My Secret to a Fun, Stress-Free Valentine’s Day Dinner
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Valentine’s Day is one of the more divisive holidays. You’re either all-in for the romantic missives and candlelit dinners, or the whole concept strikes you as laughably hollow. And heaven help you if you and your partner happen to see the day from opposite ends of that spectrum. Fortunately, both my husband, Seth, and I fall in the camp that finds the day to be treacly but cute. We might give each other a handwritten card or a box of Pocky (or we might not!), but we won’t be making reservations for two at Chez Swoon for the evening.
Instead, we opt out of the obligatory chocolates and roses and share something we can enjoy as a family: cheese! For the past six years, we’ve kept the tradition of feasting on a bubbling crock of cheese fondue as our way of observing the holiday on our terms. Over the years, we’ve tried different combinations of cheese (the classic Swiss fondue is still our favorite) and have, importantly, added a chocolate fondue for dessert. Frankly, I’m not sure how we made it through those first couple of years without it.
Fondue Equipment (or Not!)
I’m here to tell you that you don’t need a fondue pot to make fondue. Because we use a double-boiler method (more on that later), my eyes have opened to the possibilities of tableside melted cheese. If you have an induction burner or even a small butane stove, like what you would use for camping, you can make fondue happen.
For our fondue, I usually use my Cuisinart Electric Fondue Maker, but I also have an old-school fondue pot that uses sterno if I feel like setting a more specifically après ski vibe. The Cuisinart came with its own set of color-coded fondue forks, which my daughter Lily likes to set at each of our places, according to our own favorite colors.
My husband, Seth, worked at the Melting Pot for a summer as a teenager, but don’t worry — you don’t need to be a certified professional fondue artist to make this a success. Fondue is actually pretty simple. It’s a matter of melting the cheese slowly enough and then keeping it at a consistent temperature so that it doesn’t break or seize.
Because we make two batches of fondue for the same meal, we use a double boiler method, swapping out a stainless steel bowl over a pot of boiling water for each batch of fondue. This is actually a technique Seth picked up from The Melting Pot, and I was resistant to it at first because I thought fondue had to be made in the fondue pot itself. But after he showed me his approach, I realized he was right — how’s that for romance?
For the cheese fondue, we grate a mixture of Gruyère, Emmentaler, and raclette. The Gruyère and Emmentaler give the fondue its characteristic Swiss cheese flavor, and the raclette, which is prized for its melting ability, creates the perfect silky texture. Once we’ve grated all the cheese (a task the kids can help with!), we toss the grated cheese with a little bit of cornstarch, making sure to coat as many strands of cheese with cornstarch as possible. This keeps things flowing smoothly when the cheese hits the hot liquid.
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My oldest daughter, Lily, doesn’t like the flavor of wine in her food, so we compromise (because what would love be without compromise?) and use chicken stock instead of the traditional white wine. Into the stock, we add minced garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice, both of which help perk up the heavy cheese, and the addition of a pinch each of nutmeg and white pepper brings out the cheese’s natural nuttiness.
Seth brings the chicken stock to a simmer and then slowly adds handfuls of cheese, whisking and stirring in a figure-eight motion with a fork, adding more handfuls of grated cheese as the cheese in the bowl begins to melt. Once he hits the sweet spot of ooey-gooey cheese perfection, we’re reading for dipping!
The Best Dipping Foods
While a vat of bubbling cheese is, of course, wonderful, it’s the dippers that really excite me. I love loading up a platter of crunchy, juicy, meaty treats for their inevitable cheese bath. The girls lean toward the more traditional items, like crusty pieces of baguette and crispy apple slices. I also add some steamed broccoli (and boom, suddenly it’s healthy!) and fingerling potatoes. My personal favorite dippers are slices of spicy salami, prosciutto, and cornichons, a tip I picked up from the fondue dish at one of my favorite local restaurants, Brenner Pass.
Every year, I always scrounge around the kitchen asking, “What else can I dip in this hot tub of cheese?” and last year, that query yielded dried dates, which will forever be standard because the combination is incredible. The possibilities are many: boiled shrimp, meatballs, potato chips! Crowdsource some ideas from your family when you’re planning for your fondue experience, and make it your own.
Then Comes Dessert
After we’ve almost completely stuffed ourselves with cheese fondue, we find the inner strength to keep going for round two: chocolate. I prepare a metal bowl with chopped bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream and then place it over the simmering water. To save time, you could also pre-melt the chocolate fondue on a double boiler on the stove, and then just swap it out when you’re ready for it.
Into our chocolate fondue go all the best things in life: marshmallows, strawberries, pretzels, bananas, and chunks of pound cake. If we have a few potato chips left over from the cheese experience, we might dip those in there too. Ritz crackers, graham crackers, and Oreos are also invited to this party. You really have to ask yourself: What wouldn’t be improved by a dip in molten chocolate? It’s a short list.
The Importance of a Family Valentine’s Tradition
Because Valentine’s Day seems a little silly to me and Seth, it feels particularly good to have come up with a beloved family tradition. There is certainly no shortage of love at the table at Fond of You Fondue. We dress up a bit, but not too much to mind if an errant glob of cheese lands on our shirt. It’s a time for us to be goofy together, to share food and laughter and an experience that feels like it was made just for us. And, after all, isn’t that what love is all about?