Choosing the right cheese is the key step

FONDUE is known as a super-easy dish to make, and people just love to sit around the hot fondue pot dipping in as they chat and have fun. It can be a meal in itself, and it's ideally suited to cold weather and informal gatherings. It's a natural for ski groups, of course, but also makes a fine winter lunch or dinner or parties. Using the right kind of cheese can make a difference. Melting is what cheese fondue is all about, so when choosing the cheese for this classic Swiss mountain dish, keep the melting requirement right up there with flavor and taste.

When making fondue, the main idea is to keep it smooth and to avoid drying it out. You also don't want it to turn into strings of overcooked cheese or to separate into fat and curd.

And although it is a simple, casual dish, a few basic pieces of equipment make it easier and more fun to make.

To do it properly, a chafing dish, heated electrically or by fuel, is needed, plus long fondue forks, French or Italian bread, and imported Swiss cheese (most American Swiss cheese is usually too young to melt smoothly).

Emmental and Gruy`ere are both excellent cheeses for fondue.

One of the heavyweights of the cheese world, Emmental has a worldwide reputation for outstanding quality. Usually used along with Gruy`ere in fondue, Emmental is made in central (German-speaking) Switzerland with whole cow's milk. It has a rich, well-balanced taste, is distinguished by holes three-quarters of an inch in size, and is fruity without sharpness.

Gruy`ere is the second most important Swiss cheese, after Emmental. It has a delicate flavor that is nutty and slightly sweeter, and is a wonderful cooking cheese, both in the famous fondue and in a wide range of sauces.

For a change, you might like to try a fondue using an English cheese, Caerphilly. Although this cheese was originally made in and around Caerphilly, Wales, it is now made by the English, predominantly in Somerset County.

It is said that those who like buttermilk will like Caerphilly very much, and that those who don't had better leave it alone. This is a fair statement, for the snowy-white, wheel-shaped cheese is slightly acidic and has a rich farmyard flavor and a crumbly, moist texture.

Traditional Swiss fondue recipes usually include wine or kirsch, which give an underlying flavor some people don't like. But fondue can be made successfully without using alcohol. The first version below is from Dorothy Crouch's book ``Entertaining Without Alcohol,'' and it is an excellent fondue with a true Swiss cheese taste.

The Caerphilly fondue recipe is from the English Country Cheese Council. Cheese Fondue 1 large clove garlic, quartered 11/4 cups milk 1/4 pound Emmentaler cheese 1/4 pound Gruy`ere cheese 2 tablespoons flour Black pepper and nutmeg to taste Crusty French or Italian bread

Grate cheese, cover and set aside.

Rub fondue pan or enamel saucepan with garlic. Heat milk in pan to simmer point, uncovered. Add garlic pieces if you like stronger garlic flavor.

Combine flour and cheese in plastic bag and shake until well-coated.

Add cheese gradually to milk, stirring constantly as it thickens. Add nutmeg and pepper while stirring.

Bring fondue to the table in a chafing dish and provide guests with plates and forks. Adjust heat so fondue barely bubbles.

Guests must first tear their bread into bite-size pieces, making sure each piece has a bit of crust. Then, in turn, each guest should spear a piece of bread with their fork, running the tines through soft part and securing it in crust, and dip it into fondue, stirring in the traditional figure eight pattern.

The polite fondue stirrer does not withdraw his fork until someone is ready to take a turn, and traditionally, the first person who drops a piece of bread in the fondue pays for everyone's meal.

This recipe does not lend itself to reheating. Its flavor is retained if you do, but the texture becomes slightly grainy and extra milk may be needed.

Serves 2 as main course, 4 for first course. Caerphilly Fondue 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon salt Black and red pepper, freshly ground 11/2 cups milk 2 cups Caerphilly cheese, shredded Fingers of toast

Melt butter in double boiler.

Add flour, salt, and pepper. Stir until flour and butter are smooth. Add milk, stirring constantly until sauce is smooth. Add cheese and stir continually in one direction only until cheese is melted. Serve immediately on toast.

Phyllis Hanes is the Monitor's food editor.

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