A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, a pot of cheese – and thou.
A pandemic brings the necessity of isolation, and with it, a great excuse to indulge in the cheesy goodness of fondue with loved ones at home. After all, the practice of dipping bread into melted cheese began in a region where cold weather forced the Swiss and French people to use culinary creativity while staying indoors. Especially now, fondue can provide welcome comfort food at a leisurely pace.
The word fondue, derived from the French verb fondre meaning “to melt,” likely brings to mind a vat or “caquelon”—suspended over a heat source—with melted cheese or creamy chocolate waiting for a piece of crusty bread or fresh fruit to take a dip. Today, with coronavirus changing our social interactions, fondue is making an at-home comeback.
Fondue Through Transcendental Gastronomy
Fondue was first referenced in book 11 of Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad (800 to 725 BC). The author mentions a mixture of grated goat’s cheese, barley meal and wine—in essence creating what may have been the first fondue.
Jean Brillat-Savarin introduced Americans to Fondue au Fromage in 1874, when he published “The Physiology of Taste, Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy,” while living in Boston as a transplanted Frenchman.
But it wasn’t until the late 1950s to 1970s—when affluent American tourists began taking ski holidays in the Swiss Alps—that fondue really caught on in the United States, according to the Melting Pot’s cookbook, “Dip into Something Different: A Collection of Recipes from Our Fondue Pot to Yours.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, fondue pots became popular wedding gifts and by the 1970s, many American kitchens were equipped with a fondue pot. By the 1980s, many of those same pots were featured in garage sales. But all these years later, dipping your bread, fruits, veggies and meat into melted cheese is still a favorite, albeit occasional, indulgence.
Fon-Do It Right
No fondue pot? No problem. Use a double boiler or any pan in your kitchen to melt down the cheese for fondue. Or better yet, arrange to have the equipment and fixins brought to you. In Chicago, Covid-19 restrictions have made it difficult to dine out, causing the fondue equipment at Geja’s Café in the Lincoln Park neighborhood to go unused. So, in fall 2020, Geja’s owner Jeff Lawler decided that if fondue lovers couldn’t dine in, he’d bring fondue to them. Geja’s @ Home Fondue Experience provides the equipment, food, accessories and online tutorial to have a leisurely fondue meal at home.
Whether fondueing out or at home, “the connective nature of fondue is undeniable,” says Bob Johnston, CEO of the Melting Pot. Select locations of the chain across the United States and Canada are offering Melting Pot To-Go. In areas where that’s not an option, Johnston suggests finding a favorite recipe (like the restaurant’s Bourbon Bacon Cheddar Fondue, and improvising.
Fondue newbies may feel a little intimidated when trying out fondue at home, says chef George Duran, author of “Take This Dish and Twist it,” and host of Food Network’s “Ham on the Street” and TLC’s “The Ultimate Cake Off.” He wants to debunk the idea that fondue is expensive and time-consuming.
“You don’t need fancy equipment to take up space in your kitchen,” says Duran. “You don’t need to spend money on cheese or wine. You need white wine in the fondue for its acidity, but you are not going to be able to impart the flavor of a sophisticated wine because the alcohol is being cooked away in the pot. Don’t waste your money.”
Fondue is actually the opposite of intimidating, says Lawler, who reopened Geja’s at 25% occupancy in February 2021 after a six-month closure. “It is a communal, interactive cooking experience that brings people together. It makes you feel warm and close to the people you are with. You are cooking together and dipping together. You don’t do that with any other American dining experience.”
But with this intimacy and closeness, comes the risk of spreading COVID-19—just like with any other dining situation that involves social interaction, warns Dr. Aljosa Trmcic, Dairy Extension Associate at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
“When it comes to COVID-19, the main risks are person-to-person contact and transmission through respiratory droplets,” says Trmcic. “The risk is not in the cheese, the bread, the wine or the fondue pot, but in all of the people that are gathered around the pot. Unless the fondue is made for members of the same household, I would recommend against it.”
So, despite more dining options available outside the home, Trmcic—at least for now – suggests fondueing at home with members of your household.
Fon-due it Yourself
At Geja’s, the preferred cheese mixture is a combination of shredded real Gruyère and sliced, processed Gruyère, because it comes out creamy and smooth. The same can be done at home, by melting down cheese in a double boiler. “First, heat up white wine and add garlic, white pepper and nutmeg,” says Lawler. “When the wine hits 180 degrees, we fold in Gruyère cheese and whip it with a beurre mixer until smooth, then add Kirschwasser (cherry brandy). When ready to serve, the cheese can stay in a double boiler or be moved to a fondue pot.”
Other combinations of cheeses can work – soft or hard, sharp or mild, young or aged. If your fondue uses cheddar, then substitute beer for the wine. Use Guinness if you want the fondue to have a bold flavor, or a milder beer if you want to taste more of the cheese, says Lawler.
Authentic, traditional Swiss cheese fondue celebrates the simplicity of fewer ingredients. But don’t be afraid to use different types of grated cheese— Gruyère, Appenzeller and Emmentaler are classic favorites—added to dry white wine in a pot. Fresh garlic and other spices add flavor, while cornstarch acts as a binder. Amounts vary according to your recipe, but basically, that’s it.
To begin, rub a few cloves of garlic—anywhere from one to seven cloves depending on your degree of love for garlic and the number of diners—on the inside of the pot. Remove the pieces if you like or leave it in—it’s up to you. Always use a low heat. Pour in the wine. When it starts to bubble, add the cheese slowly.
Dunkin’ and Dippin’
Cut open a loaf of fresh or day-old bread—the best quality you can find—butter and lightly toast it for a nice crunch, then cut into chunks, suggests Duran. Serve vegetables—cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, bell pepper—whatever you like to dip in cheese. Meat-and-potatoes men like Duran use pigs-in-a-blanket, potato chunks and pepperoni. “You can’t really go wrong,” he says. “It’s cheese. Cheese goes with everything.”
While many of the Swiss Alpine cheeses are hard, soft cheeses also do well in fondue. Common types of soft, fondue-friendly cheeses are blue, Boursin, Brie, chevre, Vacherin and Gorgonzola.
One advantage to soft cheese is that “it melts quickly with a creamy consistency that makes it perfect for fondue,” says Marie-Ange Laignel, sales manager for Fromager d’Affinois, a French cheese manufacturer. Laignel suggests using Le Fromager, a soft double-cream cheese made from cow’s milk. “We pair Le Fromager fondue with a baguette or boiled potatoes. Slice the baguette and quarter the potatoes making them the perfect size to dip into the fondue.”
The French way, says Laignel, “is to eat Le Fromager fondue with jambon cru (cured ham), sausage and a pickle, a la française,” she says. She recommends pairing the meal with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
In the words of author and gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin, to whom fondue was no doubt essential, “a dessert without cheese is like a beauty with only one eye.”
Fon-dos and fon-don’ts
Tips for better fondue:
- Grate cheese so it can be added into the pot by the handful, allowing it to melt slowly and evenly (no lumps) over a low heat. Stir constantly.
- Toss shredded cheese in cornstarch. This helps thicken the mixture.
- If your cheese is too runny, add a handful of grated cheese. If it’s still thin, turn up the heat and add some cornstarch dissolved in wine or Kirsch.
- If your cheese is too thick, turn up the flame and add a little white wine to the fondue, stirring vigorously.
One of Duran’s favorite fondue recipes, Pizza Fondue, is in his cookbook, “Take This Dish and Twist It.” It uses a combination of Mozzarella and Jarlsberg. A Norwegian cheese, Jarlsberg comes from a climate similar to Switzerland’s and tastes and acts like an Alpine cheese. “The Mozzarella is mild and stringy, while the Jarlsberg has a great meltability and a subtle nuttiness. Its sophisticated flavor elevates the dish without breaking the bank.”
Geja’s Classic Cheese Fondue
Courtesy of Geja’s, Chicago
6 ½ oz processed Gruyère, cubed
1 ½ oz Gruyère shredded
¼ tsp garlic powder
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp white pepper
6 oz dry white wine
½ tsp Kirschwasser brandy
- Heat wine until almost boiling in double boiler.
- Add Kirschwasser and let cook for a 5 minutes.
- Add processed gruyere cheese, cook until cheese is soft.
- Add shredded gruyere, let melt while stirring occasionally.
- Add nutmeg, white pepper and garlic powder. Stir until creamy.
- Mixture should cook for at least 30 minutes.
- Transfer as needed to fondue pot.
- Serve with chunks of French bread, apples and grapes for dipping.
- Complement your cheese fondue by pairing with the same wine used in fondue.
- Use cheddar or classic Swiss cheese in place of Gruyère.
- Try a variety of other breads. Pumpernickel, raisin and onion breads work very well.
- Cut bread night before serving and store in a container, which is left slightly open. This will allow the bread to firm and dry, creating a great contrast of textures (traditional fondue is served with stale bread).
- Use vegetables or dried fruits for dipping.
by Chef George Duran
Prep: 15 minutes / Cook: 20 minutes
My quest to reimagine fondue in every possible form continues. Here, the humble pizza slice is deconstructed into a bite-size, decadently delicious, dippable treat.
2 Tbsp butter
1 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, forced through a garlic press or finely chopped
1 tomato, seeded and diced
1 Tbsp dried basil, crushed
1 Tbsp dried oregano, crushed
1/8 tsp crushed red pepper Kosher salt or table salt and Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 oz. dry white wine
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (8 oz.)
2 cups shredded Jarlsberg cheese (8 oz.)
Assorted Dippers (such as button mushrooms, broccoli florets, cubed ham, sweet pepper strips and pepperoni)
- In a medium pot over medium heat, melt the butter and cook the onion and garlic until it is lightly browned, about 6 to 8 minutes.
- Add the tomato, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper and let simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add the wine and return to a simmer.
- Add the cheeses and stir until it is completely melted.
- Serve in a fondue pot or double boiler with the bread, mushrooms, broccoli and ham.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Bourbon Bacon Cheddar Fondue
Courtesy of Melting Pot
2 3/4 cups (11 oz.) shredded cheddar
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup beer (light beer recommended)
4 tsp prepared horseradish
4 tsp dry mustard
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp bourbon
2 Tbsp chopped cooked bacon
2 tsp freshly ground pepper
4 tsp chopped scallions
1. Toss the cheese with the flour in a bowl.
2. Place a metal bowl over a saucepan filled with 2 inches of water. You may also use a conventional double boiler. Bring the water to a boil over high heat.
3. Reduce the heat to medium and pour the beer into the bowl.
4. Stir in the horseradish, mustard and Worcestershire sauce using a fork.
5. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
6. Add half the cheese and cook until the cheese is melted, stirring constantly.
7. Add the remaining cheese a small amount at a time, stirring constantly in a circular motion after each addition until the cheese is melted.
8. Pour the bourbon slowly around the edge of the bowl.
9. Pull the cheese mixture away from the edge of the bowl and cook for about 30 seconds or until the alcohol cooks off.
10. Stir the bourbon into the cheese.
11. Fold in the bacon and pepper.
12. Pour into a warm fondue pot and keep warm over low heat.
13. Garnish with the scallions.
Serves 4 to 6