...and melt with you

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We're a generation that loves to look to the past for inspiration. We raid our parents' digs for mid-century furniture pieces to adorn our space, we've fallen in love with earthy tones again, despite the fact we used to hate how brown and orange dominated our parents' décor palette. What is old is now new, and the fondue has made a comeback once again.

Before fondue parties became all the rage in the fifties, sixties and seventies, fondue had a reputation as a complicated and almost exotic meal from Europe, served only in expensive restaurants. Yet fondues are an extremely versatile dish, and are surprisingly simple to make if all of the ingredients are on-hand. It's also a dish that's meant to be shared with others, which makes it an obvious choice to be served at your next party.

i'll fondue you
Traditionally, fondue consists of melted cheese, generally Gruyere and Emmental, spiked with wine. This concoction is served in a heated pot, along with cubes of bread. Dating back to the 18th century, this Swiss meal utilized ingredients that were found in almost every household. But like your mother's own special meatloaf or your dad's unique barbecue sauce, the fondue recipe varies from home to home, region to region, making them the chameleons of the culinary world.

While the traditional pairing of cheeses is delicious, you can incorporate some of your own favorite cheeses instead, such as Cheddar or Monterey Jack. Add different wines and liqueurs, or even use vegetables as an ingredient rather than a dipper, and watch the fondue evolve into a completely different dish. And there's no need to let your culinary imagination stop there -- fondue is one of the few dishes, if not the only, where you can change all of its ingredients and still call it a fondue. Substitute hot oil for the cheese, provide some beef chunks for dipping, and have yourself a beef fondue, also known as fondue bourguignionne. Or transform it once again into a chocolate lover's dream, and serve melted chocolate and fruit chunks as a dessert fondue. By swapping a few ingredients, you can create a new world of flavor without changing much of the preparation.

back to the basics
First of all, you'll need a fondue set; there's no other way around it. While you can technically melt the cheese in a regular saucepan, a fondue pot or a caquelon as it's called, has a heavy bottom, which promotes heat distribution and heat retention. This is essential when you're trying to melt the cheese to the proper consistency. Most fondue pots available are made of earthenware, glazed ceramic or enameled iron. Use a regular saucepan to combine the ingredients and once it's ready to serve, pour the mixture into the fondue pot. Depending on how thick-bottomed your pot is, you can use it directly on the stove, however do check the product directions first. Otherwise, you might be cleaning up your fondue from your kitchen floor rather than serving it at your party.

To keep the mixture still bubbling at the table, place the pot on its stand over the small burner. (Both the stand and the burner come as part of the fondue set.) The container of the burner should be filled with alcohol and have a diffuser that allows you to control and adjust the heat source. You cannot substitute this with a candle -- though some fondue sets will attempt to do so -- as the candle will not keep your mixture warm enough. Along with the pot and burner, you'll need fondue forks. These forks are not your typical everyday utensils. Instead, they're extra-long and with two serrated tines designed for spearing your food and safely dipping into the pot. They have either a plastic or wooden handle, very often with a colored tip so guests will know which fork is theirs.

You don't need to break the bank when it comes to procuring yourself the necessary equipment. You can find fondue sets on the market for a reasonable price at your local kitchen supply store (keep in mind that earthenware is a littler pricier than enamel). If you're looking for a fondue set with vintage flair, visit eBay. Type in 'fondue sets' and you'll see pages of fondue sets for a very affordable price. Better yet, if you're thinking of a no-purchase alternative, raid your parents' or grandparents' kitchen. There's a good chance that there's a fondue set tucked away in a high shelf somewhere, a relic from the first time fondue parties became cool.

how to eat a fondue
Before you roll your eyes and assume Miss Manners-type speech will be heard, there are certain rules of etiquette involved when it comes eating a fondue. All of which, you will see, are important. Fondues are communal meals, meaning each guest dips their food morsels into one pot. For the germ conscious, that thought may not sound appealing; however, there's a solution. Supply each guest with a separate fork so that they can slide off the food from the fondue fork onto the plate. This will ensure that the fondue fork doesn't enter the mouth and go back into the pot. To accomplish all this, you may want to organize a sit-down fondue party, as it will be quite a juggling act to fiddle with two forks and a plate while standing. However, if you trust your guests' personal hygiene is satisfactory then the extra fork isn't necessary. It's up to your own discretion as the host.

Eating the dipped food is just as simple. When you dip your food into the fondue, twirl it into the mixture making sure it's well coated. Then as you lift your fork out, you should twirl it again before eating it. The latter part is not just a fancier way to eat it: you don't want a mess of cheese dripping from the pot to the plate, and more importantly, you don't want to burn your mouth by not allowing the food to cool. It's not just etiquette: it's common sense.

the communal feeling
Since the fondue is the main attraction, try not to overwhelm your guests with too many appetizers. Have a few sides available to be served with fondue, like a salad or a platter of various meats and vegetables that can serve double-duty as appetizers and dippers.

You can still get your guests involved with your party by suggesting that they bring a food item they would like to eat with the fondue. Encourage them to please, look past the bread. While cubed French bread is classic, the dipper possibilities are almost endless. Try sweet red, yellow or green peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, pieces of apples, pineapple, mandarin slices, bread sticks, sausage slices, carrot and celery sticks, asparagus, artichokes, shrimp, and even other cheeses like brie. The last sounds extremely decadent -- and it is!

If you're making a beef fondue, ask your guests to bring a sauce they would like to dip their cooked meat into, or that can be used as a dipping sauce for your appetizers. Traditionally, horseradish sauces are served but again, encourage folks to get a little creative. As for the chocolate fondue, guests could bring dried and fresh fruits for dipping, even pieces of pound cake and biscotti.

When organizing your party, think about the number of guests you would like to invite. One pot generously feeds six people, and two about twelve people. If you're serving two pots, the easiest thing to do is to choose which type of fondue you want and stick to it. Serve only two different types of cheese fondues, or serve two different types of chocolate fondues. You can serve one of each type, but with more ingredients comes more work for you as the host. If you want to be able to really relax and enjoy your party, keep it simple.

parlez-vous fondue?
A bubbling pot of fondue might be all you need for a fun night with your friends. But take a few extra steps to create a theme and you can really make it a shindig to remember. I recently attended a party that not only served two cheese fondues, but boasted a French Parisian theme. Our hostesses advised each guest to wear something typically French -- think pink sweaters, pencil skirts, poodle and Eiffel Tower broaches, and of course, the beret. The music they selected were popular French singers from the sixties and seventies, such as Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot. Along with the food and music, we drank martinis and also Absinthe cocktails. Now, you don't have to buy a pricey bottle of Absinthe to make it authentic, but the intent has to be there: a good theme party is all about the details, in all their kitschy glory.

Not in the mood to be Parisian? Try Mexican, Scandinavian, or even create a Beer Tasting Fondue Party. Use either a dark or lighter lager as a feature flavor in your fondue and then serve it as the drink. Ask your guest to bring their favorite beer to the party. Think of a theme, build the elements from there, and most importantly, involve your guests.

bringing it all together
It's one of the good host's worst nightmares: your guests standing around, steadfastly avoiding eye contact, unsure how to intermingle. Fondue's the perfect way to bring everyone together and get folks talking, as everyone gathers around a hot pot of food. If you're still worried your guests might need some help breaking the ice, incorporate these fondue traditions. If a female guest drops her dipped food into fondue by accident, she must (innocently) kiss each male guest at the party. If a male guest drops his food into the fondue, he must open up another bottle of wine. With the wine flowing, plenty of good food in their bellies, and a few kisses shared, even guests who started the evening as strangers will leave your party feeling like part of the group.

Fondues are best eaten with a crowd, or with a special someone else, but certainly not alone. It's a meal designed to share with good friends and to warm up those cold winter days -- two equally good reasons to throw a party.

Stephanie Cloutier lives and works as a freelance writer and financial analyst in Toronto, Canada. When she isn't pursuing her passions of bellydancing or getting involved in the local burlesque-vaudeville scene, she always finds an excuse to throw fabulous parties in her swanky 650-square foot bachelorette pad.

Recipes

  • the classic cheese fondue
    • 1 clove garlic, halved crosswise
    • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
    • 1 tbsp cornstarch
    • 2 tbsp Kirsch or cherry brandy
    • 2 cups (½ lb) Emmental cheese, coarsely grated
    • 2 cups (1/2 lb) Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated
Rub inside of the pot with the garlic, then discard. Add wine to the pot and bring just to a simmer over moderate heat. In a separate cup, stir in cornstarch and brandy.

Gradually add cheese to the pot and cook, stirring constantly in a zigzag pattern (not a circular motion) to prevent cheese from balling up, until cheese is just melted and creamy. Do not let it boil. Stir in cornstarch mixture and stir into fondue. Bring to a simmer and cook, still stirring, until thickened, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer fondue pot to stand over flame and serve.

Dipper options for a cheese fondue: red, yellow or green sweet bell peppers, asparagus, carrot and celery sticks, pretzels, bread sticks, pepperoni slices, sausage slices, mushrooms, brie, apple slices, pineapple slices

  • beef fondue
    • 3 pound piece boneless beef sirloin or tenderloin cooking oil (canola or other vegetable oil) butter
    • Trim any fat found. Cut meat into bit-size cubes. Keep refrigerated until 20 minutes before cooking. You can marinate your beef if you like, though it's not essential.

Fill a metal fondue pot about half-full with a 50/50 mixture of oil and butter, or you can use oil only. Heat the oil/butter on the stove until it's about 360 degrees F. If you are using the butter and oil combination then heat slowly until the butter bubbles and the mixture turns a golden color.

Set the fondue pot on the stand over a moderately high direct heat and maintain the heat.

Each guest spears a cube of beef with the fondue fork, holds in the oil until cooked till desired (about 1-3 minutes, depending upon how they well-done they like their beef). Use a sauce to dip cooked beef.

sauces for beef fondue:

  • Horseradish Cream Sauce
    • 1 cup sour cream
    • 3 tbsp prepared horseradish
    • 2 tsp lemon juice
    • 2 scallions, finely chopped
    • ¼ tsp Worcestershire sauce
    • salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Best prepared one hour before serving.
  • Spicy Cocktail Saucefondue
    • 1 cup ketchup
    • 2 tbsp vinegar
    • ¾ tsp prepared horseradish
    • dash hot pepper sauce
Combine all ingredients in one bowl and keep in fridge until use.
  • chocolate fondue
    • 1 cups premium cocoa powder, sifted
    • 1 ¼ cups spring water
    • 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
    • ¼ cups corn syrup
    • ½ cups plus 5 Tbsp heavy cream
    • 5 ounces premium semi-sweet chocolate, chopped

Sift the cocoa into mixing bowl and set aside. Place water, sugar and corn syrup into a pot and bring to boil. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes until sugar mixture has reduced by almost half (or about 30%). Pour the cocoa powder into the mixture and blend with a whisk until smooth. Return the chocolate mixture to the stove and continue cooking over medium heat. Add heavy cream, bring to boil and allow it to simmer for five minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in chopped chocolate. Pour into fondue and keep warm.

Dipper options for a chocolate fondue: dried apricots, dried apples, fresh apple slices, pineapple, mandarin, banana slices, strawberries, raspberries, pound cake slices.

the upper crust As the hot cheesy mixture keeps on bubbling at the dinner table, most often a crust will form at the bottom of the fondue pot. To some, the crust is considered a delicacy. To enjoy it, just use your fondue fork to scrape it off and depending on how hot your heat source is, another delicious crust will form at the bottom of the pot.