Instead of making pasta as an excuse to eat cheese, we're ditching all pretense and embracing ooey gooey cheese as the main dish. —INGRAIN, Winter 2018
STORY / Cara Condon
Growing up, I used to say my favorite cheese was “melted cheese,” which was whatever was on my burger or inside my quesadilla. As long as it was oopey and goopy, I loved it. If cheese sauce was an option, you’d better believe I was dunking everything I could in it (fingers included).
I’ve learned a lot about cheese since those days, but I stand by my first true cheese love. For me, the ultimate melty cheese experience is fondue.
Before we get into some geeky history, a reminder: The classics were created out of necessity. People innovated to survive, not to impress their friends at a dinner party.
HISTORY OF FONDUE
Though there is evidence of fondue as early as the 1700s (surely people were melting cheese even before then), the first known fondue recipe wasn’t recorded until the mid-1800s. Regardless, fondue was likely just a clever way to stretch pantry staples (cheese scraps, old bread, and regional wine).
That oozy pot of Swiss cheese wasn’t much of anything until the 1930s, when the Swiss
Cheese Union, a now defunct “trade organization” that controlled cheese production in Switzerland (read: It was essentially a cartel), embraced the dish as a way to promote and sell the country’s cheeses. Word traveled fast after the recipe was introduced to Americans at the 1964 World’s Fair. Who doesn’t like an excuse to eat copious amounts of melted cheese and call it a meal?
Today, one of the most common fondue variations is moitié-moitié, or “half and half,” which is made of two types of cheese, typically gruyère and Emmentaler (Vacherin makes appearances, too).
I DIP, YOU DIP, WE DIP
Rule number one: Crusty bread is king. Stale, crusty bread is the quintessential dipping mechanism for fondue because it acts as a delicious little sponge. Ever wonder why a fondue fork is so long? Bread in par-ticular attached to those prongs stirs the cheese as it swirls around the bottom of the pot, which helps keep the fondue evenly melted. If all goes as planned, you’ll still end up with a religieuse (“nun”), the thin, crunchy layer of toasted cheese at the bottom of the caquelon (fondue pot). Don’t even think about throwing it away. It’s delicious.*
Did your parents’ fondue parties feature boiled potatoes, pearl onions, sliced apples, and cornichons? Those are classic dipping vessels for a reason, but I love to include some unusual suspects as well. Tater Tots, french fries, and Funyuns (stay with me) add just the right touch of lowbrow flair (and taste really great with melty cheese). If you pickled things from your garden over the summer, or bought someone else’s cool pickles at the farmers’ market, include those in your spread. The crunch and acidity complements to the rich cheesiness.
*Playing Freak Nasty while dipping that bread optional.
GETTIN’ HYGGE WITH IT
Think of a cabin in the woods with a crackling fire and snow falling outside—but you’re inside wearing a sweater (and soft pants), and eating deep-dish pizza with your four best friends, drinking lots of beer, and pretending to work on an impossible jigsaw puzzle.
That’s hygge, the amazing Danish concept of coziness. It can refer to something as simple as taking the time to enjoy a cup of coffee, and it can happen in any season. But gettin’ hygge is extra special in the winter months (another reason to have some close pals over to share a pot of fondue). Sure, we may have to hibernate all winter in Chicago, but we hibernate in style.
THE STAR: CHEESE
This soft-ripened cow’s milk cheese from Jasper Hill Farm is layered with vegetal aromas and flavors (think charred broccoli raab doused in butter) from the spruce that is wrapped around the cheese before aging. Slice off the top and go at this beautiful guy with a spoon. We wrapped the spruce in rosemary and lit the branches to enhance the woodsy notes (but really, just for fun). $24 for 9 ounces
Soft-ripened cheeses are the best options for caramelizing. Typically rich and mild, they are a lovely complement to the burnt, crème brûlée-like sugar coating you are creating on the outside (try a Bourbon County Brand Stout on the side). Look for La Tur, a cute, cupcake-looking triple milk cheese from Italy, or Cremont, a soft cow/goat’s milk cheese from Vermont Creamery.
Allow the cheese to come to room temperature, sprinkle lightly with sugar, and fire up a blowtorch. Blast the tops and sides until the cheese is nicely caramelized. (Don't overdo it, or the cheese will melt.) Dig in right away.