Watching bubbly, melty cheese slide off a small broiling tray onto sliced new potatoes and grilled vegetables is satisfying, but the camaraderie that comes while sitting around a raclette party grill is the perfect ingredient for great evenings with friends and family.
Raclette is an Alpine tradition that moved into Germany, finding a home at New Year’s Eve tables. This is where I first learned about the tradition — from a German friend whose small family has three raclette grills to ensure everyone has enough opportunity to fill their plates and bellies.
I was instantly fascinated at this “not-exactly-fondue” cheese … experience. It is an experience, one that draws you in for more until you simply cannot eat another bite, even though you want to.
Derived from the French word for “to scrape,” raclette is a cheese, a dish and the name of the machine to make the dish. The traditional preparation involves melting the surface of a raclette cheese wheel near a roaring fire and scraping it onto sliced boiled potatoes. Cornichon is a popular and traditional accompaniment and helps cut through the richness of the cheese.
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If you are not keen on open-fire cooking, raclette party grills are available for home use and can be purchased in specialty shops or online here in the United States. They range from around $60 for Hamilton Beach to well over $300 for other brands. A good median price point comes from Swissmar, the American partner for German brands known for their raclette and fondue equipment and accessories.
Raclette party grills are essentially indoor table-top grills that include a grill plate or griddle stone atop a heating element. Below the heating element are indentations that hold individual broiler trays with handles that you use to melt your own cheese. Many models also include small scrapers to help move cheese from the broiler tray to your plate.
Place the grill in the center of your dining table, making sure you are close to a power outlet for electric grills. Everyone fends for themselves during a raclette party, much like with fondue parties. Meats, seafood or fish along with vegetables can be grilled while cheese is melted in a broiler tray. The cheese is then scraped from the tray onto your plate of cooked food and enjoyed with a variety of accompaniments like pickles and cocktail onions.
If you do not own a raclette party grill and still want to experience the dish at home, your oven and a few small cast iron or oven-safe pans will do the trick. Place a couple slices of raclette cheese in each pan and into a hot oven — 450 F — for a few minutes until it melts, then slide it out on top of your boiled potatoes and grilled meat.
While raclette cheese is the traditional and preferred ingredient, it is not readily available everywhere in the United States. Essentially, you want a semi-hard cheese that melts easily. Raclette cheese is similar in taste and texture to gruyere, which is a good substitute. Emmental, fontina and general Swiss cheese varieties can also be used to provide a more traditional experience. If you prefer a less pungent cheese, butterkase, farmer cheese and even white cheddar are suitable substitutes. The broiler pans are designed to hold cheese slices, but work just as well with an ounce of shredded cheese.
For those who like to imbibe while entertaining, raclette pairs well with a dry white wine. You want a wine that balances the richness of the cheese; sauvignon blanc is a common choice. However, chardonnay and pinot gris are also good choices. A dry German Riesling is another option to try.
Gathering around a raclette grill is a wonderful way to spend an evening with friends and family, especially in celebration of special occasions or holidays. Party preparation is easy on the host because most items are prepared at the table and everyone serves themselves. For an even easier affair, ask your guests to each bring a small side accompaniment to share. It will be fun to see what everyone chooses.