To Be or Not to Be: It’s Fondue in Belgium

Oh for the love of cheese already! How many weeks does it take to get yourself all discombobulated in the kitchen? As it turns out that number is five. Welcome to Week Five of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Last week we were in Barbados dancing around the kitchen with rum punch in hand. Tonight we are headed 4300 miles north to beautiful Belgium – the country that gave us diamonds, Audrey Hepburn, fancy chocolates, waffles, Brussels sprouts, and pretty sites like these…

But the way I went about this week’s cooking task I might as well have taken us all to a foggy headed mountain in Switzerland.

The most important rule of cooking, the number one rule, the golden rule of all rules is to read your recipe first. All the way through. This way you have a good understanding of what’s involved ingredient-wise and what’s coming up at the start of each step. It’s a no-brainer activity. Something that just occurs so naturally you don’t even have to think about it. Of course you always read the recipe first, silly. Except that one time you actually didn’t.

I’ve been anticipating this week’s dish since the very beginning of the project because  1) it features a food I’ve never made before but have always wanted to try, 2) it is cozy sweater weather fare ideal for this time of year and 3) it offers a fun dinner idea for upcoming Valentine’s Day. On the menu this week we are making Fondue Bruxelloise, a dairy laden comfort food that conjures up images of shared dining, pots on pedestals, and unabashed consumption of all the bread and cheese you ever wished to eat. How fun and delicious!

The first order of business this week, the fun order of business, before market shopping even ensued, was to purchase a fondue pot. In this case, of course it would need to be vintage, so out I went all around town looking for such a find. Three days later, nothing. There was not a vintage fondue pot to be had anywhere in my fair city. In a frenzied, last-minute search online, I found one in a neighboring state that could be here in time for the cooking project deadline.

Tah-dah… a sleek 1970’s stainless steel set complete with floral design work on the legs, teak accents on the handle and on the lid, and a set of forks to match. Perfect! While that gadget was flying through the air, I was busy collecting vintage advertisements from the 1960’s and 1970’s – the two decades in culinary history when fondue parties were at the peak of popularity. The retro ads circulating around the magazine world at that time captured a real sense of colorful joy and excitement when it came to showcasing the novelty of a fondue party.

With an exciting feast on the horizon and a new (old) fondue pot now in possession, it was time to buckle down and get to cooking. Like all the other dishes we  have made in the International Vintage Recipe Tour so far, the ingredients for Fondue Bruxelloise are not complicated ones. Basically the recipe consists of four main components… butter, milk, eggs, and cheese.

The night before I was going to make it, my husband inquired. Is this the type of fondue where you dip vegetables or just bread? Confidently, I said just bread, but then immediately went back to the kitchen to check the recipe just to make sure. And that, my fellow kitcheners, is where Week Five officially went south.

The preparation of Fondue Bruxelloise involves six steps which include a glass dish, overnight refrigeration, a vat of frying oil and cheese cutouts. It does not, at any stage, involve a fondue pot, fondue forks, or a steaming pool of cheese. Oh dear. My stainless steel beauty.

Somehow, in all this excitement of knowing that we were going to be making fondue and searching for a retro pot in which to prepare it, I forgot to read the recipe first. As it turns out, fondue, in the traditional sense that I was thinking of, is actually Swiss not Belgian in origin. The word fondue comes from the French and simply means melted, so technically lots of dishes could be considered fondue and lots of countries can claim their own variations. That’s why there are chocolate fondues (American), saucey and brothy fondues (Asian), oil fondues (Italian) and cheese fondues (French, Swiss and American). But Switzerland’s version of melted cheese remains at the top of the most popular hot pot recipes and it’s the first image most people think of upon hearing the word fondue.

This is what I had in mind originally!

So where does this leave Belgium, you ask? The answer lies in an Italian American named Nika Standen Hazelton.

Nika Standen Hazelton (1908-1992)

Nika was a trusted authority of regional cooking from cuisines all around the world. She started her writing career as a reporter in the 1930’s, and never lost that level of curiosity or scrutiny for the topic at hand. She approached each cookbook and each country with an investigative eye and a thorough understanding of the food scene, the culture and the eating habits of the places she explored. She was also a tremendous home cook and hostess herself, managing to turn both her own passion for food making and her insatiable interest of other countries into a life-long career. By the time of her death in 1992, she had published 30 cookbooks in total, taking readers on tour with her around the globe highlighting all sorts of interesting food ways with a candor that made her writing legendary.

In the 1960’s, Nika got to work collecting recipes for her Belgian Cookbook.  Exploring the country quite intimately, she was determined with her latest project to create a book of traditional everyday Belgian foods as prepared by the home cook. She wasn’t interested in featuring fancy dishes that you’d find in Belgian restaurants, nor she was interested in featuring foods that were so traditional and so foreign sounding that they would dismay the American reader who was just trying to gain an introductory sense of food in Belgium.  “All one wants are some feasible and pleasant dishes…” she wrote in the introduction to The Belgium Cookbook, published in 1970.  It is from that cookbook that Craig Claiborne collected this recipe for Fondue Bruxelloise, which literally translates as Melted from Brussels, for his New York Times International Cookbook, which was the springboard for our year-long cooking project here.

Still regarded as one of the most tastiest Belgian recipes out there, Nika’s Fondue Bruxelloise is similar in preparation to a croquette, looks like a mozzarella stick and contains an inner filling that tastes a bit like a lemony Hollandaise sauce, even though there is no lemon in it.

Once I actually read the recipe the whole way through, I was slightly intimidated. I’ve never fried anything in a big pot of oil before, something almost unheard of since I’ve lived in the South for over a decade now. Needless to say, I had to do a little bit of extra research on how to go about that, since the recipe assumes you already know what type of oil to use and what temperature to heat the oil to and so on. I’ve included those notes along with the original recipe below in case you are a frying novice like me too. Overall though it’s not a difficult recipe to manage, but it is a bit unusual in its preparation. Refrigerating the cheese batter overnight yields a rectangular creation that has the consistency of somewhat rubbery, somewhat softened butter. The bread crumbs are made fresh, chopped up in a food processor from a day old loaf. And the cheese squares require frying in small batches giving this cooking project an awkward stop and start rhythm as you wait for things to come together, at first in the fridge, and then in the frying pot. This is what this year is all about though. Learning new techniques and new foods from old recipes. Intimidation aside, there’s nothing to do but jump right in. So here we go…

Fondue Bruxelloise

(Makes 8-12 servings which equates approximately to 18 pieces that are roughly 2 1/2″ inch x 2 1/2″ inch squares)

1/4 butter

All-purpose flour (I used about 2/3 cup)

2 cups milk

1/4 lb. Gruyere cheese, grated

1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

5 egg yolks

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

3 eggs lightly beaten

2 teaspoons cold water

1 tablespoon peanut oil

3 cups fresh bread crumbs (I made these using a day old baguette)

Oil for deep frying ( I used 24 oz of peanut oil)

Parsley

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and stir in six tablespoons of flour, using a wire whisk. Add the milk, stirring rapidly until the mixture is thickened and smooth. Simmer 5 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat and add the cheeses, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, egg yolks, and salt and pepper to taste. (Note: I used about 1/2 teaspoon salt and a 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper). Return the sauce to the heat and stir rapidly with the whisk. Cook, stirring until it thickens further, but do not allow it to boil. (Note: I cooked this until the mixture just started to form a couple of big bubbles).

Generously butter a 13×9 inch or a 9×9 inch square pan and pour the sauce into it. (Note: The longest dish I have is 8×11 so I used that. See more notes about this specific choice of dish further down).

Spread the mixture smooth with a rubber spatula. Cover with buttered waxed paper (parchment paper) and refrigerate overnight or longer. (Note: I kept mine in the fridge for 24 hours).

Now firm, cut the mixture into squares, rectangles, rounds or diamond shapes. (Note: I chose squares because they were most simple and because while the top side of this mixture was firm, the underside was slightly gooey, so any well defined shape, like a diamond would have gotten all gummed up).

The bottom consistency might not have been as solidified as the top because I was using a smaller dish than was recommended, adding a thicker dimension to the overall mixture. Surprisingly though, even with this consistency the squares were fairly easy to remove from the dish and retained their square shape for the most part.

Top side!
Underside!

Beat the eggs until frothy, then beat in the water, oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Coat the cutouts on all sides with flour, then dip them into the egg mixture.

Finally, coat them in the bread crumbs tapping lightly with the flat side of a knife so the crumbs will adhere.

Heat the oil in a deep fat fryer to 360 degrees and cook the cutouts until golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot garnished with parsley.

(Note: As I mentioned earlier, this step was a little vague, especially for first time fryers. If you are a new experimenter with home frying, there are a couple of things I wanted share about the process. I don’t have a deep fat fryer myself so I used a heavy stainless steel medium-sized saucepan which worked perfectly well. I set the pot of oil over medium heat and let it warm gradually. It takes about 20 minutes for the oil to heat to 350 degrees, but use a thermometer to test the temperature to make sure it is hot enough before you add the cheese squares. The trick to frying is to do it in small batches. I could only fit three squares in at a time based on the size of my pot. This number still allowed ample room for them to bob around in the oil. I cooked each batch for 3 minutes. Also, it is important to let the oil warm back up to 350 degrees between batches. That step generally takes about 5 minutes).

After the squares have drained on a paper towel for about a minute it is best to serve them right away or keep them hot in the oven while you finish frying all the rest. That way when you cut into them, the melted cheese will ooze out into a little pool on your plate.

 

The longer they sit at room temperature, the more solidified the cheese gets inside. In the photo below, you’ll see that the plate on the right has been resting at room temperature for about 15 minutes. The cheese is still soft on the inside but is more like the consistency of fresh mozzarella rather than a melting pool…

Delicious in a very rich and decadent way, these cheese squares are like a little mini meal. Nika recommended serving Fondue Bruxelloise with fried parsley, but because they are so creamy, I’d recommend forgoing the extra frying and replacing it with anything acidic to balance out the flavors. Fresh parsley adds a bit of bright tang, as does freshly squeezed lemon juice. Other possible companions include a dollop of mustard or hot sauce, a side salad tossed in a citrus vinaigrette, a few slices of home grown tomatoes or simply a cold glass of dry white wine.

The cafe crowd in Brussels…

In Belgium, especially in the 20th century, locals used to enjoy a habit of a small snack everyday at 4 pm. A little delight like Fondue Bruxelloise would be perfect for such a time of day. Because of their velvety richness, you’d only want to eat one or two per setting, based on the size suggested in the recipe. Crunchy on the outside and soft and billowy on the inside, this serving size is a petite portion that is filling and satisfying but won’t risk spoiling your appetite for dinner a few hours later. As a national favorite, several Belgian cookbooks include Fondue Bruxelloise in their appetizer or hors d’oeuvres sections with suggestions to serve them at parties large and small. I like the idea of the 4:00pm Belgium tradition though and would next serve this at that time of day along with a glass of wine or a Belgian beer as part of a special happy hour treat. After all, it is fondue. It only seems fitting to involve some friends.

While this recipe was certainly not what I had anticipated at the start of the week, it turned out to be a curious adventure in cooking techniques and frying lessons. I may have not have gotten to use my new fondue pot, but perhaps when we visit Switzerland on the Recipe Tour towards the end of the year, I’ll be able to test out its capabilities with a classic Swiss fondue.  Then we can circle back around to this recipe and compare the two. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to read your recipes first:)

Cheers to cheese for offering up a few surprises and to Nika for taking us on an unexpected cooking adventure.  Also, a big cheers this week goes to blog reader Angela, who baked our featured Australian recipe, Queen Mother’s Cake for her neighborhood and received rave reviews! If anyone else has their own stories to share please send a message or comment below, we’d all love to more about your cooking experiences too!

Next Wednesday, just in time for Valentine’s Day weekend, we are headed to the passionate country of Brazil, where romance and recipes bloom in the kitchen. Stay tuned!