Two people, looking each other in the eye, sharing a meal, eating small bits of food dipped into a communal pot: Who says fondue for Valentine's Day isn't sexy? Before I ever went on a date, I knew that fondue was desirable.
My first time, however, was very carefully chaperoned, in the kitchen of a savvy neighborhood mom who offered a series of party-giving classes. Each Saturday morning for a month, Mrs. Geller sharpened the hostessing acumen of six 12-year-old girls.
I was one of those girls, and I took to theme parties like a chunk of baguette to bubbling cheese. For our fondue affair, we dunked, dipped and dripped our way through the classics: cheese, bourguignonne and chocolate (see recipes on Page F4). Those recipes went into my collection and are with me today, well used.
Fondue (from fondre, the French word for melt) is actually of Swiss origin and, in its most literal form, is limited to cheese -- that is, a satiny mix of cheese, wine and a touch of flavorings warmed over a low flame in a wide, shallow, flameproof pot called a coquelon. The coquelon is placed in the center of the table and guests use long, thin two-pronged forks to dip morsels of bread into the mix.
The classic Swiss recipe dictates that the cheese be Gruyere and/or Emmenthal and sometimes raclette or appenzeller. Today in the United States there is certainly a variety of nontraditional recipes, using everything from cheddar to soy cheese. In Switzerland, however, fondue innovation is not as welcome as it is here, and cheese shops pride themselves on their traditional house blends for fondue, sticking to the tried and true.
Don't run from fondue just because you don't have an official pot. For years I rigged a stand from whatever was on hand: bricks, cans or the like, putting a pot on top and lighting a candle or can of sterno below. I even served fondue atop a steamer trunk in a cinderblock-walled dorm room. Now, however, I fondue in style since scoring a brand-new, still-in-the-box fondue pot at a local thrift shop. (Thank heaven for the ebbs and flows of gastronomic fashion.)
I recently learned that I have been missing the best part of cheese fondue -- the crust that forms inside the pot once it has been nearly dipped clean. How foolish of me. Now I know that when you're through dipping, you should refrain from wiping the pot clean. Instead, leave a thin veneer of fondue, allow a crust to form, remove the crust and break it to share with other guests. (I confess: it sounds like the sort of thing one would eat on the sly, happily and surreptitiously alone in the kitchen. But no! You are to indulge in company. Don't worry, this will not get by me again.)
Fondue bourguignonne, bite-size bits of beef or pork dipped into hot clarified butter or oil to cook, is a whole different animal from cheese fondue, but we think of them as kissing cousins -- after all, they both involve communal dining, dunking and dipping. Dipping sauces accompany the beef. To complete the meal you need to add only a crisp salad and an artisanal bread.
And last, but definitely not least, is chocolate fondue. A three-course fondue meal is not for the dainty of appetite; in fact, I would recommend it only for those with teenage capacities. That said, a chocolate fondue is the perfect finish to any meal. I have suggested a variety of things to dip into chocolate, but I feel sure there are more. Doesn't chocolate go with everything except, say, kielbasa or cucumbers?
It's a perfect way to end a Valentine's Day dinner, leisurely going for at least a 60-minute dessert. But if you make it for your valentine, just be sure your flame doesn't go out!
Lisa Cherkasky, a Washington writer and food stylist, last wrote for Food about decorating cookies.