When the rural inhabitants of Swiss and French mountainous villages devised a warming winter dish incorporating their local cheese and white wine, little did they know it would become an international dinner party hit. It’s no wonder why this dish has crossed borders. During the cold and dark months, it’s universally appealing to hunker down and cozy up by the fire, and when you can bring the fire to your dinner table for a meal that encourages and embraces interaction, warmth and -- best of all -- a cauldron of melted cheese, it’s hard to resist.
I lived in Switzerland for 10 years, where I had my fair share of fondues. Depending on the region, fondues may vary in terms of the cheese used, favoring the local cow’s milk cheese produced, or additional ingredients (such as porcini mushrooms or even tomato puree*). While the ingredients may change slightly, the tradition remains firmly in place, and fondue is unquestionably a national dish.
I had plenty of time to practice the technique of making fondue, and this recipe is my takeaway, which has become our family tradition. It takes inspiration from the traditional Swiss method with just a few tweaks (apologies, my Swiss friends). For instance, fruity Calvados (apple brandy) is substituted for the traditional kirsch. And, rather than serving the fondue only with bread, as the Swiss insist, I also pass bowls of parboiled baby potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower florets for dipping (a great way to get your kids to eat their vegetables) and serve other alpine accompaniments, such as dried meats and cornichons on the side.
What should not be tweaked -- and where I will put my American foot down -- is the provenance of the cheese: Purchase the best quality, cave-aged Swiss or French alpine cheese you can find, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, Vacherin Fribourgeois, Comte or Beaufort, and feel free to blend them to your taste. I like to use a blend of 2/3 Gruyere and 1/3 Emmental or Comte.
Depending on how long the cheese is aged, flavor can range from a young, mild and creamy cheese to an aged piquant cheese with earthy, nutty and/or salty notes. Aim for an aged alpine cheese, especially when you are using Gruyere, which will add nuance and an earthy-umami depth of flavor to your pot of cheese.
*Yes, that is indeed a tomato fondue, which is a popular iteration in the Valais region or canton. It’s delicious, and high on my must-make list. I promise I’ll publish the recipe when I’ve made it.
Alpine Cheese Fondue
Active time: 25 minutes
Total time: 25 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
Note: Have all your ingredients ready before you begin. Once you begin, the fondue will come together quickly, and during this time it must be constantly stirred. The fondue must not come to a boil during this time.
1/4 cup Calvados brandy
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for serving
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 cups dry, un-oaked white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 1/2 pounds alpine cheese, such as Gruyere and Emmenthal, coarsely grated
1 loaf country style or levain bread, cut in 3/4-inch cubes
Parboiled vegetables: small potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower florets
Whisk the Calvados, cornstarch, salt, black pepper and nutmeg in a small bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Combine the wine and garlic in a large, heavy saucepan, Dutch oven or fondue pot. Heat over medium heat until tiny bubbles form, giving the wine a fizzy appearance, without coming to a boil.
Add the cheese, one handful at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until each handful is melted before adding the next. When all the cheese is added, continue stirring for about 1 minute to slightly thicken -- do not let the fondue boil during this entire process.
Stir in the cornstarch mixture and continue to stir until the cheese thickens to a fondue consistency. (Note: Some cornstarch brands thicken more easily than others. If your fondue remains thin, whisk 1 more tablespoon cornstarch with 2 tablespoons white wine and stir into the cheese.)
When the fondue is ready, remove from the heat. Pour the cheese into a warm fondue pot if necessary and place over a fondue burner. Serve immediately with extra ground pepper, the bread and parboiled vegetables such as small potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli florets.
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