Whenever my parents would unearth their avocado-green fondue pot, exciting things would follow — namely, dipping chicken tenders into my Dad's killer Schlitz-based beer batter, then frying them into crispy, amoeba-like shapes in the bubbling oil.
It wasn't until years later that I sampled cheese fondue for the first time and, inspired by the communal gluttony, I purchased my own stainless-steel fondue pot ... which I used approximately twice. Reminded of its existence by my colleague Alice Levitt's recent article on fondue — and inspired to resurrect the tradition — I carted home thousands of calories' worth of cheese along with an Elmore Mountain Bread baguette.
Unfortunately, some of the fondue pot's parts were scattered to the wind, and my Kirsch was showing signs of age.
Fortunately, there's another convivial Swiss tradition for consuming copious amounts of cheese: Raclette, or melted Alpine cheese served with cornichons, pickled onions, boiled potatoes and cured meats. Though it, too, calls for special equipment (an electric raclette melter), a fire of any sort will do. After all, Raclette is hundreds of years old, predating electric outlets.
So I unwrapped my two types of cheese — a brick of squishy, cheap German cheese called Butterkäse, and a wedge of Spring Brook Farm Raclette — and arranged them on a rimmed cookie sheet. I then balanced this, perhaps unwisely, atop the grill of my gas fireplace. (You could use a warm stove, too, heated to 250 degrees or so). The cheeses began to melt and slide around after about three minutes, and within 12 minutes, they were ready to scoop onto the plate.
The pale-straw-colored Butterkäse, literally "butter cheese," melted the fastest; it's mild and oily, but with a rustic edge. It's also the less expensive of the two. Befitting its name, the Spring Brook Farm Raclette fit the job perfectly: still a quick melter but with an elegant, addictive texture somewhere between silky lemon curd and butter.
Traditionally, as raclette melts, it's scraped onto diners' plates and savored over an hour or more of dipping, smearing and pickle crunching. Without a broiler, my raclette never became brown and bubbly, but it was still warming and scumptious when slathered over a crusty baguette and chased with tangy bites of cornichons, onions and apples. And since cheese and cider are such good pals, it was an ideal time to sample some Flag Hill Farm Sapsucker, a hard "cider beer" made in Vershire that's so dry it almost feels like drinking flannel. Alongside the molten cheese, the barely effervescent cider became rounder, with hints of orange peel, quince and biscuits.
Raclette feels a little bit like eating deconstructed grilled cheese, but with a few Old World touches to keep it civil. Get it while it's hot, though; once it starts to harden, its appeal rapidly fades.