In the end it will be the cheese that kills me. Not the red meat. Not the gin. Well, maybe the gin, a little, but mostly the cheese: hard or soft, mild or stinky, I never met a cheese I didn’t like.
The Grey Barn Creamery on Martha’s Vineyard puts out an astonishing triple-cream, bloomy-rind, cow’s-milk round called Eidolon that might be my north star for cheese deliciousness. But even individually wrapped slices of processed American cheese have their place in my pantheon of fromages, specifically on Christopher’s Sunday morning bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches.
When my brother Brit invited us to join him for Christmas in France’s Haute-Savoie, he had in mind a family gathering built around black diamond ski runs — the region is in the Alps. But I was thinking more Reblochon and Tomme de Savoie, both stars in my cheese-loving universe. I started looking for tickets.
Our journey to the village of Sixt Fer-à-Cheval was harrowing. As we set out on our well-planned route from Borgio Verrezi, where Christopher and I rented a Fiat, the car’s navigation system informed us that an “unexpected event” (which turned out to be an avalanche) had rendered the direct route “unavailable.”
The rerouting added hours to our trip. The sun disappeared, and it began to sleet. After winding over 500 kilometers on tiny mountain roads, we pulled up to the chalet, rattled but relieved. The warm embrace of family helped. And so did the cold bottle of Champagne my brother had thought to provision.
There were two restaurants in the tiny town. The name of the first — Le Tortillard, a reference to a slow-moving train that follows a tedious route — should have put us on alert. But we sat down under its bright fluorescent lights to a heavy metal beat. Our host, hair styled in the manner of Medusa, had clearly started the cocktail hour without us. He greeted us with a snarl.
“Perhaps you would prefer ballroom dancing music,” he said when my brother asked whether the music’s volume could be lowered so that we could hear. We made our departure just as a brawl between two habitués erupted in the bar and hurried across the street to L’Auberge de la Feuille d’Erable.
There, a smiling hostess ushered us into a candlelit dining room that smelled of the pine boughs that decorated the walls. Aperitifs quickly appeared and a tartiflette combining Roblochon cheese with potatoes and lardons came into focus on the menu. So did a gratin of onions, lardons, crème fraiche, a mix of cheeses, and crozetes — a small, flat, buckwheat pasta. I settled on a simple fondue Savoyard.
The garlic- and wine-scented melted Gruyere fortified me for one of our family’s most important holiday traditions: planning the next meal. Still ahead at that point was the Réveillon — a dinner that lasts until daybreak is a Christmas Eve tradition in France but also in New Orleans, which we more or less count as our home country.
Back in Truro on a rainy late-winter day and packing for our annual trip to NOLA, my mind drifted back to that cheese-rich menu in France. With our friends Necee and Jim coming to dinner, I was thinking about a tartiflette when I ran across a savory winter-squash-and-onion pie topped with the cheeses you’d find in a fondue.
Being on the Outer Cape instead of the Haute-Savoie would mean making some substitutions. I found Gruyère but not Raclette. Also, Emmenthaler will do (or the ubiquitous Jarlsberg). The recipe was one of Israeli-born British chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s, and his genius is often about what’s on the side. In this case, the pickled serrano peppers would have to be jalapeños. But even our grocery stores stock ready-to-use phyllo dough, usually in the freezer case.
One other change: I found the cinnamon in the recipe overwhelming and have swapped in a pinch of nutmeg.
When you pull the pie from the oven you’ll have a gorgeously browned, cheese-laden dish that is fit for a celebration. Though I suppose an argument over who gets the last slice could cause a fistfight.
Winter Squash, Onion, and Fondue Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted, plus extra
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
2 jalepeño peppers sliced into very thin rounds, seeds and all
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 small (2 lb.) butternut or other winter squash, peeled, halved, deseeded and cut into ½-inch slices
A pinch of grated nutmeg
3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus extra
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and cut into five ½-inch-thick slices
6 garlic cloves, minced with a large pinch of kosher salt to make a paste
½ cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp. fresh thyme leaves, roughly chopped, plus 5 extra sprigs
1 cup heavy cream
1 large egg plus 2 yolks
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
4 oz. Gruyère, grated (about 1⅓ lightly packed cups)
4 oz. Emmenthaler, grated (about 1⅓ lightly packed cups)
7 sheets phyllo pastry, thawed if frozen
- Heat the oven to 450° F. Butter and line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper. (A deep pie dish will also work.)
- Place sliced peppers in a small bowl, stir in the vinegar and ⅛ teaspoon salt, and set aside to pickle.
- Put the squash, nutmeg, 2 tablespoons oil, ½ teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper in a large bowl and toss. Transfer squash to a parchment-lined baking sheet and arrange more or less in one layer. Add the onion rounds to the same bowl along with 1½ teaspoons oil, ⅛ 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 halfway through. Roast until softened and well browned. Set aside to cool. Turn the oven temperature down to 375 ° F.
- Meanwhile, warm the remaining tablespoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until just beginning to color, about 90 seconds. Add the wine and chopped thyme and cook to reduce by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the cream, egg and egg yolks, cornstarch, ½ teaspoon salt, and plenty of pepper. Stir in both cheeses and the cooled wine mixture and set aside.
- Lay one sheet of phyllo out onto a clean work surface and brush liberally with some of the melted butter. Gently lay the sheet over the prepared springform or pie pan, carefully pushing it down to fit into the bottom and sides, while trying not to tear the dough; allow the excess to hang over the pan. Repeat with the remaining 6 sheets of phyllo, rotating them slightly so that the overhang falls at different angles.
- Layer two-thirds of the squash on the bottom of the pie with 3 onion rounds, then pour the cheese mixture on top. Add the remaining squash and onion rounds and the thyme sprigs, pushing them gently into the cheese layer but not completely submerging them.
- Fold in the overhanging phyllo dough, scrunching it so it creates a 1-inch border around the sides of the pie, with the center exposed; take care that the parchment stays securely against the side of the pan. Brush the scrunched-up phyllo with the remaining melted butter.
- Place pan on a baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes. Carefully release the outer rim of the springform pan (if using), 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. If using a pie pan simply bake the pie for the entire time. Set aside to cool for about 20 minutes. If you’ve baked this in a springform pan, transfer the pie to a board or serving platter. If using a pie pan, serve directly from the pan. Garnish with the pickled chili mixture the remaining sprigs of thyme.