When everything ’70s came back in style about 15 years ago, the words “lava lamps” and “fondue parties” became part of hipster lingo once again. I understood the ironic fashion of lava lamps, but fondue? The communal dish had never gone out of style in my world. My family has circled round the cheese fondue pot every Christmas Eve since, well, the early 1970s. This year when we descended upon our cousin’s family in Washington, D.C., for Christmas we made sure we loaded up the fondue pots before making the drive from New England (we asked first, of course).
Few of our holiday traditions have persisted year to year, but a bubbling mass of Swiss cheese has held its steady place. If there is a fireplace or a wood stove, the logs get stoked and stirred as we assemble the small plates, the fondue forks, flour the cheese, and fill a large bowl with crusty French bread. We slice oranges to help everything slide down and maybe nibble on a pickle or two.
Using potato flour gives a nod to traditional Swiss recipes, and our family has always preferred a one-third mixture of Emmenthal, Gruyère, and Swiss cheeses. It may be a modest meal, but there is still room to let different flavors harmonize and hum.
The simplicity of fondue is as an a cappella choir to the full orchestra of holiday preparations. It offers a note of comfort amid other grander meals. And yet the act of dipping a skewered piece of bread, broccoli, or apple with an elegantly slim fork moves the meal beyond sheer simplicity.
Focused vigilance is required. If the cheese gets too hot, it will burn on the bottom of the pot; stirring it too much will connect long strings of cheese from the pot to your plate as you dip and draw your fork. Expect a lot of standing up and sitting down and chatter as you jockey for the best spot to dip in, refresh the rapidly emptying bowls, or gingerly tend to the tiny blue Sterno flame.
As the years pass, no two holidays look alike, faces change around the table – new ones appear and some are missed. And even our fondue meal has expanded. We’ve recently added an oil (meat) and chocolate course. Maybe it’s too much fuss, or maybe we’re just trying to prolong the togetherness that leaning over a tiny flame brings at this dark time of year.
So find yourself a fondue pot to stir with a few friends. It might just prompt the gentle pondering you need before the bright new year bursts in.
Basic Cheese Fondue
1 pound Swiss cheese
3 tablespoons flour
1 garlic clove
2 cups chicken broth
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
2 loaves French or Italian bread
Grate cheese onto a piece of wax paper. Sprinkle flour over cheese.
Peel garlic clove and rub an electric frying pan or fondue pot with it before turning on the heat. Pour in broth or milk and turn heat to medium. When it begins to simmer, add lemon juice.
Lower heat and add cheese gradually, stirring constantly in the shape of a figure 8 with a wooden spoon until cheese is melted. Add nutmeg and stir until blended.
Keep heat on low and stir the fondue occasionally while cutting the bread into bite-size chunks.
Light the Sterno burner and transfer fondue from the stove top. (If you don’t own a fondue pot, use the electric frying pan. It isn’t as attractive,but it works fine. Keep heat on lowest setting and, if necessary, add a bit more broth or milk to keep the fondue from getting too thick.)
With a fork, spear a bread cube and dip and swirl in the fondue until coated. Enjoy!
– Adapted from The Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 13, 1975.
1 pound beef tenderloin or sirloin
2 chicken breasts
1/4 pound shrimp, shelled and deveined
Oil (vegetable, canola, or peanut), enough to cover the meat
Trim fat and sinew from beef and chicken and cut into 3/4-inch strips. Rinse meat and shrimp and blot with a paper towel.
In a medium saucepan, heat oil to 375 degrees F. If you don’t have an oil thermometer, drop a piece of bread into the oil and if it browns in 60seconds, the oil is hot enough. Transfer the heated oil to a stainless-steel fondue pot. (Note: Ceramic fondue pots can crack if you use hot oil in them.)
Spear a piece of beef, chicken, orshrimp with a fondue fork and place in the hot oil. Cook until meat is done to your preference (approximately 30 seconds for rare, 45 seconds for medium-rare, and 1 minute for well-done; shrimp should turn pink).
Transfer meat to a plate and allow it to cool. Dip into a sauce of your choice,such as Hollandaise, horseradish, mustard, or fruit-flavored balsamic dressing. Serve with salad or vegetables.
3/4 cup heavy cream
12 ounces high-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (finely chopped)
1 teaspoon vanilla, peppermint, or orange extract
Heat cream to simmering in a medium saucepan; do not let it boil. Lower heat and add the chocolate, stirring constantly until the chocolate has melted. Add one of the flavored extracts and whisk until the mixture is smooth.
Transfer to a fondue pot and keep warm with burner. Use one or all of the following for dunking:
Angel food cake
A version of this essay and recipes was first published in The Christian Science Monitor.