AS THE WEATHER COOLS and the rigorous demands of holiday entertaining loom, I’m pre-emptively declaring raclette the MVP of the season. There are few meals as fun, flexible and impressive that require so little labor.
Raclette is both the name of a delicious melting cheese and a way to serve it. The firm, brine-washed cow’s milk cheese has roots in the Swiss and French Alps. Its dense, golden paste shares flavors with fellow alpine cheeses such as Gruyère and Comté, ranging from mild, grassy and slightly nutty to full-bodied with oniony, meaty and brothy tones. The slightly sticky pink rind is meant to be eaten.
The word derives from the French verb racler, “to scrape”—and there’s not much more to the preparation. Traditionally, wheels of the cheese were halved or quartered and heated fireside, and the melted cheese was simply scraped onto a variety of accompaniments; today, many raclette lovers opt for melting it tabletop, with an appliance designed for the purpose. Consider the format the Kama Sutra of cheese, with limitless possibilities for pleasurable combinations. Boiled or roasted baby potatoes and bread are standard. Cooked sausages or cured meats provide a secondary protein. And a mix of raw, roasted and pickled vegetables helps to cut through all the dairy.
You’ll find a range of raclette machines on the market, from candle-powered pans that run a reasonable $10-$25 to electric melters ranging from $40-$500. Slices of raclette can also be melted in a nonstick pan, but sitting around a table and melting with friends is a big part of the charm of the experience, so a small investment in a basic melter is a good idea. I offer a couple of suggestions below.
Several domestic producers of raclette-style cheese draw inspiration from the European originals. Vermont’s Spring Brook Farm Reading is one of our best: a smooth and dense cheese with a subtle fruitiness and a healthy hit of salinity. Most cheese shops carry either a Swiss or French Raclette, and likely an American version. Why not buy a few different wedges and serve them side by side, for a cheesy international summit?
GOOD TO GOO / A Raclette Starter Pack
THE CHEESE Not only does Spring Brook Farm offer a terrific cow’s milk raclette called Reading ($23 for 1 pound, saxelbycheese.com); through the nonprofit Farms for City Kids program, its dairy operation also serves as an “agricultural classroom” for urban schoolchildren, a cause you can support by eating cheese. For the budget-minded, French raclette ($16 for 1 pound, murrayscheese.com) can’t be beat. At supermarkets across the country, you’ll find the Swiss raclette imported by Emmi Roth (about $16 for 1 pound).
THE GEAR A good entry-level melter, the Boska Partyclette XL ($80, boska.com) has eight individual pans heated by tea lights. Ready to really commit? Boska recently introduced the electric Raclette Quattro Concrete ($150, boska.com), a stylish model that holds a quarter-wheel wedge.