Saturday, September 22, 2012

Grilled Cheese Season has begun!

Now that the weather is getting cold and fall is in the air, most people seem to have pumpkin spice on the brains. But we turophiles are dreaming about grilled cheese.  I will eat grilled cheese year around but there is something so comforting about a gooey grilled cheese with a side of soup on a chilly day.  We all have childhood memories of grilled cheese and tomato soup on a chilly day.  I was very excited a few months ago to give my baby boy a taste of his very first grilled cheese.  (He liked it but I still have not had much luck getting him to eat cheese, he does love yogurt and ice cream so I think there is hope for him yet)   

About a decade and a half ago, my dear cousin wrote a zine (remember those? Before blogs!) piece about quick and easy grilled cheese.  The basic recipe involved toasting the bread in a toaster, then add cheese and microwave, voila!  We have come a long way from that but making grilled cheese is not complicated.  Buttered bread + cheese + hot frying pan = grilled cheese.  It is possible to take grilled cheese to a whole ‘nother level.  

I have learned a lot about making grilled cheese from family and friends over the years.  My mother taught me to add weight on top of the sandwich while it fries in the pan.  She would use a mason jar (which was actually an empty tomato sauce jar that we normally used for drinking glasses) but you could also use one of those bacon presses if you have one.  An old boyfriend taught me to cut the sandwich diagonally to help cooling and oozing.  I know cheese is salty but one of my oldest friends would sprinkle just a bit of salt on his finished grilled cheese and I think it was a wonderful improvement.

There are a few other things you must consider when making a grilled cheese.  Grilled cheese is made from the combination of bread and cheese so let’s talk about these two simple ingredients that come in countless varieties.

Bread – for grilled cheese you want soft crust bread.  If you use a baguette to make a grilled cheese then you might be a masochist.  That hard crust when made crispy will cut up your mouth and leave you sore for days.  I love to use pumpernickel or rye bread but the ultimate bread is buttermilk bread from Mom’s Apple Pie Company.  This is a gigantic, tall, fluffy loaf of white bread and makes the best toast.

You do need to butter or oil your bread to get nice browning. My father used mayonnaise which added a touch of tart vinegar flavor.  You can butter your bread before it hits the pan but make sure your butter is soft or you will ruin your bread.  You can also add butter or olive oil (or any other kind of oil) to the pan then add the bread, move the bread around to soak up oil, then when you flip, add more butter or oil and move around again to soak.

Cheese – when we cook with cheese the flavor becomes milder.  I like to start with a stronger cheese for this reason.  When I was young we used American cheese more often than not but sometimes it was government issued cheese (which has a very special place in my heart with its enormous brown cardboard box case) but I know some used Colby jack, Monterey jack, or munster (not the stinky, yummy French stuff) which are decent melters but they don’t have enough flavor for my grown up taste buds.  I even find Cheddar a bit boring for a grilled cheese.  Here are just a few great cheeses (most are readily available at your local supermarket) for grilled cheese: Raclette, Appenzeller, Fontina val d’Aosta, sharp provolone, Gruyere, and Comte.  I do recommend shredding whatever cheese you choose to use to help it melt before your bread burns.  You can also combine cheeses which can be a great way to keep your food cost down.  You can mix a mild cheap cheddar and splurge with a more expensive Comte. 

It might be tempting to use Brie for a grilled cheese but a soft ripened double or triple crème cheese is too high in fat and too soft to withstand frying.  Cheeses that are very high in fat (even Cheddar) are more likely to leak oil while frying.  You want a gooey grilled cheese, not a drippy one.  You can add a soft cheese like Tallegio but you should pair it with another cheese (like Fontina Val d’Aosta) to provide more structure. 

Aged cheeses also do not melt as well as young cheeses because cheese loses moisture as it ages.  Parmigiano-Reggiano can make a great crunchy cheese cracker but it will not give you a gooey grilled cheese. You can add a touch for sharpness and flavor but it must be paired with a good melter.  Think about mozzarella, it is a wonderful melter and a very young cheese.  This cheese is made and consumed within weeks of being made which means it does not lose moisture and melts beautifully.  If you have a cheese and want to know how it will melt, make cheese toast for breakfast.  Take bread (a sliced baguette will work for this) add cheese, and put it under the broiler for a few minutes and see what happens.  If the cheese does not have an elastic give to it, it will not make a gooey grilled cheese.   

You might be tempted to use a flavored cheese to make grilled cheese but the cheese will lose flavor while it cooks.  If you want to add flavor use mustard, jam, chutney, relish, or any addition.  You could add tomatoes, pickles, bacon, herbs, onion jam, or Dijon mustard.  I think any sandwich (grilled cheese or even burger) is made better topped with a gooey egg.  A classic example is the Croque Madame

Some days I will buy plain sliced cheddar from the deli counter and use whatever bread I have on hand to make a grilled cheese.  I am usually disappointed by this cheese and the sandwich but they can't all be winners.  Sometimes I want a special grilled cheese and will put more thought into my cheese selection.  One of the tastiest grilled cheeses I ever enjoyed was Tallegio and Fontina Val d’Aosta with a sweet and sour onion jam sprinkled with thyme.  Here are 40 suggestions for grilled cheese.  What is your favorite grilled cheese?