Fondue for the Masses

Chances are if you’re an average middle-class sort, somewhere tucked away in a cabinet or closet you have a fondue pot. Chances are as well that you’ve never used the damn thing and likely never will because you’re more likely to order out chicken wings or pick up a meat-and-cheese/vegetable tray from the local supermarket than make something as baffling as fondue.

Fondue is (of course) a Swiss dish, likely begun by people of simple means with simple ingredients, cheeses and wine at its most basic. The French word fondue itself simply means ‘melted’. Most Swiss would agree that a proper fondue is made with a blend of cheeses–of gruyere, emmental, and a softer local cheese such as raclette or appenzell–white wine, a little kirsch, a spoonful of flour to prevent curdling, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and nothing else. Fonduta, the Italian version of fondue, is made with fontina cheese…There is also a similar Dutch dish called kaasdoop (cheese dip), which begs the question of why we insist on calling it fondue in the first place.

Trendy American cooks embraced fondue in the middle of the 20th century. The early recipes were startlingly elaborate—as were the fondue sets themselves—and included prescribed serving rituals as well as a warning against drinking cold beverages while consuming cheese fondue because the hot cheese would harden in the stomach and cause constipation. (It won’t.) Fashionable authors recommended using those long two-tined forks with the cute little colored knobs on the end to skewer the bread cubes, which is why colorful glazed fondue pots with matching forks were standard gifts at bridal showers and weddings. Many of you likely remember your mother’s fondue set in harvest gold and avocado green. The “canned heat” was typically Sterno brand. Fondues became quite popular because the ingredients were inexpensive and familiar; the equipment novel and within reach, and while most of us consider a fondue about the gayest thing you can serve at a party, it makes for a novel holiday dish (particularly New Year’s) and is actually quite good.

The following basic recipe is from Betty Crocker’s Dinner Parties: A Contemporary Guide to Easy Entertaining, [Golden Books: New York] 1970, 1974 (p. 55). I recommend you lightly toast the bread cubes.

Cut a French loaf into 1-inch cubes, and a pound of Swiss cheese into 1/4-inch cubes (about 4 cups). Sprinkle about two tablespoons AP flour over cheese and toss until is coated. Rub cut clove of garlic on bottom and side of quart ceramic fondue pot, heavy saucepan or chafing dish. Add 1 cup dry white wine (Rhine, Reisling, Chablis, Neuchatel); heat over medium until bubbles rise to surface (do not allow to boil). Gradually stir in cheese, adding only 1/2 cup at a time and stirring after each addition until cheese is melted and blended. (Do not allow mixture to become too hot.) Stir in 2 tablespoons kirsch or sherry liqueur and seasoning. If fondue has been prepared on range, transfer fondue pot to source of heat at table and adjust heat to keep fondue just bubbling. Guests spear cubes of bread with long-handled forks and dip into cheese mixture. Stir fondue occasionally. (If fondue becomes too thick, mix in more warm white wine.) 4 servings.

Welsh Rabbit

While others might have a better idea of their families’ national or ethnic origins, for a long time I was adrift. The astrological DNA tests were no help, and who is to say that great-great grandad wasn’t a foundling or that great-great-grandma wasn’t a woman of less than impeccable virtue–if there is such a thing–who had a torrid affair with a blacksmith in Chattanooga before great-great-grandpappy–an accountant–had her put on a wagon and sent down the Natchez Trace?

For all I know, I have ancestors from Siberia, Senegal, and/or Malta, but if family surnames are any indication, I am a Welshman, and have for a very long time observed in my own way and always on my own the Welsh national holiday, St. David’s Day, March 1. Wales has many traditional dishes involving potatoes, mutton and lamb as well as the inevitable leek, also liver and pork meatballs called faggots, which are quite popular among the Brits, but of course versions of the recipe proliferate the globe.

Then there’s Welsh rabbit, which is made not with conies but that ineffable combination of bread, cheese, and beer. The most basic version involves thick slices of bread slathered in a thick cheese sauce made with Cheddar or some other substantial firm, off-white cheese with a slosh of your choice of beer (a good stout is excellent) and broiled. No one really knows any more how cheese on toast came to be called ‘rabbit’ or ‘rarebit’ (the variations in spelling seem to be arbitrary, and there are Scotch and English versions as well), but both Escoffier and Brillat-Savarin gave a recipe for ‘Lapin Gallois‘ and a ‘Wouelsche Rabette‘, which first appeared in Antoine Beauvilliers’ L’Art du Cuisinier in 1814. Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.

Lightly toast thick slices of bread (I recommend a light wheat, though white cornbread works wonderfully ) and place in a very lightly oiled skillet, top with a sauce made with grated sharp cheddar (any hard, sharp and white or yellow cheese will do), a small amount of milk or blonde ale and some good prepared mild mustard (I use Zatarain’s Creole, about a teaspoon to a cup of sauce). Place in a very hot oven until bubbling and lightly browned. This is a great late-night dish, wonderful for cold-weather breakfasts, and kids love it because it’s cheesy and messy and it’s called rabbits.