When I was growing up, fondue (the word means "melted" in French) was only one thing: a potful of melted cheese, set over a small table-size alcohol burner, into which the diners dunked cubes of bread. Without realizing it, I had been exposed at an early age to the classic Swiss Fondue a la Neuchateloise or Neuchatel (a city in the western, French-speaking part of Switzerland) cheese fondue.
Though still the most often served today, classic cheese fondue has given way to variations and embellishments, some no doubt developed to help consumers use their fondue pots and forks for other purposes. The '70s brought us fondue bourguignonne (Burgundian fondue), where the pot of melted cheese is replaced by a pot of boiling oil into which the guests dunk pieces of beef tenderloin, frying them to the desired degree of doneness -- which is great if you like to take risks at the table and have a fire extinguisher on the wall of your dining room.
The more innocuous fondue chinoise (Chinese fondue), a Westernized version of the Mongolian hot pot meal, substitutes boiling meat stock for the oil, and guests poach a variety of meat, fish and vegetables on their forks. The last and, to my mind, only other variation of the cheese fondue worth pursuing is the chocolate fondue, an interactive dessert where guests plunge pieces of fruit, cake and other goodies into a luscious chocolate sauce.
A visit to almost any kitchenware or department store (or even some hardware stores) will yield the right equipment for fondue. First you need a caquelon, or fondue pot. This is made of porcelain, earthenware or enameled iron. The last is my choice because it won't crack over a gas flame.
The next piece of equipment is the rechaud, or table-top burner. If you a buy a fondue set, this is included. If not, you can probably find one easily. This is usually a small burner fueled by denatured alcohol or a paste fuel. The only type of heater to avoid is one that holds a votive candle, which is not hot enough to keep the fondue bubbling at a high enough temperature. Good substitutes for a full-scale, table-top heater are a small electric hot plate that can be turned to a low temperature, or even a portable butane burner, such as a Cassette Feu, often used by caterers for on-site cooking.
Lastly, the long-handled forks make the job of dunking your bread into the pot easy, but a regular fork and a good reach can accomplish much the same thing.
The fondue ingredients include:
Cheese: Real Swiss Gruyere (no holes or only tiny ones) and Emmentaler (big holes, typical "Swiss cheese") are the fondue cheeses. Some people like to use equal parts; others like two parts Gruyere to one part Emmentaler.
Wine: A dry Swiss white wine such as Fendant du Valais is perfect, but any dry white wine will do.
Kirsch: Real Swiss kirsch isn't easy to find, but there are excellent ones available from Austria, France and Germany.
Bread: A good, crusty French or Italian loaf is great.
Now about fondue techniques. When you spear a piece of bread on your fork, lower it into the bubbling fondue and stir it around a few times, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot while doing so. After the fondue is finished, there is a golden, toasted skin of slightly and deliciously charred cheese on the bottom. It's known as "s'boedeli" or the "little bottom" and is the reward of careful fondue eaters. To spice things up a bit and for a little extra bite, some Swiss like to grind a little pepper on the bread cube before lowering it into the fondue.
Afterward, some good, crisp, tart apples or meltingly ripe pears to cut and eat out of hand make a perfect finish to a fondue meal.
Fondue a la Neuchateloise (Classic Cheese Fondue)
Makes 4 main-course servings
1 large garlic clove, halved
1 1 / 4 cups dry white wine
2 teaspoons strained lemon juice
1 1 / 4 pounds total (about 5 cups) coarsely grated Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses, in equal quantities, or 12 ounces Gruyere and 8 ounces Emmentaler
3 tablespoons best kirsch
1 tablespoon cornstarch
freshly ground pepper
freshly ground nutmeg
good crusty bread, cut into 1-inch cubes for dipping
Before beginning, make sure the table-top heat source is ready and functioning. Set heater in center of table and turn it on or light it.
Rub inside of fondue pot thoroughly with the garlic. Some people leave one piece of garlic in the pot.
Add wine, lemon juice and handful of cheese. Place pot over low heat and stir gently but constantly so that cheese melts evenly as the wine heats. Continue adding cheese, a handful at a time, until it is all used.
Meanwhile, mix kirsch and cornstarch. As soon as cheese mixture begins to boil gently, add kirsch mixture in a stream and continue stirring constantly 1 minute more, or until fondue is bubbling gently. Add dash of pepper and nutmeg.
Transfer pot to table-top heater and adjust temperature so that fondue continues to bubble gently.
After fondue is finished, turn off heat source, let pot cool few minutes, then use a metal spatula, such as a pancake turner, to scrape away slightly charred cheese in bottom. This is passed around as finger food to be enjoyed by guests.
Makes 4 servings
1/2 cup very hot brewed coffee
1/2 cup sugar
3 / 4 cup unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1/2 cup light corn syrup
4 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
cubed, sliced or whole fruit and berries, such as mango, papaya, pineapple, star fruit and strawberries, cubes of vanilla or chocolate pound cake, cookies and marshmallows, for dipping
In medium bowl, whisk together coffee, sugar and cocoa powder. Whisk in corn syrup until completely smooth.
Place chocolate and butter in large, dry bowl or in top of double boiler set over barely simmering water. When chocolate has melted, whisk in cocoa mixture until smooth, blended and well heated through. Pour into fondue pot placed over very low heat or chocolate mixture may scorch or separate. Serve with fruit, cake, cookies or marshmallows.
--Adapted from "Retro Desserts" by Wayne Harley Brachman (HarperCollins, 2000)