I like a good fondue party. Fondue is so chic with its tiny blue flame and color-coded pokers. Guests light up as they dip a cube of French bread or green apple into the bubbling cheese/wine concoction. But for years at my house, the little cauldron would be forgotten among the other fare and festivities and the flame would weld the cheese to the bottom of the pot. The waft and whisper of “something burning” would wake me from my entertainer’s daze. I’d try to furtively extract the pot before guests could catch a glimpse of amateur hour. But the hissing steam from my great room sink betrayed me every time: guests would applaud, and I’d embrace my folly, “Thank you! Yes…I almost set the house on fire. I rule!”
Every year I sentenced the fondue pot to the back of the cabinet for committing near-arson. My husband was a fine warden—he was happy to lock up the “Cheese Killer” and throw away the key. When I found out that the couple who gave it to me were actually getting rid of it because they had received a far superior one, I started to connect the dots: My stainless steal hand-me-down with a plastic handle sucked. And it didn’t help that I’d go to various fondue joints around Denver and they were doing fondue so expertly, that I knew there was little chance of doing it right. Each table had their own electric burner, cheese-watching servers and heavy-duty pots.
As I said, my pot had been doing hard time in the culinary clink, so I wasn’t thinking about it—much less allowing it to cause conflagrations at parties. But then I saw a beautiful French cast iron crock coated with cream and red enamel for a reasonable price. Plus, I had one of those scratch-and-reveal-your-percentage-off coupons. I scratched off a whopping 35 percent! So naturally, Christmas present for my husband!
He was skeptical, but squeaked out a “thanks.” It took until spring, but we finally fired her up. Again, fondue appetizer, party people with mini pitch forks, cheese galore, and then “Holy shit! Get the fire extinguisher!”
Okay. It wasn’t that bad. It actually took quite a while before it started to burn, and it burned mainly because there was barely enough cheese left to butter a slice of bread. So there was something to getting a good pot. But nevertheless, I sentenced it to a few months in the cabinet for the 20 minutes of my life it took away from me as I coaxed the scorched gruyere off its bottom. It would take some time for me to forget about that.
In July, I went to a fondue restaurant in Breckenridge with my husband and some good friends. Although the restaurant called itself Swiss-style, I thought it was going to be like the Americanized fondue restaurants in Denver. But I was pleasantly surprised. There were no table side electric burners. They actually had the same fondue set I had—same crock, same gel fuel metal burner, same forks! Like the other fondue places that I’d been to before, you could do cheese fondue, meat and vegetables fondue (to cook in broth), and chocolate fondue.
Amid the chitchat and pleasantries, I was taking mental notes. I noticed right away that the cheese didn’t burn. Our server had given the small burner a twist to lower the flame. Whoa. No one told me you could do that! For the meat and vegetables, he adjusted the burner again to keep the broth—a beef and sherry bouillon—at a steady simmer. We cooked our own filet mignon, broccoli, and mushrooms, and dipped pre-cooked carrot and potato into the broth to reheat and season them. The meat took only about minute to boil to a crimson medium-rare. We were also given dipping sauces—curry, garlic and chive, horseradish and Dijon mustard—to spice up the meat and vegetables. For dessert, fruits, marshmallows and angel food cake waited to be bathed in dark Swiss chocolate. As I skipped the last strawberry across the chocolate pool a thought consumed me: I would recreate this dinner in my dining room.
It just so happened that I was expecting houseguests about a week later. So with the menu fresh in our minds, my husband and I dreamed up a three course fondue meal for our friends. We decided to experiment with a few different ingredients—we added onions and zucchini. We bought tenderloin instead of filet mignon. Along with fruit, we dipped brownies instead of marshmallows and angle food cake. Last, we decided two dipping sauces—horseradish and Dijon—were sufficient instead of four.
Apart from the chopping, it was a relatively easy meal to make. We preheated a ready-made cheese fondue on the stove (in the fondue pot), then popped it on the fondue burner (making sure to turn down the heat). We also prepared a broth using red wine, consumé, and a bouquet garni (fresh herbs bundled together with string for easy extraction after the broth is finished). And we made our own chocolate fondue with heavy cream and 85 percent dark chocolate.
It was a long lovely fondue party. Our edits to the menu paid off. I became a believer of the cast iron, enameled fondue pot. Such a pot when used correctly evenly heats its contents and nicely retains its temperature. And I’m proud to say that the bottom of our pot contained just melted cheese. My only criticism for the evening was having only one pot—even though we had two—the cheap one. But we couldn’t trust that one. Besides, it had since been sentenced to serve as a bedside sick bucket for the kids—I know TMI. So in the absence of another pot, I had to quickly clean the fondue pot in between courses. This was good for digestion, but bad for conversation. (I couldn’t hear over the running water and the scrubbing.) But hey, Christmas is right around the corner. “Oh Holly! You shouldn’t have…I mean, literally. You shouldn’t have…”
He’ll get over it. I rule!