This blogpost is my love letter to a sandwich; my billet-doux to one of the simplest, easiest meals/snacks/spiritual experiences that has ever graced my nonstick frying pan. I am referring of course to that fourth grade staple, the grilled cheese. There is something so magical about the buttery golden-brownness that crusts over the surface of a good piece of bread and the thick gooey consistency of a soft melting cheese. But I am not here to talk about that petrified piece of WonderBread you had slapped on your plate in your elementary school cafeterias. I am here to share with you an exploration into the endlessly miraculous possibilities of the so-called “grilled cheese”, and perhaps in some of you, reclaim the namesake of a sandwich that you might just have let slide behind the stove.
Sliced bread and cheese may sound like a simple, thoughtless process, but crafting that perfectly picturesque sandwich is not without its finer points. Let me alert you now: bleached white bread, although unnaturally fluffy, is not going to net you a positive grilling experience. Your cheese will end up surrounded by two crispy sheets of paper. And another warning: please, please, please don’t let that cheese come in a package that doesn’t even contain enough pure cheese to go without the label “cheese food”. These so-called “cheeses” (yes, I’m talking about your beloved American slices) rely on unnecessary salts and emulsifiers to craft some falsely colored milk masses into a consumable “cheese-related” product. Although they melt like no other, they are chemically engineered to do so, and a true “grilled cheese” will venture nowhere near these frauds.
There are hundreds of types of cheese out there, and certainly enough bread to match. All natural cheeses begin with a process of draining the moisture-laden whey away after the milk-protein, casein, has coagulated. That sounds gross and scientific, but hey, cheese is a living science experiment just like bread and beer. (And I would suggest a practical pairing of all three.) But that being said, for your grilled cheese, you’re going to want a cheese with a softer body, which means a higher moisture content. Muenster, Cheddar, Gruyere, Gouda, Edam, Swiss, Jarlsberg and Brie are my top recommendations. Had I the time, I would love to explain the intricacies of every single one of these, but my best advice is to try them as you see fit. Nearly all of these are available at either Bloom or Trader Joe’s, whether pre-sliced or in wedges (and for pretty good prices too!). As for bread, I’d start with a basic sourdough or French baguette. You’ll have a good balance of flavors, and the bread will still bend aside and let the nuances of the cheese shine through.
My absolute favorite variation perfectly blends the crisp tartness of green apple with the smooth creaminess of Brie. Feel free to try it my way or leave out the apple and replace the Brie with whichever cheese you choose. I encourage you to experiment! The following procedure will stand the test of whatever grilled cheese you’ve got in mind.
So here’s what you’ll need and here’s what you’re going to do:
– two slices of fresh bread (Sourdough, French, etc.)
– about ¼-½ of a wheel of Brie, sliced
– ½ an apple, sliced
– butter or margarine
1. Set a medium skillet on medium-low heat (about a 3 out of 10). Put a small pat of butter or margarine on the pan and after it’s melted, you’re good to go.
2. While waiting for the pan to heat, butter one side of each piece of bread.
3. Once the pan is heated, set both pieces of bread butter-side-down on the pan, and arrange the cheese in a layer on top of each piece. Wait for the cheese to begin melting and the bread to start cooking on the bottom. The heat should be low enough to allow the cheese enough time to melt without scorching the bread.
4. When the cheese is sufficiently melty and the bread is golden on the bottom, add the apple slices to the top of one piece of bread and gingerly flip the apple-free side on top of the other, forming that beautifully recognizable sandwich we’ve all come to love.
5. Give it a minute for the cheese to set and incorporate, then cut in half (diagonally, of course) and enjoy immediately.
Brie and apples not cutting it for you? Or are you so satisfied you need to try more? Try one of these delicious variations:
– one sliced avocado, Muenster cheese, and a sprinkle of salt and cayenne pepper
– soy cheese and a pre-made olive tapenade or hummus
– cheddar and fresh tomato slices (reminisce on that Campbell’s classic!)