By Leslie Kelly

Raclette was the gooey centerpiece of one of the coolest party I've ever been to, a cheese-centric feast with origins in the Swiss and French Alps. While it's not as well known as its cousin, fondue, its popularity is spreading across the globe, especially during winter months.

Insider's view of a raclette grill. Photo by Katie Johnson

The beauty of this beast is that it's a DIY project for your dinner guests. After prepping cheese and bites that complement, hosts serve up instructions, inviting everyone to be as creative as they like. A cheese fan who prefers the minimalist approach? No prob, go for straight-up cheese.

At the heart of the experience is the grill and the semi-hard mountain cheese that turns molten when tucked under the heating element for a few minutes. Yes, raclette redefines grilled cheese, and if one bite doesn't turn you into a fan, then you need another glass of Pinot blanc.

Raclette Essentials

  • Cheese — Plan on around a half-pound per person. Raclette cheese is typically available only during winter months, and is made in three main styles, with goat's milk, sheep's milk and cow's milk. There's also smoked versions. Cheese should be cut into bite-size pieces that will fit in the raclette grill pans.
  • Steamed potatoes — Serve them whole, letting guests slice them in half or in pieces, making for a perfect landing surface for the bubbly, hot cheese.
  • Baguettes — Slice and serve the rustic bread, which can be toasted or layered with all sorts of other ingredients.
  • Pickles — Classic dill pickles or naturally fermented sour pickles offer a bright counterpoint to the rich cheese.
  • Charcuterie — Ham, salami and other cured meat marry well with cheese.
  • Roasted garlic — This strong allium usually divides diners into love-it-or-hate-it camps, but even haters need to try it smeared on bread that's then topped with cheese. Because, yum!
  • Apples — Don't forget to dip slices in lemon juice-spiked water to prevent browning.
  • Sun-dried tomatoes — Another note of acid that keeps the richness in check.
  • Walnuts — Perfect partner for apples and cheese.
  • Sliced mushrooms. Place a slice of cheese on top, and sun-dried tomatoes and this masterpiece might remind you of a bomb pizza.
  • TBD — Feel free to add anything that goes well with cheese from dried figs to apricot chutney and beyond.

You're The Cheese Whiz

After assembling all the ingredients and before everyone sits down to start, a few tips to share:

  • Don't overload the pan. There's nothing worse than catching your cheese on fire when it hits the heating element.
  • Take your time. This isn't a race to finish everything on the table. Relax and take your time. Raclette parties can last for hours.
  • If you're going to use the flat-top grill surface to warm meats or bread, be sure and have proper ventilation or smoke might get in your eyes.
  • Keep your eye on the prize. When the grill's red hot, cheese melts quickly, in 2 minutes or less.
  • Wine, beer and hard cider make excellent partners for this spread, but you'll know you're in a European's presence if they pour shots of German schnapp's toward the end of the evening. It's been said that alcohol will give you a second wind so you can hit the raclette grill one last time.
Photo by Vanessa Greaves

Tools For Success

Most grills have eight pans arranged on a rectangle-shaped surface, but there's also a circle-shaped model with six pans that's ideal for round tables. While it's ideal for every guest to have their own pan, if you need to squeeze a few more, ask couples to buddy up and share, or do some matchmaking. Because wouldn't that be the best way to meet cute?

There is a work around if you don't have a raclette grill. At Le Pichet in Seattle, the kitchen prepares raclette in cast iron skillets, warming it in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, until it starts bubbling. The hot pan is placed on a trivet in the middle of the table, and diners scoop it onto the traditional accompaniments, pictured below.

Le Pichet's Raclette. GIF by Leslie Kelly

Looking for more grilled cheese inspiration? Right this way.