[One of my favorite people in the food world–actually, in the world period–is the brilliant writer/chef/pastry chef Gina DePalma, author of Dolce Italiano and former pastry chef at Babbo. If you’re not following her on Twitter or reading her blog, you really should; it’s excellent. And here she is with a sauce that’ll make all of you cheese-lovers swoon. Take it away, Gina!]
When Adam approached me about making a contribution to his Sauce Week, it didn’t take long for fonduta to spring up in my head as an ideal candidate. A classic recipe from Italy’s Northwestern region of Piemonte, fonduta isn’t exactly a sauce, but more of dish itself, yet it has all the qualities of a great sauce – it naps and slicks seductively, adds richness and flavor, and is so darn good it is hard not to pour it directly down your throat.
Fonduta is a carefully composed, hot emulsion of butter, cheese, milk and egg yolks. The featured ingredient is Fontina Valdostana, a creamy, aged, DOP* cow’s milk cheese from Val D’Aosta, the small Alpine region just northwest of Piemonte where cows outnumber humans and Fontina is a form of regional pride. Although fonduta bears some resemblance to the fondue of its Swiss and French neighbors, the Piemontese are careful to point out its distinctive differences. There are no flavor agents like wine or kirsch that compete with the purity of the dairy products, and the consistency is thinner than fondue. No flour or starch is added, and the egg yolks are used to enrich the flavor as much as to thicken the silky texture. As with most things Italian, fonduta is about highlighting the integrity of the finest local ingredients.
The first step to making fonduta is a trek to a cheese shop or Italian market for the best Fontina Valdostana money can buy. Fontina comes in a range of ages; a younger cheese is floral and bright in flavor, while one with a bit of maturity is more burnished in color with a deeper flavor and a degree of funk; you should taste the cheese to see which end of the spectrum you prefer (I like just a bit of funk). Make sure to get enough cheese to account for trimming the rind before measuring it.
A key point in the recipe is soaking the grated shreds of cheese in milk at room temperature for 4 hours. During this time the cheese will plump and absorb the milk, enabling it to melt more smoothly into the butter. In my recipe below, I add a few tablespoons of heavy cream to the bowl, because Italian milk is a wee bit richer than ours and a small spot of cream gives the necessary boost.
The next step is to melt the butter slowly in a saucepan, then gradually add the milk-soaked cheese, stirring all the while and controlling the heat carefully.
When everything is melted and smooth, and wisps of steam have just started to rise from the surface, stir in the egg yolks gently but quickly, and continue heating and stirring until the fonduta thickens.
After seasoning with a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper, the fonduta is ready to serve without hesitation. Fonduta is not generally something to make ahead, but you can hold it for an hour or two in a bain marie.
The most classic way to serve fonduta is with truffles – fonduta con tartufo – a prudent ladle into shallow bowl covered with shavings from a prized, white truffle from Alba and some lightly toasted bread. The origins of this dish may have come from the truffle market itself. Traders from the mountains would travel south to Alba and barter for the coveted tubers with their renowned cheese, perfectly aged to coincide with truffle season in October and November. It makes sense that the two ingredients would eventually be merged in such simple but regal fare. I wish I could provide that heavenly picture for you (and for me), but I’m a girl that lives on a budget and about 4,000 miles from Alba.
But I will not allow my lack of access to white truffles be an excuse not to enjoy the many other wonderful and equally authentic ways of serving fonduta. My favorite pairing is with vegetables, over or under everything from roasted butternut squash to sautéed spinach. In Piemonte, springtime means fonduta with tender new asparagus, or pooled beneath a slice of vegetable and herb torta. The Piemontese also like to use fonduta as a sauce for their fresh, hand-cut pasta threads known as tagliolini, but I tossed some perfectly al dente spaghetti with fonduta and fresh, snipped chives for a quicker version. Fonduta is also commonly spooned over rice and polenta; try either with a pan roast of woodsy mushrooms with shallot, garlic and thyme leaves.
You can dribble fonduta onto soft, scrambled egg or a chunky frittata, or over a tumble of sautéed potatoes and sweet peppers. At Babbo, I once even snuck fonduta onto my dessert menu, serving it with sweet apple fritters.
You can’t really go wrong with fonduta piemontese, it is so sinfully rich and flavorful and makes a memorable addition to the table. Just remember to use the best possible ingredients when making it, and resist the urge to guzzle your fonduta down in a fit of rapture. Unless you live alone. Not that I’ve ever done that…
8 ounces DOP Fontina Valdostana, rind removed
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
4 large egg yolks
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Shred the cheese on a box grater into a large bowl and pour over the milk and heavy cream. Set the bowl aside at room temperature for at least 2 hours, preferably 4 hours.
When you are ready to make the fonduta, place a medium-sized, shallow saucepan or sauté pan over low heat and gently melt butter, stirring the butter as it gets foamy on top; do not allow the butter to brown in any hot spots. Add half of the cheese and milk mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon as the cheese melts. Add the rest of the cheese and milk, stir until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
Stir in the egg yolks and switch to a whisk. Keep whisking the fonduta constantly over the lowest heat possible, never allowing it to bubble. After a few minutes, wisps of steam will arise and the fonduta will begin to lightly coat the sides of the pan and cling to the surface of a spoon. Season to taste with a bit of salt and freshly ground pepper and serve it as soon as possible in a warmed serving dish or individual bowls, or use as desired as a sauce.
To hold the fonduta, pour it into a heavy, ceramic or glass bowl, cover that bowl with plastic wrap and place it in a shallow pan with a few inches of water just off the boil. It can be held for one or two hours.
Fonduta does not reheat well; it is best to make and use the entre amount if possible. If you do refrigerate it, do not allow it to boil when reheating, or it will break. This recipe can be halved or doubled.
Makes about 2 ½ cups of fonduta
*DOP stands for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, or Protected Designation of Origin; it indicates that certain foods and products have originated in a specific geographical place in Italy, usually a town or highly restricted surrounding regional area, and possess unique characteristics or qualities directly linked to that place of origin.