For those who have let it lapse, Valentine's Day is a celebration worth reviving. Many people, of course, have less than pleasant memories of the day they were left without a sweetheart, a card or worst of all, chocolate.\nThe trick is to transform Valentine's Day into your own day of merriment. I suggest an intimate party of very good friends, lots of fizzy beverages and an armful of favorite videos. And for the ultimate combination of sensual and celebratory events, make it a fondue party.\nFondue dining began, not as an indulgence, but rather as a way of life. During the frigid Swiss winters, villages and towns were isolated by snow-covered mountain valleys. Fresh food was a scarcity, and people had to rely on locally made foods.\nCheese was one such local and abundant food. During winter months, the cheeses made in the summer became dryer and more unpalatable. Out of necessity came fondue. The name "fondue" is of French derivation and means "to melt" or "to blend." This was exactly what the stale cheese needed to become more digestible. The cheese was melted and blended with local wines and seasonings, then served in an earthenware pot called the caquelon. The transformation was enchanting -- even stale heels of bread tasted delicious when swirled in the creamy cheese sauce.\nFondue gained tremendous popularity in the 1970s, along with bell bottoms and polyester. But unlike other '70s trends, its appeal never waned, and for good reason: Fondue is luxurious, delicious, easy to make, impressive and lots of fun to boot. For a Valentine's Day gathering filled with endless oohs and aahs, it is the only way to go.\nMost cheese fondue begins by heating white wine or milk until hot. Next, shredded cheese is gently stirred in until it melts. All cheese fondue recipes should contain some sort of starch -- preferably potato flour or cornstarch. If you come across a recipe that does not contain starch, you can add some to protect your fondue from separating and curdling.\nFor best results, cheese fondue should be prepared in a pan on the stove (or in the microwave), then transferred to a fondue pot to stay warm while you eat it. If the fondue is too thin, turn up the heat a little and stir rapidly until some of the liquid evaporates. Be careful not to let it boil. If it begins to get too thick while everyone is busy eating, add some more milk or wine, turn up the heat and stir vigorously until the fondue is smooth.\nDespite its Swiss origins, contemporary cheese fondue does not have to contain Swiss cheeses such as gruyere or emmentaler. For variety, incorporate the flavors of other countries into your fondue. For example, use cheddar or pepper jack cheese in place of the cheese blend suggested in the recipes, then add a drizzle of lime juice and some heat (chili powder, jalapenos or chipotle chilies to taste) for a Southwestern flare. You can also substitute 1/4 cup white wine or sherry for part of the milk and crumble in 1/4 cup bleu cheese for a French flavor. Fondue is by nature eccentric: No two are ever alike.\nMost dessert fondues are even simpler than cheese fondues. Chocolate is always a classic, but for a new-fangled twist, try the tiramisu fondue. To feel safe and warm on a cold, wet night, all you need is a few cake or brownie cubes dipped into either of these sweet options.\nFor a gathering as foolproof as the fondue, make a checklist before the party. Several days ahead of time, list and purchase all the ingredients, buy or borrow the needed fondue pots from friends (you will be surprised how many people have one or two to lend), and decide on serving dishes and decorations.\nGet your invitees in on all aspects of the action. For example, delegate the dippers -- have some people bring cake and brownie cubes, others bread and vegetables -- while you steer the fondue assembly. Decorate to your heart's content (from kitschy pink and white hearts and cupids to cozy-sophisticated) or make the decorating part of the party itself.\nGather your friends around a small table to present and serve the fondue, or create a nest on the floor with ample pillows and napkins. Place the fondue or fondues center stage, and start sharing some true love and affection with your assemblage of friends.
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