Fondue part of holiday rituals

I’m always intrigued by holiday food traditions, and I find the meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to be among the most interesting. That’s because the menus aren’t etched in stone — as they are at Thanksgiving, for instance — and each family has an opportunity to ritualize different foods.

On Christmas Day, some families stick with turkey or ham as the mainstay of the big meal, while others go for something like a standing rib roast, a goose, Cornish hens or a pork tenderloin. But whatever they choose, many families eat the same thing year in and year out.

On Christmas Eve most people choose a lighter menu. When Christmas Eve falls on a workday, the cook sometimes has to scurry around to prepare the meal after a day on the job. In any case, though, we tend to avoid heavy food the night before the holiday. At my house, we usually eat potato and leek soup, salad and sourdough bread on Christmas Eve.

One branch of my family does fondue every Christmas Eve. I was reminded of this last week when I visited my former sister-in-law, Jeannie Mellinger, in Durham, N.C. As is the case with many family traditions, hers has a story behind it.

Because fondue can be a drippy mess when people are reaching across the dining room table to dip, Jeannie started putting paper down at each person’s place, to protect the table cloth. Somewhere along the line, it became part of the Christmas Eve fondue routine for the kids to draw their own holiday placemats on the paper. The kids are all grown up but the tradition persists.

Following are two of her favorite fondue recipes for Christmas Eve, and both came from an American Dairy Assn. booklet. For dipping, shrimp and bread cubes are good choices for both recipes, while dried figs also are a possibility for the first recipe and ravioli or tortellini work well with the second.

Honey Blue-Cheese Fondue

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon cornstarch

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 cups (about 8 ounces) blue or domestic gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped and toasted

In a small sauce pan heat cream and cornstarch over medium heat, add lemon juice. Cook and stir until mixture thickens. Add cheese, one spoonful at a time, stirring until cheese is melted before adding more. When all the cheese has been added, stir in honey.

Transfer fondue to a ceramic or enamel fondue pot, sprinkle with toasted walnuts and keep warm over a fondue burner. Serve immediately.

Makes 6 servings.

Red Pepper-Dill Swiss Fondue

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded Swiss cheese

1 1/2 cups (about 6 ounces) shredded domestic Gruyere or Gouda cheese

1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) grated Parmesan

2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 cup diced red pepper

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup vegetable or chicken broth

1 cup milk

1/4 cup lemon juice

2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped, or 2 teaspoons dried dill weed

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

salt and ground white pepper to taste

In a medium-size bowl toss the cheeses with the cornstarch.

In a medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan cook the red pepper in the butter over medium heat 2 to 3 minutes. Add the broth and milk and heat until barely simmering. Stir in the lemon juice. Add the cheese, a handful at a time, stirring until the cheese is melted before adding more. When all the cheese has been added, stir in the dill, nutmeg, salt and pepper.

Transfer fondue to an enamel or ceramic fondue pot and keep warm over a fondue burner. Serve immediately.

Makes 14 servings.

— When she’s not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.