Cheese sauces take many forms, and there are lots of regional variations. Some are based on a white sauce (Béchamel) and are therefore flour-thickened. Others use eggs and/or cream. Still others are seasoned with beer or wine. Many cheese sauce recipes involve several different types of cheese.
Whatever recipe is chosen, you will need to make sure that you have picked a variety of cheese that melts well. Some cheeses separate when they are heated, leaving a rather greasy, gooey mess. If in doubt, try a bit of your cheese on a piece of bread under the broiler – if it softens and browns nicely it should be fine in your cheese sauce.
The classic French type of cheese sauce is called Sauce Mornay. It is a Béchamel sauce with cheese melted into it. Usually, half Gruyère and half Parmesan cheese are used, though different combinations of Gruyère, Emmental cheese, or white Cheddar appear in different recipes.
My favourite Sauce Mornay recipe is enriched with egg yolks and cream to make an absolutely luscious result. Of course you can omit the egg yolks and cream for a less expensive (and less fattening) version. Here is the recipe:
- 30 g butter
- 30 g plain flour
- 500 ml milk
- 3 egg yolks
- 50 ml cream
- 100 g grated cheese (Emmenthal, Gruyère or Cheddar)
- pinch of nutmeg
- salt and pepper
Make a Béchamel sauce, using the butter, flour and milk. Season to taste with pepper and nutmeg (no salt until the cheese is added).
Mix egg yolks and cream together in a bowl, then add the mixture to the Bechamel, whisking continuously. Let the sauce simmer for a minute or so, then remove from the heat and shake in the cheese, whisking all the time until the cheese has melted.
Taste for seasoning especially for salt, and add whatever your taste tells you is needed.
Serve over pasta, fish or vegetables.
The term fondue simply means “melted”, and in the traditional Swiss fondue the cheeses used are one or a combination of Gruyère, Emmenthal and possibly Raclette. It can also be made successfully with generic “Swiss” style cheese or even Jarlsberg. The cheese is melted in white wine and flavored with Kirschwasser. Then long forks are used to swirl chunks of crusty bread around in the cheese sauce, which is kept warm over a table burner.
Kirsch or Kirschwasser is a distilled spirit of cherries and is clear. Some recipes call for cherry brandy liqueur as a substitute. I have not tried using regular cherry brandy in a cheese fondue, but my belief is that cherry brandy will make the fondue too sweet as it contains a fair amount of sugar.
Welsh Rarebit (often pronounced “rabbit” and both pronunciations are considered correct, so use whatever your friends say) is a concoction of cheese melted in a white sauce made with beer which is poured on toast, then the whole lot is browned in the oven.
Welsh Rarebit has a relative which originated in Kentucky and is known as a “Hot Brown”. This uses a cheese sauceas one of the main ingredients. In this it differs from the French “croque-monsieur” and “croque-madame”, which are effectively variations of cheese-on-toast, as they use slices of solid cheese rather than a cheese sauce.
This is an extremely rich sauce used primarily as a sauce for pasta, including gnocchi. Be aware that there is a LOT of fat and salt in this type of dish (cheese has lots of salt)!