The combination of wine and cheese is one that I particularly cherish. Often, instead of dinner or as a bedtime snack, I see my day off with a glass of Chianti and chunk of Parmesan or mature pecorino. I am obviously not the first to discover the power couple that is wine and cheese, but it works particularly well for me because, after a day of testing recipes, all I want is to tickle my taste buds without overloading my stomach.
Though it happened some time ago, I suspect that I first noticed the particular alchemy that happens when cheese meets wine during a ritual that took place in our home every couple of years, long before I was actually allowed wine. I am talking about the fondue ceremony, which many people over a certain respectable age may still remember.
I assume it was similar everywhere (unless you were living in Switzerland, I suppose): a dusty old set brought out from hibernation; cheese and wine bubbling away under ethanol; room smelling like incinerated cheap vodka; bread stuck on sticks; bread dunked; bread falling off sticks never to be found; cheese setting and sticking to the bottom of the pan; party over and fondue set tucked away for as long as it takes for the memory to fade.
You are right to detect a note of cynicism here, but it is true that I did start to enjoy wine, gradually, from one fondue night to another. The cheese (creamy, salty and rich) was an ideal vehicle for introducing a tender palate to the wonders of wine (acidic, bitter and complex). The two have never completely managed to disentangle themselves in my mind. On the rare occasion that I take a break from wine – say, for a short-lived New Year’s resolution – cheese seems to lose its point.
Though this may seem only to say something about me and my private flavour associations, the symbiosis between wine and cheese, at least in fondue, is validated on a chemical level as well. The tartaric acid in wine, and the wine’s diluting effect on the melted cheese, are essential for preventing the casein proteins in milk from clumping and creating the all-too-familiar sight of a cheese sauce seizing up and turning tight and stringy.
I love it when taste considerations are endorsed in this way by science but I am afraid that, in a cheese fondue, the wine doesn’t dilute the cheese quite enough to make it, at least for me, an everyday affair.
The fondue flavours that I like so much but can’t have too much of work best in dishes where the intensity of the mature cheese is moderated by vegetables, like in this butternut squash and fondue pie. For this time of the year, I chose a squash, its mellow sweetness blending effortlessly into the creamy sauce. Onion and garlic are brilliant additions at all times, their sulfur compounds cutting through fat like a knife.
On top of these vegetables, my fondue pie is served with a quick pickle of red chillies. This final flourish of acid and heat, though seemingly odd in this very Swiss context, does an excellent job finishing what the wine started: complementing cheese with acid, making you want more.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND FONDUE PIE WITH PICKLED RED CHILLIES
5tbsp/65g unsalted butter, melted, plus more for greasing
1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 red serrano chilli, very thinly sliced at an angle into rounds, seeds and all
Salt and black pepper
1 small butternut squash (800g), peeled, halved, deseeded and cut into thick half-moons
1 3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
3 tbsp and 1 ½tsp olive oil, plus extra for greasing
1 yellow onion, peeled and cut into 1½-centimetre-thick rounds
6 garlic cloves, crushed
120ml dry white wine
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped, plus 5 extra sprigs
240ml double cream
1 large egg plus 2 yolks
1 tbsp corn flour
125g Gruyère, grated
115 gs raclette, grated
7 sheets filo pastry (about 26x34 centimetres each, or similar), thawed if frozen
1. Heat the oven to 230 degrees Celsius. Grease and line the bottom and sides of a 23-centimetre springform cake tin with parchment paper.
2. Add the vinegar, chilli and 1/8 tsp salt to a small bowl, and set aside to pickle.
3. Add the butternut squash, cinnamon, 2 tablespoons oil, ½ teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper to a large bowl, and toss well to combine. Transfer squash to a parchment-lined baking sheet (tray) and arrange in one layer. Add the onion rounds to the same bowl along with 1½ teaspoons oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper, and toss gently to coat, keeping the onion rounds intact. Add the onions to the baking sheet with the squash and roast for 30 minutes, carefully turning the vegetables over halfway (keeping the onions intact), until softened and well browned. Set aside to cool slightly. Turn the oven temperature down to 190 degrees Celsius.
4. Meanwhile, add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the garlic and cook, stirring, until just beginning to colour, about 90 seconds. Add the wine and chopped thyme and cook until reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.
5. Add the cream, egg and egg yolks, cornflour, ½ teaspoon salt and plenty of pepper to a large bowl and whisk until smooth. Stir in both cheeses and the cooled wine mixture and set aside.
6. Lay one sheet of filo out onto a clean work surface and brush liberally with some of the melted butter. Lay the sheet over the prepared cake pan, carefully pushing it down to fit into the bottom and sides without tearing, allowing the excess to hang over the pan. Repeat with the remaining sheets of filo, rotating them slightly so that the overhang falls at a different angle. Add two-thirds of the squash to the base along with three onion rounds, then pour the cheese mixture on top. Add the remaining squash and onion rounds and three thyme sprigs, pushing them gently into the cheese layer but not completely submerging them.
7. Bring in the overhanging dough, scrunching it so it creates a three-centimetre border around the sides, with the centre exposed, taking care to make sure the parchment stays securely against the side of the pan. Brush the scrunched-up filo with the remaining melted butter.
8. Place onto a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Use a tea towel to carefully release the outer rim of the cake pan, discarding the parchment paper around the sides. Return the pie to the oven for another 20 minutes, or until the outsides are golden and cooked through. Set aside to cool for about 20 minutes.
9. To serve, transfer the pie to a board or serving platter. Spoon over the pickled chile mixture and garnish with the remaining two thyme sprigs. – New York Times.