My reading habits saved me from utter culinary disaster today.
It’s probably no surprise that I really like to cook for people. So when my French Club discovered that going out for fondue would be expensive, I blithely said, “Oh, I can make fondue. I’ve done it before.”
I was unfazed when the responses started pouring in. New members wanted to come to our fondue meeting. They wanted to bring native French speakers as guests. I’m a firm believer in “the more, the merrier” entertaining, so when the total head count grew to numbers I could not fit in my apartment, I accepted my mother’s proffered big kitchen and planned a more expansive menu.
I would serve a beef broth fondue with mushrooms. I would also do three — no, that’s a bit much — two cheese fondues: a cheddar and a Provençale. (The Provençale is based upon my favorite dish at one of my favorite restaurants in Aix. I still don’t know why they told me what was in it, but because they did I am doomed to eternally fail to replicate it.) Dessert would be a no-brainer: a double-recipe of my mother’s ganache, which makes a splendid chocolate fondue.
And I had about 36 hours to pull it all together.
Despite my careful preparation, things started to go downhill almost as soon as the guests arrived.
I served the beef fondue first. Despite the best efforts of Sterno, it stubbornly refused to return to the nice, rolling boil it had obligingly reached mere moments before. I had 17 hungry, hopeful people sitting around my mother’s table not cooking beef as they watched broth not boil. Uh-oh.
Springing into action, I threw the prepared ingredients for the Provençale into a pot: two cheeses, capers, cornichons, tomato paste, herbes de provence and healthy doses of both millk and white wine. The Provençale responded to my desperate enthusiasm by turning into cheese soup. No amount of begging, prayer or stealthily-added cornstarch seemed to have any effect on its viscosity. After a while, one of the newcomers told me to go eat while she stirred. I refused to admit defeat and moved on to the cheddar fondue while she hopefully but warily stirred the Provençale sludge.
As I added flour to the melted butter in a new pot, I was briefly amused that the cheddar recipe called for equal amounts of each. I added milk and let it heat up. It wasn’t until the mixture began to thicken that I found myself thinking of Michael Ruhlman.
One of my brother’s friends had highly recommended “The Making of a Chef,” which I greatly enjoyed reading on a recent trip. Mr. Ruhlman spends a fair amount of the book debating the proper color a roux should attain to make a superior stock.
I realized with a jolt that I had just made a roux, of all things. Roux — thickening agent — ah ha! The thing I so desperately needed was bubbling benignly in my mother’s wok. I tried to explain my discovery in French as I poured the hopeless Provençale mass into the foundation of the cheddar fondue.
To my shock, it thickened. Thickened! Not into a proper stringy fondue but into a reasonable facsimile thereof. I put it on the table, people ate it, I quickly made the cheddar fondue and joined them. We had a lovely evening.
Note to self: fondue without roux leads to rue. That Ophelia chick knew what she was talking about.