When my husband and I lived in Basel, Switzerland, we were on a student's stipend. Good grainy bread and superb local cheeses were cheap, and along with fresh vegetables, these ingredients were the makings of many meals.
Our next-door neighbor was a chef, Otto Woolf. Each night as I trudged up to our apartment after work, tantalizing aromas seeped from under his apartment door.
Finally, one day, we were invited for what would be the first of many suppers. The table was covered with a brightly checked cloth, long-handled fondue forks rested on dinner plates, a bowl of crusty bread cubes sat ready for dipping, and bottles of chilled white chardonnay and white burgundy dotted the decor. In the center, an aromatic, creamy cheese mixture was bubbling gently in a red fondue pot set over a warmer. We speared bread cubes with fondue forks, then swirled the bread into the cheese mixture.
Conversation in part-English and part-Basler Deutsch (Swiss German) flowed easily, in large part due to finishing off several bottles of good white wine. The fondue supper was the start of a close friendship — and for me, it also served as a learning process.
Chef Woolf taught me the secrets for making the perfect Swiss fondue — "the right combination of cheeses, using the same wine you drink." I became skilled in whipping one up to entertain fellow students on a moment's notice. On Friday evening, after the kiddush, a cheese fondue often stood in as Shabbat dinner.
Fondues vary, depending on which area of Switzerland they are served. In Fribourg, hot water is substituted for wine and kirsch, and boiled potatoes are used instead of bread. In the Valais region, hot milk is used to melt the cheeses, and in Geneva, you might find seeded, chopped tomatoes stirred into the cheese mixture. I found that any leftover dry champagne may be used along with or instead of wine, giving sensational results.
Cheese fondue is made in a round, earthenware pot called a caquelon. If you don't have a fondue pot, any heavy, round, cast-iron casserole will do.
Today, fondue pots — complete with warmers — are available in department stores. Make sure to buy the large, round ceramic pot for cheese fondues. The small metal pots are for chocolate or meat fondues. Besides the fondue pot, you'll need long-handled fondue forks but in a pinch, you could use long metal skewers.
For the true Swiss fondue experience, do not use the packaged fondue mixes. In no way do they resemble the real thing. To make a cheese fondue from scratch, there are just two simple rules to follow: Cook over the lowest heat, or the cheese will become stringy; and keep hot over a low heat, as in over Sterno, so that it does not become tough and indigestible.
You can use any combination of cheeses, but for a hearty, nutty flavored fondue, use Gruyère, Emmenthaler and Tilsitter. Cut cheese into small dices, as they melt more evenly than grated cheese, which tends to lump during heating. In a hurry, use shredded cheese, not grated.
The popular chocolate dessert fondue did not originate in Switzerland, although Swiss chocolate is some of the best in the world. It's alleged that an enterprising public-relations lady, one Beverly Allen, invented it in New York, and it became a rapid success in city restaurants.
A variety of liqueurs may be used to flavor. With my Scottish roots, I prefer whisky! Fresh and dried fruits, cookies, marshmallows and cubes of pound cake are used for dipping.
Other Fondue Variations:
Fondue Bourguignonne is also referred to simply as beef fondue. Vegetable oil is heated on the stove top in a cast-iron or enamel pot before transferring to a warmer heated with sterno. The pot should be deep and sit on a stable stand. Beware of top-heavy pots, which are dangerous and may tip over when cooking. It should be filled only half-full with oil to avoid bubbling over when the ingredients are added.
Small pieces of lean beef and veggies are speared and cooked in the hot oil. Meat should be at room temperature for about a half-hour before using, and rinsed vegetables should be patted dry with paper towels to avoid splattering.
It's important to use only a cast-iron or heavy enamel pot — not a ceramic pot — as the oil must be heated to 360° to 375° to cook the meat. A variety of sauces, such as bearnaise, remoulade and barbecue, are served for dipping.
Broth may be used instead of oil for a lighter, lower-calorie meal than the cheese or hot-oil versions. Small pieces of potato, vegetables and fish are cooked in a simmering pot of broth.
Dessert fondues besides the most popular chocolate include those with a base of caramel or marshmallow.
Since fondue is a "communal" meal, some basic guidelines for good manners and health should be followed.
For cheese fondue, spear a piece of bread using a fondue fork and dip it into the cheese mixture. Twirl the bread cube in the cheese to coat it all over. You'll want to let the bread drip a bit over the pot before eating. This will allow time for cooling; hot cheese can burn your mouth!
When you put the bread in your mouth, try not to touch the fork with lips or tongue because the fork does go back into the pot. It's best to set the table with a dinner fork at each place. Use a dinner fork to slide the bread off the fondue fork, then eat off the dinner fork. For a meat fondue, spear a piece of meat with the fondue fork and plunge it gently into the hot oil. Allow it to sit in the pot until the meat is cooked to desired doneness. Remove it from the fork and place it on your plate. Use your dinner fork to dip the meat into the sauces.
Classic Cheese Fondue
Kirsch is a clear brandy distilled from cherry juice and pits.
2 loaves Italian or French bread
8 oz. Gruyère cheese
4 oz. Emmenthaler cheese
4 oz. Tilsetter cheese
1 clove garlic
2 cups kosher white wine (Reisling or Chablis)
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
3 Tbsps. kirsch
white pepper and nutmeg to taste
The day before, cut the bread into 1-inch cubes and leave in a bowl, uncovered, at room temperature. This firms the bread cubes and avoids soft bread dropping off the fondue fork.
Cut cheeses in 1/4-inch dice. Set aside.
Cut the garlic in half lengthwise. Rub cut sides all around the inside of the fondue pot. Discard garlic.
Pour the wine into the pot. Heat on stovetop over medium heat until little bubbles form at sides of pot.
Reduce to lowest heat. Add the cheese, one handful at a time, stirring till melted.
When all the cheese has been added and melted, stir in the cornstarch blended with the kirsch. Stir well. Season with pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Place fondue pot over a sterno burner to keep bubbling gently. Spear bread cubes with long forks and swirl in the fondue.
Cool a little before eating.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 594; protein, 29 g; carbohydrates, 41 g; fat, 27 g; cholesterol, 83 mg; sodium, 718 mg.
Remoulade Sauce for Beef Fondue
This classic version, usually made with mayonnaise, combines chili sauce, mustard and seasonings. It may be made one to two days ahead of time and refrigerated.
1/2 cup chili sauce
1/4 cup salad mustard
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 Tbsps. pickle relish
2 Tbsps. chopped parsley
2 Tbsps. chopped celery
1 Tbsp. bottled horseradish
In a small bowl, whisk together the chili sauce, mustard and oil. Stir in the remaining ingredients.
Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 11/2 cups.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 30; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 400 mg.
Quick Bearnaise Sauce
A classic French sauce traditionally prepared with vinegar, herbs, and finished off with egg yolks and butter. This quick version does not involve egg yolks.
2 Tbsps. minced shallots
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon or 11/2 tsps. dried
11/2 Tbsps. cider vinegar
1 cup mayonnaise
salt and white pepper to taste
Place the shallots, tarragon and vinegar in a cup. Microwave on high for 15 seconds. Stir and cool. Fold into the mayonnaise.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve at room temperature.
Makes about 1 cup.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 100; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 0 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 7 mg; sodium, 80 mg.
Any assortment of pretzels, cookies, firm fruits and/or marshmallows may be used for dunking. If using pound cake, to avoid it crumbling in the chocolate, cut into 1-inch pieces and leave at room temp overnight to form a crust.
12 oz. dark chocolate
1/2 cup light cream
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 Tbsps. kosher orange liqueur, such as Sabra
To dip: pineapple chunks, strawberries and/or marshmallows
Cut the chocolate into small chunks. Place the chocolate, and light and heavy cream, in a small fondue pot or in a small heavy saucepan. Stir constantly over low heat to melt chocolate.
Add orange liqueur. Mix well.
Place pot in the center of the table, keeping it warm over sterno or a votive candle.
Serve with dipping foods.
Microwave Method: Place chocolate and cream in a microwave safe bowl. Heat at high for 2 minutes. Stir every 30 seconds. When smooth, stir in the orange liqueur. Transfer to a pot. Keep warm at lowest heat.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 66; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 6 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 7 mg; sodium, 22 mg.
The Original Toblerone Fondue
Toblerone chocolate, with its distinctive packaging, was created in 1907 in Bern, Switzerland, by Theodur Tobler and Emil Baumann. The name is a merger of the Tobler company and Torrone, the Italian nougat specialty.
2/3 cup heavy cream
4 bars (3.5 oz. each) Toblerone, chopped
3 Tbsps. kosher cognac
To dip: cubes of pound cake, angel-food cake, hulled strawberries and thickly sliced bananas
Rinse a medium, heavy bottomed pot with cold water. Do not dry. Add the cream and bring to simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat.
Add the chopped Toblerone.
Let stand 2 to 3 minutes for chocolate to soften. Add the cognac. Stir well, until smooth.
Transfer to a ceramic fondue pot and set over a burner.
Serve with dipping foods.
Serves 6 to 8.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 336; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 31 g; fat, 22 g; cholesterol, 42 mg; sodium, 38 mg.