese per person, and for half as much white wine by weight as cheese. You can play with these proportions according to the appetite of your dining companions and how thick you like your fondue. If you find the cheese mixture is too thick, just add a bit more wine. If too thin, a bit more corn or potato starch to thicken it up. In fact, if you’re low on cheese, you can stretch it by adding more wine and thickening the whole thing up with starch. It will be perfectly delicious if potentially intoxicating… although since the wine is simmering the whole time, the alcohol content should be much reduced.
Cheese fondue is always served as a one course meal. It is very filling and you really won’t want much else afterwards. But if you have really hungry guests, besides the bread and boiled or pickled vegetables, you could accompany it with some sliced charcuterie.