April is National Grilled Cheese Month. Who knew?! In Los Angeles on April 23, the annual Grilled Cheese Invitational will take place. Its slogan: “Bread- Butter-Cheese-Victory!” The humble sandwich we all grew up with has achieved such status, such gourmet cachet.
There is a staggering array of choices when making a grilled cheese sandwich. We have many artisanal breads to choose from, rosemary focaccia, sourdoughs, whole grains, garlic-infused, cornmeal-raisin, brioche, etc. The choice of cheeses also goes way beyond American or cheddar. There are soft and young goat cheeses, aged Goudas, classic Gruyeres, fresh mozzarellas, even Lebanese haloumi, which barely melts but gives a nice squeak when heated and bitten into. You can add all sorts of extras to your sandwich — thinly sliced grilled vegetables like eggplant, peppers, onions, and zucchini. Meats like Black Forest ham, prosciutto, bacon, or chicken add some heft and texture, and slices of apple or pear add crunch and sweetness.
Evidence of cheesemaking has been found as far back as ancient Egypt. Traces of cheese were found in an Egyptian tomb from 3000 B.C. There are cave paintings in the Libyan Sahara of milking and cheesemaking. Grilled cheese sandwiches, or “toasties” as they’re called in the U.K., became popular in the United States in the 1920s when affordable sliced bread and American cheese hit the market. Government issue cookbooks tell us World War II Navy cooks broiled hundreds of open-face sandwiches in the ship’s kitchens. They were economical, easy to make, met government nutrition standards (!?), and were considered quite tasty. In the 1940s and ’50s school cafeterias and other institutional kitchens followed suit. Accompanied by tomato soup (considered a source of vitamin C), this was perceived as a healthy, balanced meal. Excess sodium was not an issue.
By the 1960s, a top slice of bread was added, probably as just a way to make a popular sandwich more filling.
What is the most famous grilled cheese sandwich? The one with a supposed likeness of the Virgin Mary that was sold at auction for $28,000 on Nov. 23, 2004. At that time, the sandwich was already 10 years old, but had not molded due to the butter and oils it had been cooked in. No information is available as to the current state of this once well-preserved holy sandwich.
There are a few simple rules for making a good grilled cheese sandwich. It is best to use a nonstick pan on medium low heat. The cheese should be grated or thinly sliced to facilitate optimal meltage. The bread itself should be buttered or oiled, not the pan. Some experts insist on salted butter, not sweet, but I would lean toward olive oil or sweet butter; I think there’s plenty of salt in the cheese. You can, of course, use a fine old cast-iron skillet or your George Foreman grill or a panini press if you possess these things.
What happens when cheese is melted? Some cheeses retain their shape, like Indian paneer, Latin queso blanco, Italian ricotta, and most fresh goat cheeses. Some exude milk fat when melted, like cheddar and Roquefort. And some become stringy when melted, like mozzarella, Emmentaler, and some cheddars. At around 90 degrees, milk fat begins to melt, making cheese more supple. Melting and flowing begin at 130 degrees for soft cheeses, 150 degrees for cheddar and Swiss types, and 180 degrees for dry Parmesans and pecorinos.
Some cheese you want to dissolve into the other ingredients, some you want to melt oozily, and for others the stringiness is part of the appeal, like mozzarella on pizza. One French country dish, aligot from the Auvergne, calls for unripened Cantal cheese to be sliced, mixed with just boiled potatoes, and sweepingly stirred until it forms an elastic cord that can stretch 6 to 10 feet!
As a food that is essentially a concentrated version of milk, cheese shares milk’s nutritional advantages and disadvantages. It is a rich source of protein, calcium, and energy. Its abundant fat is highly saturated and tends to raise blood cholesterol levels.
However, France and Greece lead the world in per capita cheese consumption, as much as two ounces per day, double that in the U.S., yet they have lower rates of heart disease. This is no doubt due to their more balanced diets full of fruits, vegetables, and wine. Eating cheese as part of a balanced diet is fully compatible with good health. Just thought I’d throw that out there before we delve into some moderately decadent, gooey, oozy, grilled cheese sandwich recipes.
Classic Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Let’s begin with the simplest classic. And no, you shouldn’t make this with American “cheese,” which of course isn’t cheese at all, but is a pasteurized processed cheese food product full of coloring. And no Wonder bread, either. Or margarine. Thank you.
2 slices good sourdough bread or Pepperidge Farm sandwich bread
1 to 2 Tbsp. butter, at room temperature
2 oz. good cheddar cheese or Gruyere, grated or very thinly sliced
Heat a nonstick pan to medium heat. Butter one side of each slice of bread. Lay one slice of bread, buttered side down, in a warmed pan. Lay cheese on top, but keep cheese from overlapping slice of bread. Lay other slice of bread on top, buttered side up. Cook for about four minutes, or until golden brown. Feel free to press down on sandwich with a spatula to give it that flattened diner look. Flip sandwich and continue to cook until other side is golden brown and cheese is nicely melted. Let sit one minute before eating.
Double Cheddar and Tomato Jam Sandwich
12 oz. cheddar
4 Tbsp. butter, room temp.
8 sandwich-size sourdough bread slices
6 Tbsp. tomato jam (recipe to follow)
Finely grate six ounces of the cheddar. Place in bowl. Mash with butter. Grate rest of cheese less finely. Spread butter-cheese mixture on one side of bread slices and place slices buttered side down. Spread one and a half tablespoons tomato jam on each slice, then distribute remaining cheese and top with other bread slices, buttered side up.
In nonstick skillet on medium heat, cook three to four minutes or until golden. Flip, press with spatula, cover, and cook two to three minutes more. Turn once more. Press. Cook one minute. Remove and let cool a few minutes before slicing and serving.
6 large ripe tomatoes (about 11/2 lbs.), peeled, seeded, chopped (or equal amount canned whole tomatoes, drained and chopped)
1 clove garlic
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
21/2 Tbsp. sugar
Place in medium nonreactive saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for about one hour. You want it to thicken and for most liquid to evaporate. Will keep one week and is also delicious on burgers!
Croque Monsieur is a classic grilled French sandwich with Gruyere cheese, ham, and occasionally bechamel sauce. The lesser known but heartier Croque Madame is equally delicious and is a quick, affordable lunch or dinner.
8 slices white or whole wheat sourdough bread, buttered on one side
8 oz. Gruyere cheese, sliced 1/16th inch thick or grated
12 oz. Black Forest ham, also sliced 1/16th inch thick
4 extra large eggs
3 Tbsp. butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Set half the buttered slices of bread buttered side down. Top with cheese, then ham, keeping cheese slices from overlapping. Cover with other bread slices, buttered side up. Grill or sauté according to directions in top recipe.
For the eggs, melt half the butter in two six-inch skillets over medium high heat. Break one egg into each pan, add one tablespoon of water, sprinkle with salt, and cover. Cook three minutes for soft eggs, five to six minutes for firm. When eggs are cooked, remove from pan and repeat with remaining butter and two eggs.
To serve, top each grilled sandwich with a fried egg and sprinkle with freshly grated pepper.