Now, when was the last time you had Cheese Fondue?
For me, it was one of those palate-defining moments. I was 13, and on a youth group skiing trip to Switzerland. We were in a lodge with long wooden tables and benches, and starving from a long day of trying to ski on the springtime ice fields of the Alps. The cheese fondue--gooey dripping cheese, chunky crusty bread-- seemed like a miracle, and even more amazing was that we were all given a small glass of white wine "so the cheese wouldn't make a big lump" in our stomachs. I haven't had it since (cheese fondue that is, not wine), but I have never forgotten it.
So last Christmas, when grandson J. roamed around the house, poking into cupboards, looking forlornly for a fondue pot, it started me off on a mission. OK, so it took 10 months to come to fruition, but at least I'm persistent in my goals. Really what I was looking for was the proper alignment of events, weather, people and equipment. You need colder weather for cheese fondue. Nobody wants to eat gooey hot cheese and bread when it's 90 degrees outside. You need enough people to make it merry but not too many. Last night I had seven adults and one four year old, perfect because there are eight fondue forks. You need to be able to sit them at a round table (there is only one, and it's in the kitchen), so it needs to be somewhat informal, and it needs to have been a day when it's all right to have a "light" meal for dinner. Yesterday there was a big birthday celebration for Dr. S. (89 years!) at the Essex Club and the lunch there was rather heavy.
Perfect, that is, until math came into the equation. Can I just have a little rant here about our measuring and weighing system? Why on earth do our cookbooks call for ounces when markets weigh things out in tenths of a pound? So say for example you need 8 oz. each of Gruyere and Emmenthaler. At the market they are in little bricks of 0.4 lbs. each. So you buy two of each. Now say you are cooking and you decided to not double the recipe, but one and a half it. So you need 12 oz. of each. So 0.4 of a pound is 6 oz., right? Because if you split 8 oz. by five units, 4 oz. would be .25 lb. and 6 oz. would be roughly 0.4 lbs, or a little less. So theoretically two 0.4 lb. blocks of should give you exactly what you're looking for.
Oh, and if you're one and a halfing 1 1/2 cups of wine, you add an additional 3/4 cup. Right?
Can I just tell you right now that I had to drop accounting in college because I was getting a D and I didn't want to screw up my GPA? I should have stuck with it.
Anyway, the result of all of this mental strain is that I was terribly anxious while I was watching that cheese melt in what seemed like a LOT of wine. It seemed like too much liquid to the cheese, and I didn't remember it having that consistency (from all those decades ago). I added the cornstarch/kirsch slurry with high hopes, only to have it clump on the bottom of the pot, and so I had to take a whisk and beat the bejeezus out of it. Then I started to doubt my math and rummaged around in the cheese drawer for more cheese to add. I ripped up four slices of deli swiss and was ready to start grating some cheddar in there when it finally simmered itself into a consistency that I was happy enough with.
Friends, this dinner was a success. There was much laughing and general merriment at the table, and I think my favorite moment was when I heard Dr. S. say, "I feel absolutely, perfectly contented right now."
Now, after the fact I have looked on Epicurious to give you the link (and a nice photo) and I see some suggestions that I wish I had seen ahead of time. One is to toss the cheese with the cornstarch, another is to increase the amount of cornstarch. A third is to provide other dipping options: apples and pears, boiled potatoes, etc.
Food for thought for next time, because there will definitely be a next time!
Here's a mental exercise for you, as if you needed another one. Say you're serving cheese fondue for dinner on a night that has followed at least three nights of heavy eating (including desserts)? You need a dessert. There's nothing leftover to appropriate, except a little angelfood cake with ganache frosting. There's no ice cream worth mentioning. You don't want to go shopping, and you don't want to make anything heavy to follow all that cheese. Hmmm.....
Fruit of some kind seemed like an obvious choice to me, but not just any old fruit. The Gourmet Cookbook to the rescue once again--this book seems to have a solution for just about any cooking quandry I have. I had all the ingredients for Fresh Orange Slices with Candied Zest and Pistachios
and embarked upon it with much faith and enthusiasm. Really, it is quite amazing how much faith I have in these recipes because I make them for the first time on the job almost every day. That's some testimony right there.
And I wasn't disappointed, at least not with the recipe. The only thing that stressed me out about this dish was the oranges--I wasn't using navels as the recipe asks, I was using Florida oranges, which are great for juice but have seeds and are kind of membrane-y. So getting the seeds out was a little time consuming and also scraping the pith off the rind. Helpful hint: it's easier to get off AFTER you boil the rinds for 10 minutes--scrapes right off with a spoon. Then cut the rind into matchsticks. I also had the foresight to try a little sample plate and realized that the membrane holding it all together was a little tough and would make for difficulties if the slices were left in perfect circles so I cut them all in half (this was after they were all plated, mind you).
And then my final worry (do you think I worry too much?) was that the Grand Marnier in this dish would just be too much booze after the wine and the kirsch of the fondue.
I can't tell you how this dish was received, because by the time it was being eaten I was at home watching the Red Sox kick some Colorado butt. OK, slow butt-kicking, but who cares? Go Sox!!
"Perhaps the most impressive of all the cookbook blogs are the three devoted to the 2004 edition of Gourmet magazine's "The Gourmet Cookbook" -- all 5¼ pounds and 1,300-odd recipes of it. Befitting this culinary Everest, all three writers are overachievers in their professional lives."
--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008
--Lee Gomes, The Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2008