As I mentioned in an earlier blog, we held an experiment last night to discover the ideal bread for dipping in cheese fondue. The three contenders were:
- a normal baguette
- a really nice old-fashioned chewy baguette
- a whole wheat round loaf
A normal baguette is what we have always used, partly because we didn't know that good old fashioned chewy baguettes were out there. Also, I have to admit that I thought the chewy bread would just go rock hard rather than attaining the perfect state of "stale enough to stay on your fork and fresh enough to be chewed". The round loaf never occurred to me because I assumed that the bits with no crust (inevitable given its shape) would be too soft to stay on the fork. But the woman in the bakery assured me it would be fine, so we decided to give it a go.
Altogether there were six judges in the competition and they were very dedicated in their testing (four of them were hungry college students). Initially, the judges opined that the cheese was so overwhelming to the bread that it wouldn't matter which bread was used. And then they started experimenting with the other breads. (For the first few minutes, everyone dug in from the bread basket that happened to be closest.) And lo and behold a clear winner emerged: it was the chewy old-fashioned baguette from the Alsatian bakery down the street. Hands down. Second place, surprisingly, went to the wheat loaf. And last place, as is fitting, went to the inferior quality baguette.
Still, it was a surprise to this cook, as all the French people tell you a classic baguette (nicely stale) is the best bread for fondue. But the chewy bread stayed chewy, which gave a nice texture to the meal. And the wheat bread went extremely well with the cheese. The soft interior of the loaf was fine on the fork once it had dried out a bit.
So now we know: the better the bread quality, the more you enjoy your fondue. It was never bad before (except once when the guests showed up over two hours late and the cheese came apart and went all stringy and strangely enough we are still speaking to said guests) but now it is definitely better. Below is my recipe with various suggestions. As usual, it's not so much a recipe as a set of guidelines.
The first and most important thing in making fondue is to get good quality cheese. It's obvious, I know, but it has to be mentioned. If your local purveyor of cheesy comestibles does not carry the right cheeses (yes, that's plural) you can order them on-line at an exorbitant price from the Fromages.com people.
Cheeses you must include:
Cheeses that make it even better:
any nice flavorful hard cheese you have lying about. I put one in last night and I don't even remember what it was.
1 clove garlic (optional)
a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg (recommended)
3/4 a bottle of white Chablis wine
3 tablespoons of flour
salt and pepper to taste
The wine is a controversial item. Everyone puts it in fondue but I only know one other person who uses a nice Chablis and he's a real character. Nevertheless, I always get rave reviews for my fondue and I think the Chablis goes great with the cheese. If you want to be boring and traditional, get a sweet Swiss wine. And add some cherry liqueur (yech).
Quantities of cheese: you may have noticed I left them out. You probably want about half the cheese to be gruyère, a quarter beaufort and a mix of the others to fill up the rest. (Taste them to see which ones appeal to you and mix accordingly.) You should count on about a pound for four to six (or 200 grams per person).
To start with, you need to either rub the inside of your pot with garlic or slice it very finely and put it in a heavy-bottomed pot with about half the wine. Heat up the wine until it is almost boiling on the stovetop. This is important - you need to be able to control the heat so you can make sure the cheese melts properly. In the meantime (or maybe before you do the garlic depending on how fast you are with a knife and how much help you have) chop the softer cheeses into small chunks and grate the harder cheeses, preferably with a food processor because it's so much quicker. Toss the cheeses with the flour and nutmeg. Gradually add the cheese to the hot wine, stirring as you go to get the sauce as smooth as possible. Add more wine as the mixture gets thick. (You might have to wait a few moments before adding some more cheese if your wine is cold.) As soon as all the cheese has melted and the sauce is nice and glossy, grab a piece of bread and dip it in the cheese. Add salt, pepper, more nutmeg and/or more wine as you feel is necessary.
Transfer to your table-top heating element and serve immediately.
A few notes:
1) You should cut up your bread pieces several hours before dinner so that they can dry out a bit. If you can't (or forget), you can dry them out by spreading them on a sheet and putting them in a warm oven. But you will get breadcrumbs EVERYWHERE. Trust me on this one as I'm experienced in procrastination.
2) Once you get down to the last bit of cheese (and providing you still have the appetite), it's traditional to throw an egg or two into the bottom of the pot and stir it around until you have extremely cheesy scrambled eggs. You can either distribute spoons to eat it or just scoop out the egg with bits of bread.
3) If your guests are over two hours late, you will end up with a rubbery tasty mess and spend the rest of the evening apologizing to guests who probably were happy enough with the result (especially given the fact that they were drinking on empty stomachs for two hours).
4) Never make this for more than six people, unless you want to make two pots. It's not that your pot won't be big enough to hold cheese for eight; it's just difficult to fit eight people around one little pot and so eating is very awkward.
5) A nice crisp salad with very sharp vinaigrette and a finely chopped shallot goes well with this.