Past its heyday in the late 60's to mid-70's, Americans haven't regarded fondue with much familiarity or respect. Beyond the confines of a great aunt's holiday gathering, a chain restaurant charging an arm and a leg for melted government-grade cheese, or a party with an ironic menu (and PBR as the beer of choice), maybe you've haven't had, let alone made, fondue. If that rings true, it's time for a second look. "Fondue is easy to prepare, is versatile, and serves as a great creative culinary outlet," said Ann Duckett, owner of the South Wedge's The Little Bleu Cheese Shop. "Simply melt, dip and enjoy."
Dispel the notion that fondue's origins are as a chic après-ski snack for Swiss and French jet-setters. Cheese fondue "is rumored to have started as a way for miserly blue-collar folks to utilize cheese scraps and stale bread," said Jeffory McLean, lead culinary instructor at New York Wine and Culinary Center. "It's delicious, value conscious, and easy."
Fondue bourguignonne, in which pieces of raw meat and vegetables are dipped in boiling oil, is thought to date to the Middle Ages, when French vineyard workers would fry their meat in a pot of hot oil in the field, unable to leave their work for too long for a sit-down meal. China's hot pot cooking style is similar, swapping out hot broth for oil, and has been in use for more than a thousand years.
Chocolate fondue is a more recent, and contrived, invention. Dating to the 1960's, the dessert is said to have originated in New York City as a collaboration between a chef at the Chalet Suisse restaurant and a publicity agent working to promote Tobler chocolate. Its preparation remains simple and delicious: chocolate, cream, and if desired, liquor.
Fondue is only as complex as you choose to make it. At minimum, a sturdy saucepan and a wooden spoon is all the equipment you'll need for cheese or chocolate fondue. For both, you'll heat up the liquid called for in a recipe, and then stir in the ingredients to be melted. With fondue bourguignonne, an instant read thermometer will help ensure that the oil is heated to the right temperature for cooking meats and vegetables.
To serve, you can eat right out of the saucepan, or transfer chocolate or cheese fondue to a fondue pot. (The hot oil for fondue bourguignonne should remain in the saucepan.) "Fondue pots are used for keeping your mixture warm and smooth and are usually the perfect size for dipping enjoyment," Duckett said. "There's a wide array available in all price ranges." Scouring garage sales or thrift stores is a sure way to find a pot in good condition.
Still, don't sweat the equipment too much. "Any specialized cookware can be improvised in a well-stocked kitchen," McLean said. "Fondue pots can be replaced with everything from a Pyrex or stainless steel bowl and a warming plate, or even a slow cooker."
With so few ingredients in — and enjoyed with — fondue, quality is paramount. "When it comes to flavor, you get what you pay for," McLean said.
With cheese, the meltier, the better, Duckett advised. "You want a cheese that's going to perform well and stand up to the heat." Her go-to choice is Spring Brook Farm Reading Raclette. "The rich, creamy and somewhat pungent notes of this cheese are perfect and don't get lost." She also recommends Swiss/alpine style cheeses, gruyeres (particularly The Amazing Real Live Food Company's version) and, for those looking for something a little different, smoked Gouda.
Dunkables are just as important. "A wide variety of color, texture and taste heighten the fondue experience," Duckett said. Crusty, hearty breads are classic, but charcuterie meats, shrimp, and raw or steamed vegetables all work well. Duckett said she especially likes fingerling and small red potatoes.
Put just as much care into choosing meat and vegetables for fondue bourguignonne. Tender cuts, like beef tenderloin, chicken breast, veal or lamb, are preferred, as are hearty vegetables like pearl onions, Brussels sprouts and wild mushrooms. With dipping sauces, follow your tastes, though McLean said he avoids cream sauces as they conflict with the fried flavor of the meat and vegetables.
For chocolate fondue, McLean's standard recipe is a simple 2:1 weight ratio of heavy cream to semi-sweet chocolate, or 1.75:1 for heavy cream to milk chocolate. Buy the best you can find; the Cocoa Bean Shoppe and Pittsford Dairy, located less than half a mile away from each other in Pittsford, provide local options. As for what to dip, "It's liquid chocolate!" McLean exclaimed. "Bacon to brownies; cake to kettle corn; go crazy!"
Well-chosen beverages can enhance the taste and experience of fondue. Kirsch is a traditional addition to a classis Swiss-style cheese fondue. Stephanie Rudat, manager and wine buyer at Ryan's Wine and Spirits in Canandaigua, recommends the German-origin Schladerer Kirschwasser. If drinking the Kirschwasser while eating the fondue, serve it slightly chilled and neat.
When pairing wine with fondue's classic cheeses, the most important element in the wine is acidity. "The lighter and fresher the cheese, the lighter and brighter the wine to pair with it," Rudat said. "The acidity will cut through any creaminess in the fondue."
Rudat recommends drinking the same wine that is used to prepare the fondue. She likes King's Garden Unoaked Chardonnay 2011, Seneca Lake; Point of the Bluff Dry Riesling 2012, Keuka Lake; and Glenora Pinot Blanc 2012, Seneca Lake.
Chocolate fondues frequently get an alcoholic kick. Two of the more popular choices are Disaronno and Grand Marnier, but Rudat offers other interesting choices. Finger Lakes Distilling in Burdett makes cherry, raspberry and cassis liqueurs; further afield South Africa's Amarula cream liqueur is filled "with flavors of caramel, peppery spice and a hint of citrus," Rudat said. These choices aren't limited to being ingredients, either: "All of these liqueurs would be great to sip on while enjoying the fondue," she said.
Remember: fondue does not have to be complicated or expensive; foreign or fussy. You don't need specialized equipment or a culinary degree — but you may want to share your meal with those with whom you'd like to get cozy.
"In one of my oldest fondue recipe books, it's noted that, 'If you drop your bead in transit, you may kiss your neighbor,'" Duckett said. "How cozy is that?"
Adapted from It's Fun to Fondue
½ pound Swiss, finely diced or grated
½ pound Gruyere, finely diced or grated
3 tablespoons flour
1 clove garlic
2 cups dry white wine
1 tablespoon lemon juice (if desired)
½ cup kirsch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
In a medium bowl, sprinkle cheeses with flour and mix lightly.
Cut garlic clove in half and rub to coat the inside of a heavy duty saucepan. Discard garlic.
Add wine to saucepan and place on a burner over low heat. Heat wine until bubbles begin to rise to the surface — do not boil. Add lemon juice.
Add cheese to the wine-lemon mixture by handfuls, constantly stirring with wooden spoon until cheese is melted. Be sure each handful is melted before you add the next batch. After the last of cheese has been added, melted and the mixture begins to bubble, quickly add kirsch, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Stir until blended. Transfer to a fondue pot, if using, and serve immediately.
6 fluid ounces heavy cream 3 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
Heat cream in a heavy saucepan over moderate heat until cream comes to a low boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add chocolate. Let chocolate steep for a few minutes, then stir or whisk to combine. Transfer to a fondue pot, if using, and serve immediately.
Adapted from a recipe by Chef Jeffory McLean
3 cups peanut oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
Sprig of fresh rosemary
Sprig of fresh thyme
Up to 2 pounds of meat and/or vegetables (see note, below)
Dipping sauces (spicy-sweet chili sauce, horseradish-mustard, chimichurri, etc.)
Place oil in a heavy duty, 2-quart saucepan on a burner over low heat. Add garlic, rosemary and thyme. Let herbs steep for 20 minutes, or until herbs are brown and oil is fragrant. Note: if the herbs brown in less than 10 minutes, the oil is too hot. Using a slotted spoon, remove herbs from oil; discard herbs.
Turning up the heat on the stove, increase the oil's temperature to approximately 355-degrees; use an instant read thermometer to gauge temperature. Spear meat and vegetables on fondue forks and submerge in oil until cooked. Do not eat directly from fondue forks, as they will be very hot. Keep cooked meats separate from raw meats to avoid cross contamination. Place cooked foods on clean plates and enjoy with dipping sauces.
Note: Tender cuts of meat work best (beef tenderloin, chicken breast, veal, lamb, etc.). Trim meat of excess fat and cut into thin strips or 1-inch cubes before using. Hearty vegetables work best (Brussels sprouts, potatoes, pearl onions, wild mushrooms, zucchini, etc.). Vegetables should be bite sized or cut to size.
Lower-fat alternative: replace the oil with a concentrated beef or chicken broth. Bring the broth to a boil, and maintain that heat, while cooking the meat and vegetables.
3 parts chili garlic sauce
1 part lime juice (about 2 limes)
1 part honey
Stir ingredients together; serve.
4 parts Greek yogurt or sour cream
1 part Dijon mustard
1 part prepared horseradish
Stir ingredients together; serve.
Yields approximately ¾ cup
1/2 cup of chopped parsley
3 Tablespoon. EVOO
1 Tablespoon + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 ½ teaspoon minced garlic
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Stir ingredients together and serve.