Fondle my sweaters? No, I said fondue the cheddar.

I’m headed back to Richmond to help my dad in recovering from his second back surgery. Actually, I am currently in the Cleveland airport having a glass of sauvignon blanc to make the most of my layover. I hope there’s time for a second glass. I haven’t quite recovered from the medical emergency someone had mid-flight from LA. It was the first time I had ever heard someone say, “is there a doctor on board”, in any context. But I feel like hearing it over a loud speaker, 14 zillion miles above the ground, while I am sandwiched in the middle seat with my knees touching the seat back in front of me, is probably the worst time. Additionally, you should know that - for me - the period of time between the plane landing and my feet carrying me off the plane, is by far, the most agonizing 74962 minutes of travel. So imagine how we all had to stay in our seats an additional 28465 years as the paramedics met us on the tarmac to assist the ailing flyer. Not happy times.

So yes. Maybe even 3 glasses of wine.

Tonight Dad and I are staying in for dinner. I’d rather go out. But he is feeling a little scared about his surgery tomorrow and wants to keep it local (comfy and snuggly). He tells me it’s really rainy and cold there. We will make beef stew.

We all throw the term comfort food around quite a bit (and certainly in the autumn and winter months) but usually to reference something filling and hearty. Fried chicken, meatloaf, chili, mac and cheese, potatoes and stews are a few standard comfort foods. But we all have our own dishes that literally make us feel comfortable, safe, and warm. Food that feels like Mom tucking you into bed at night. These also usually need to be dishes that you can prepare fairly easily, or at least, that you know how to make. Something that you’re comfortable with.

April came over for dinner the other night and, as you may recall, she is a vegetarian. I am often stumped with menu planning for her because vegetarian meals don’t usually feel like they have a main course. And no, I am not going to make a faux meat, football-shaped concoction. 

In reverence to Gourmet’s demise I dug up a recipe from their November, 2008 issue and did some re-working. It is a beautiful centerpiece to any meal and also works well as a shared side dish. I kept it pretty standard for April - but gave it a major overhaul after, using chicken stock rather than vegetable, and adding a number of my own touches.

What I am referring to are individual, roasted sugar pumpkins stuffed with a strata of toasted baguette, aged gruyere and Emmental, and a creamy mixture of chicken stock, allspice and a dry rosé. What you get is a fondue-soufflé-like, bread pudding-ness inside of that roasted pumpkin. Each spoonful has a bite of the rich cheesiness with the roasted pumpkin scraped from the sides. It’s pretty amazing, totally comforting, snuggly, warm, substantial and delicious. It’s like a bear hug. It’s also surprisingly easy to prepare. I will serve this lovable, hug of a dish for my dad during his recovery in beautiful, chilly Virginia.

You can substitute the sugar pumpkin here with an acorn or kabocha squash. You could even use one large pumpkin that everyone can be served from, which is more in the style of traditional fondue. This recipe doubles or triples very easily.

Roast Pumpkin with Cheese “Fondue”
(adapted from Gourmet November, 2008)

Serves 2 (as main course) or 4 (as a side dish)

1/2 (7-inch) baguette, cut into 1/2-inch slices
2 small sugar pumpkins
3/4 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon grated allspice
2 Tablespoons dry rosé wine
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh sage, chopped
1 1/4 cups coarsely grated Gruyère
1 1/4 cups coarsely grated Emmental
1 Tablespoon olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in lower third.

Toast baguette slices in 1 layer on a baking sheet in oven until tops are crisp (bread will still be pale), about 7 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool.

Remove top of pumpkin by cutting a circle around stem with a small sharp knife. Scrape out seeds and any loose fibers from inside pumpkin with a spoon (including top of pumpkin; reserve seeds for another use if desired). Season inside of pumpkin with 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Whisk together cream, broth, rosé & allspice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a bowl. Mix together cheeses, shallot, garlic and sage in another bowl.

Put a layer of toasted bread in bottom of pumpkin, then cover with about 1/2 cup cheese and about 1/4 cup cream mixture. Continue layering bread, cheese, and cream mixture until pumpkin is filled to about 1/2 inch from top, using all of cream mixture. (You may have some bread and cheese left over.)

Cover pumpkin with top and put in an oiled small roasting pan. Brush outside of pumpkin all over with olive oil. Bake until pumpkin is tender and filling is puffed, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

Note: Pumpkins can be filled 2 hours before baking and chilled.

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