Merry and Bright: “Christmas dreams come true when they’re dreamed by two.” -From a Hallmark Keepsake Ornament
It’s pretty unusual for me to be blasé about the holidays – especially now, given that we live in the heart of Christmas Tree Country, and people are flocking from all over to choose and cut their very own of North Carolina’s best. Usually, with Turkey Day done and all its lovely autumnal offerings giving way to the reds and greens of the upcoming month, I’m knee-deep with childlike wonder in what-new-exciting-things-do-I-want-to-bake/cook/decorate now? But, instead of skipping around and chirping excitedly doing my It’s Finally December! dance, I’m subdued (quit laughing!) and very low-key (seriously, stop); and frankly, a little bummed. It’s been so bad and uncharacteristic of me that Adam pulled the “In Case Of Emergency Ornament Card.” This, of course, refers to the tacky 1995 Hallmark “Our First Christmas” plastic decoration we bought all those years ago. I cry every, single year we ceremoniously place it on the tree. It’s so sentimental to me that the sheer mention of the thing any time, any month can send me into full tear-jerking mode. Even that didn’t work this time. Then, with my husband’s gentle nudging, he helped me realize that it’s not the holiday I’m unexcited about. It’s the thought of a long winter that’s making me so blue. And he’s right. I think I’m still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from that last brutal Ice Age run that began the week before Christmas and did not let up until April. We did not see the ground for four (count ‘em!) four months. I can’t handle another arctic stretch like that.
So, I haven’t been myself in the merry and bright department. Until today. I don’t know what flipped the jolly switch, but, once again, I felt the frosty surge of cheer coursing through my veins and the winter frown turned upside-down. I enthusiastically chucked all the decaying pumpkins in the woods (was that fun – Skwoosh! Ka-splat! Ha!) and stashed anything orange hued or gourd-shaped. And I started planning our tree trimming party. We always have fondue – the pot, the forks, the whole works. But, after an odd serendipitous string of Google searches (say that fast five times), I came across a recipe for Baked Fontina from Red Cat Restaurant in New York. It’s like fondue but made in a cast-iron skillet. Fondue without breaking a sweat or digging out that dusty pot you use maybe once a year? No wine or Kir or flour, either? And no sterno? So simple – just cubes of creamy Italian Val d’Aosta fontina cheese with a seasoned support team, broiled until bubbly and gooey, then scooped out with crusty bread. Are you kidding me? I’m not one to latch onto someone else’s recipe – but this? They had me at cheese – and, oh, it was so on!
My version is tweaked to death because the original called for way too much oil, garlic and rosemary for my taste; but the cheese is the perfect choice. If the thought of golden baked cheesiness makes you melt, then this is for you. A most easy, delicious start to your holiday season. Now, go get your merry on!
Cast-Iron Skillet Fondue
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 large garlic clove, finely minced
- 1-1/2 pounds Italian fontina, rind removed and small-diced
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- crusty French baguette, for dipping
- Position the oven rack 5 inches away from the heat element and preheat the broiler. In a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, drizzle in the olive oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan; sprinkle in the garlic; tumble in the cheese, season with the thyme and some salt and pepper. Broil until the cheese is melted and bubbly, about 5 to 7 minutes. Serve immediately with the bread.
Planning: I see no reason you couldn’t get the dish ready early and refrigerate it until your guests arrive. You may need a few more minutes under the broiler straight out of the fridge, though. This is a great starter, super with cocktails and a romantic fireside supper with a crisp green salad on the side.
Presentation: Indulging my unhealthy obsession for miniature-sized serving pieces, I serve this in individual baby cast-iron skillets that you can buy at kitchen specialty stores. Evenly divide the ingredients between 4 small skillets; bake as directed. Or, serve this as a one-pot wonder. Bake it and take it straight to the table for a family-style appetizer and watch everybody dig in! A flurry of chopped parsley on top is a nice, tasty touch.