Shock of the goo

Mark Hix recently bought his first ever fondue set. Now he wonders how he ever survived without one
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My obsession with fondue has been bubbling under for months. A few weeks back I promised to devote a column to the subject. And I just can't keep the lid on it any longer.

My obsession with fondue has been bubbling under for months. A few weeks back I promised to devote a column to the subject. And I just can't keep the lid on it any longer.

Don't you just love the transforming power of heat? The way food melts into something glorious, oozing and irresistible. We're talking delicious goo. Or, as the Swiss - who've mastered the art of melting better than anyone - call it, fondue. It's one of the things they're famous for, to my mind a greater invention than the cuckoo clock. And if you've ever been skiing, you'll know how gathering around a bowl of bubbling cheese is just the thing when you've spent the day in the cold.

Now fondue is one of those retro things that's become fashionable again. It's cool to throw a fondue party and invite your mates round to dip bits of dry bread into the communal melting pot. A fondue set is the ultimate wedding present, and everyone seems to own one. Everyone except me, that is. I've never been given one and suddenly I began to feel left out. In the end, I actually had to go out and buy one. If I'm driven to such desperate measures, it should encourage those of you who've got one collecting dust at the back of a cupboard to get it out and have a go.

On the way to Peter Jones, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, and was fantasising about all the things I could try before the novelty wore off. The possibilities are almost endless: anything that melts or that can be made into a thick gooey sauce and anything that stays on the end of a skewer long enough to go from the pot to your mouth without falling off is fair game. My mouth was watering at the thought of a thick thermidor sauce, barely bubbling in my new pot with some healthy chunks of lobster stuck on the end of those skewers, just waiting to be dunked. Come summer, maybe strawberries dipped in white chocolate or big, thick chunks of jumbo asparagus dipped in a melting pot of champagne and Gruyère.

You don't, of course, need to go trekking across London as I did in search of a fondue set. Just a heat-proof pot sat on one of those night-light warmers will do the job perfectly well, unless of course you want to do a fondue Bourguignonne. In English it's a pot of boiling oil in the middle of the table in which diners cook cubes of raw beef. It all sounds a bit dangerous, so make sure you have a fire extinguisher at hand.

A pure Swiss fondue should be made with a blend of cheeses such as Gruyère or Emmenthal and a softer local cheese such as Raclette or Appenzell. White wine and a dash of Kirsch is added with a spoonful of flour to stop the mixture curdling.

Cream reductions and roux can also be added along with a seasoning of pepper or cayenne and nutmeg if you want to spice it up a bit.

Fondue doesn't always involve dipping. Around the world you'll find melts of some description, whether it's the Italian fonduta or the Dutch kaasdoop, or even a molten Mars Bar in Hoxton. But now I've got the set, I'll be putting the skewers in at every opportunity.

Pumpkin with Raclette

Serves 4

Raclette is a classic melting cheese and also the name of a traditional Swiss dish, made by melting the cut end of a Raclette cheese over an open fire and then spooning off the melted cheese onto hot new potatoes and pickled white onions. This version comes from Jill Dupleix's latest book, Very Simple Food, published by Quadrille.

1kg pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and seeded
150g Raclette or other melting cheese
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few sprigs of fresh oregano
A few fresh sage leaves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme f
Heat the oven to 200ºC/390ºF/gas mark 6.

Cut the pumpkin into rough 2-3cm cubes. Season and steam over fast-boiling water for 20 minutes until tender, then drain and pile into a heatproof bowl or gratin dish. (If you don't have a steamer, put the pumpkin in a baking tray, season, add a dash of water, cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes or until tender.)

Cut the cheese into thin slices. Bake the pumpkin for 10 minutes or so to dry out the flesh, then top with the slices of cheese and bake for another minute or two until melted. Scatter with the herbs and serve.

Lobster thermidor fondue

Serves 4-6

This isn't exactly a traditional fondue and they may not actually have heard of this in Switzerland. That's because I've just made it up; at least I imagined it on the way to buy my fondue set, and then tried it out once I'd got my hands on the set. It seems to make sense to turn something as classic as this into a pleasurable sharing thing, rather than have a plateful of lobster to yourself - that's just selfish. If you don't want to fork out for lobster then thread some lightly cooked and peeled tiger prawns on the skewers.

1 lobster weighing 500-600g, cooked

for the sauce

2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
100ml fish stock (using a good cube)
50ml white wine
200ml double cream
1 tsp English mustard
1 tbsp Cheddar cheese, grated

1 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and cayenne pepper

Remove the shell from the lobster body and claws, and cut the meat into good mouth-sized chunks. Either use proper shellfish crackers if you have them, or go at it hammer and tongs, as long as the meat stays in nice sizeable chunks. (Don't throw away the shells, keep them in the freezer to make a bisque or sauce.)

Stick the pieces of lobster onto the ends of wooden, fondue or metal skewers and put them to one side. Meanwhile simmer the shallots in a pan with the fish stock, white wine and mustard until almost completely reduced. Add the double cream, bring to the boil and simmer until reduced by two thirds. Stir in the two cheeses until melted and season with salt and cayenne pepper to taste.

Serve the sauce in a heat-proof pot on a table warmer or in your fondue set. Dip the lobster in the sauce for a minute or so until hot and have a good time.

Serve with crusty white bread to dip in the remaining sauce.

Chocolate fondue with churros

Serves 4-6

As a kid I remember a mobile van coming down to the sea front at West Bay selling something called churros. It was a bit way out for deepest Dorset, but I got a bit hooked on them. They were simply dredged with granulated sugar and served in a cone. I always thought, before I become a food nut, that they were made of some sort of potato concoction and later discovered they were just simply a form of choux pastry, deep fried.

Now I've become a fondue head I've realised the perfect accompaniment for these delicious Spanish doughnuts is a chocolate fondue. If you don't want to go to the trouble of making churros, then you could dip fruit such as cape gooseberries or physalis, strawberries in season, or chunks of banana or pineapple on skewers into the pot of molten choc.

for the churros

100g plain flour
150ml water
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp caster sugar
1 tsp salt
2 eggs beaten
Oil for deep frying
Granulated sugar for coating

for the fondue

200g chocolate
100ml double cream

Sift the flour onto a sheet of tin foil - it will make it easier to pour when the time comes. Put the water, olive oil, sugar and salt into a sauce pan and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat, holding the corners, pour in the flour from the foil and beat in with a wooden spoon to form a smooth paste. Return to a low heat and stir for 2-3 minutes until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan clean in a firm ball of paste. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for a couple of minutes.

In a food mixer, with a paddle (this is much easier), or by hand, gradually beat in the eggs a little at a time until the mixture is smooth. Remove the mixture with a spatula into a piping bag fitted with a 1cm star nozzle.

Meanwhile, heat about 6-7cm of vegetable oil to 160ºC in a deep-fat fryer or heavy-bottomed deep pan. Carefully pipe the dough into the oil in 6-7cm lengths, using a small knife to cut the mixture, and cook until golden and crisp.

Remove with a slotted spoon onto some kitchen paper, dredge with granulated sugar and prepare to eat immediately. You can cook these beforehand if you are making a lot and just dip them back into hot fat before you serve them.

Meanwhile put the chocolate and double cream in a double boiler or a bowl over a pan of hot water until it has melted. Serve the chocolate in a fondue pot or in a heat-proof dish over a table warmer with the hot churros for dunking.