Cheese Fondue

Being a quintessential Swiss dish, cheese fondue conjures up images for me of alpine ski huts, deep snow and 20°F weather. Well, we don’t get much snow or cold weather in the California central valley, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a good fondue party.

The trick to a successful fondue (other than the obvious one of having wonderful people around with whom to share it) is to ensure that the cheese dipping sauce stays smooth. Cheese has a propensity to get stringy or to “seize up” into clumps, the fat separating from the proteins. Food science author Harold McGee suggests several things in his book On Food and Cooking to ensure a perfect fondue.

Well-aged or moist grating cheeses work well in sauces. Don’t heat the cheese beyond its melting point, cheese tends to ball up at higher temps, and don’t let the cheese cool down too much before serving, as it tends to get stringier and tougher as it cools. Don’t over stir the cheese, doing so will encourage stringiness. Coating the grated cheese with a starch such as flour or corn starch will help stabilize the sauce. Also,

The combination of cheese and wine is delicious but also savvy. The wine contributes two essential ingredients for a smooth sauce: water, which keeps the casein proteins most and dilute, and tartaric acid, which pulls the cross-linking calcium off of the casein proteins and binds tightly to it, leaving them glueless and happily separate. (Alcohol has nothing to do with fondue stability.) The citric acid in lemon juice will do the same thing. If it’s not too far gone, you can sometimes rescue a tightening cheese sauce with a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of white wine.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound Swiss-style cheese such as Jarlsberg or Emmenthaler, shredded
  • 1/2 pound Gruyere cheese, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons flour or cornstarch (use cornstarch if cooking gluten-free)
  • 1 garlic clove, halved crosswise
  • 1 cup dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon kirsch (cherry brandy)
  • 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Assorted dipping foods such as cubed day-old French bread (skip for gluten-free version), cubed ham (skip for vegetarian option), blanched broccoli, carrots, or cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, chopped green bell peppers, peeled and chopped apples or pears

Special equipment recommended

Method

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1 Place the shredded cheese and cornstarch in a plastic freezer bag. Seal, shake to coat the cheese with flour or cornstarch. Set aside.

2 Rub the inside of a 4-quart pot with the cut garlic, then discard. Add the wine and lemon juice to the pot, and bring to a low simmer on medium heat. Bit by bit, slowly stir the cheese into the wine. Stir constantly in a zig-zag pattern to prevent the cheese from seizing and balling up. Cook just until the cheese is melted and creamy. Do not let boil. Once the mixture is smooth, stir in kirsch, mustard and nutmeg.

3 Transfer the cheese to a fondue serving pot, set over a low flame to keep warm. If your pot is thin-bottomed, a lit candle will probably do. If thick-bottomed, you can use a small Sterno.

4 Arrange various dipping foods around the fondue pot. (A lazy Suzan works great for this.)

To eat, spear dipping foods with fondue forks or small forks. Dip to coat with the cheese, and eat.

Serves 4.

Main Ingredients

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